On a blustery day earlier this fall, the artist Erwin Redl was installing his expansive light-based artwork, Whiteout, across the lawn of Madison Square Park in Manhattan. “This is the jungle because there’s so much that you can’t control,” he said. Swaying in the wind and struck by flying leaves, 900 small translucent orbs embedded with pulsing white LED lights dangle from a steel structure in two rectangular grids, hovering a couple of feet above the grass.
Whiteout, which went on view earlier this month, promises to brighten the dark months of winter. A computer-programmed choreography of virtual movement ripples, streams, and radiates in sync or counterpoint to the natural movement of the luminous kinetic installation. “I’m opening the door a little to the chance element,” said Redl, 54, who studied composition and electronic music in Austria, where he grew up, before getting his MFA in computer art from the School of Visual Arts in New York in 1995.
Redl has become known for his dazzling matrices of pixelated lights that have animated the facades of buildings and transformed museum galleries into seemingly infinite cosmic landscapes; Whiteout is his first installation untethered to an existing architectural frame and fully embedded in a natural landscape.
“Erwin is becoming a reinterpreter of Land Art and earthworks in this project,” said Brooke Kamin Rapaport, director and senior curator of Mad. Sq. Art, which commissioned the piece. “Of course if you think of the vast American West, those projects had endless space to work in and we have the oval lawn in a seven-acre park. But Erwin’s taken on the site with a real sense of grandeur and possibility for what his work could do out here.”
For Redl, the prospect of 60,000 visitors to the park every day is thrilling. “When you work outside, especially in the context of the city, you cannot be too subtle,” he said. Redl was inspired to quit his day job as the IT manager for Werner Kramarsky’s art collection after completing a Chinati Foundation residency in Marfa, Texas, in 2003 and driving to see Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field (1977) in western New Mexico. “There’s so much going on here that you have to just up the ante a little bit,” he said.
Programming each row of individual lights to slowly fade in and out, Redl sends waves undulating through his two glowing magic carpets, from north to south and back again, and makes gradient patterns that move from complete darkness to utter brilliance. The two sides may march in tandem or as mirror images. The ongoing performance, a looping sequence of patterns about a half-hour long, becomes more pronounced by nightfall, when the park is ringed by a canyon of glittering lights from the city, including, prominently, the Empire State Building to the north.
“I’m not so interested in one monumental statement but how a statement is done over many similar modular parts that act as a group,” said Redl, comparing his system to how flocks of birds or schools of fish move in formation as one big organism by passing along micro signals. He named it Whiteout for the psychological condition that can happen in a snowstorm or sandstorm where people lose their orientation. “It’s the same strategy that James Turrell employs in his ‘Ganzfeld’ pieces,” he said of the Light and Space pioneer to whom he feels indebted.
Redl, who splits his time between a small studio in Long Island City and his large production studio in Bowling Green, Ohio, is currently completing several public art commissions in transportation hubs including the Tampa airport, subway stations in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and the Royal Caribbean cruise line terminal in the Port of Miami. “Because they are transitional spaces, you can catch people off guard,” he said. “The same here with the park. I want to stop people in their tracks.”