The Hirshhorn Museum has once again embraced an immersive and Instagram-friendly approach with its latest blockbuster exhibition, “Pulse” — but this crowd-pleasing show isn’t afraid to confront the alarming elements that come with the entertainment.
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s “Pulse” series, the Mexican-Canadian artist’s D.C. debut, is a rollicking experience for visitors, who find themselves instrumental to the art itself. The three installations — “Pulse Index,” “Pulse Tank” and “Pulse Room” —use heart-rate sensors and exhibition-goers’ own biometric data to create the kinetic, responsive visualizations on display. It’s a fun, disorienting show and the Hirshhorn’s largest interactive technology exhibition to date.
Curator Stéphane Aquin, who has known Lozano-Hemmer for 20 years, said the museum had originally envisioned the show as a single work. “Rafael said, ‘I want 50 works.’ I said, ‘I want one.’ And then we settled for three,” Aquin recalled to The Washington Diplomat. “He came up with the better idea, of doing three quadrants, three main pieces with pulse-detection technology.”
The show, which covers the entirety of the Hirshhorn’s second floor, is in many ways a perfect fit for the national museum of modern and contemporary art. “More importantly, we thought it was a significant project for us, being on the National Mall. It’s a very loaded place to invite an artist who is both Canadian and Mexican. It felt like a NAFTA type of project,” Aquin said. “And to have him display pulse-detection technology works, and allow every visitor to project his pulse, his life beat, onto the building, felt especially relevant.”
Each installation gives visitors an opportunity to be part of the moment by capturing their fingerprints and heartbeats to create flashing lights, cascading waves or massive snapshots blown up on the walls of the museum. While it’s undeniably entertaining, there is a brief moment of dread before giving away that vital data.
“We thought more of it in terms of relevance to everyone to have these biometric works that transcend borders right on the Mall,” Aquin noted.
Art and technology, heartbeats and fingerprints, individuality and community merge in these works in surprising ways. The show kicks off with “Pulse Index,” which documents a visitor’s fingerprints while also tracking their heart rate to help generate the massive display. Thousands of individual fingerprints fill the curved walls of the Hirshhorn, an anonymous, seemingly repetitive but deeply personal display of one’s identifying information. As more people participate, older recordings get recycled and “the display’s rotating projections become a metaphor for the human life cycle,” according to the museum.
In “Pulse Tank,” sensors pick up on the visitor’s pulse, transforming it into little ripples over an illuminated water tank that are then reflected as shadows on the gallery walls.
The third and final part of the experience — because in many ways, that’s a more accurate description than exhibition — is the most exhilarating and disorienting. “Pulse Room,” which features very social media-ready incandescent light bulbs hanging from the ceiling, is a mix of light and sound that pulses to visitors’ heartbeats. It’s an exciting, immersive experience that demands attention from the minute one walks into the space.
“I love ‘Pulse Room,’ I love the capacity that work gives us … to animate the entire building, to project one’s most vital, deepest and visible truths and signs of life onto the public sphere. It’s such a rich experience and it’s both intimidating and empowering. You let your heartbeat out there to be seen by everyone,” Aquin said.
“It’s very illuminating and a fantastic thrill. That’s why people come. It’s a unique work of art,” he added.
By tackling the themes of surveillance and identity, borders and community, “Pulse” serves up challenging ideas in an easy-to-consume format that’s built on audience participation. It’s a dynamic, not-to-miss show — and yet another hit for the Hirshhorn. The museum’s recent string of successes stems from deeply considering “the strong streak within the Hirshhorn’s DNA and history to follow the evolution of material, techniques and technologies in art,” Aquin said.
“We’re still in that trajectory of exploring new media, and I think Rafael’s work really fit into that. We’re assessing the fact that art is not just a spectacle, it’s an experience. People want to engage with it and how they engage with it transforms the work of art,” Aquin said. “The visitor basically makes the work of art, transforms it and projects himself in the public space.”
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: Pulse
through April 28
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Independence Avenue and 7th Street, SW
(202) 633-1000 | www.hirshhorn.si.edu
About the Author
Mackenzie Weinger (@mweinger) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.