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The installation, by MIT architecture professor J. Meejin Yoon in collaboration with electronics whiz Matthew Reynolds, changes as people walk through it.
The installation, by MIT architecture professor J. Meejin Yoon in collaboration with electronics whiz Matthew Reynolds, changes as people walk through it. (Globe Staff Photo / Justine Hunt)

A shining example of adventurous art

CAMBRIDGE -- Quite a long time after God decreed ''Let there be light," contemporary artists are creating their own firmaments, making nature and architecture twinkle and glow.

The best of these light-based works tend to be subtle. They're not fireworks or conventional son et lumiere extravaganzas. A current case in point: ''White Noise/White Light," a 50- by 50-foot grid of 340 waist-high metal stalks that suggest an urban wheat field, installed through Sunday in front of MIT's Kresge Auditorium just off Massachusetts Avenue. The stalks interact with those who pass among them, bending, lighting up, and making sound.

MIT architecture professor J. Meejin Yoon, collaborating with electronics whiz Matthew Reynolds, created the piece for the 2004 Athens Olympics. They've re-created it at the request of Susan Hockfield, MIT's new president. Monday's opening of Yoon's piece was the first event in a weeklong celebration of Hockfield's inauguration, and Hockfield, her husband, and daughter were the first people to travel through the 340 stalks. Faced with a square to traverse, the Hockfields moved rather tentatively at first, as if trying to skirt a mine field, while a large crowd watched. (They quickly loosened up and looked like they were enjoying themselves, a good omen for the future of adventurous outdoor art at MIT.)

Children took to Yoon's piece more readily than grown-ups, and one little girl even wore site-specific sneakers, the kind that light up. She looked like she was running in a meadow of stars, through a starry field whose stalks were taller than she.

As the Hockfields and the hordes that followed them found, the stalks seem to crave human company. When there's a breeze, they wave in a tantalizing way that invites you to step on the wooden platform where they're installed and begin your journey among them. Touch them and you'll find they're as pliant as a circus acrobat: They'll obligingly curve almost down to the platform. Human presence triggers their tips so they light up: The more people they sense, the more intense the light. Human presence also sets off sounds that vary in volume but overall seem a neutral filler, easily drowned out by the bustle of a busy campus.

As people leave this magic field, the lights and sound dim, and the stalks look lonely.

At the Athens presentation of the piece, Yoon says, the stalks were arranged differently. They were sparse at the front, then became increasingly dense toward the back, ending at the foot of the Acropolis. The piece had a direction and a destination. At MIT it has neither. So the stalks are evenly arranged, leaving all possibilities open -- a nice metaphor for the scientific research at the core of MIT's mission.

Nighttime photographs of the Athens installation -- on view in a broader show of Yoon's work in MIT's Wolk Gallery -- are spellbinding. Long exposures created lines of pure light as the stalks bent, and those exposures also erased the visitors, who didn't stay long enough to be recorded. As a result, the lights read as pilgrims thronging at the base of the great hill, their goal the Parthenon high above. At night, the Parthenon is brilliantly lit, as if the gods were in residence. Yoon's lights are quiet supplicants in comparison.

''You don't try to compete with the Parthenon," she says.

''White Noise/White Light" belongs to a category of art that captures or creates light, the most spectacular example being Walter De Maria's 1977 ''Lightning Field." A permanent grid of 400 steel poles, averaging more than 20 feet tall and stretching for a mile in the New Mexico desert, the work is meant to attract -- and celebrate -- lightning. It's a collaboration between man and nature on a heroic scale: Think Zeus hurling thunderbolts.

Yoon's work is far more intimate and personal. It's closer to Christopher Janney's ''Sound Stairs," which originated at MIT in the 1970s and has traveled widely since. Janney placed sound-producing sensors on the steps of a grand exterior staircase at MIT. People, some of them professional dancers, ''composed" scores as they navigated the steps. (MIT is such a youth-oriented place that no one I asked at Monday's opening, including Yoon, 32, had heard of Janney's pioneering effort, even though he is an alumnus.)

The plans, photos, videos, and works by Yoon in the Wolk Gallery flesh out her Boston/New York design practice, which she calls MY Studio. Her tiny white artist's book ''Absence" is a 9/11 memorial to the World Trade Center disaster, with one page per floor of the fallen towers. Cut into the pages are holes, negative spaces that suggest the destruction.

Yoon has a playful side, best expressed in her conceptual clothing in the Wolk show. See her ''Mobius Dress," a Mobius curve made of white felt that wraps around the body. A video of Yoon gradually unraveling and emerging from the dress is a cerebral striptease. And see her ''Defensible Dress." It's an elegant angular wooden mannequin wearing what appears to be a high-tech version of a 19th-century bustle. Get too close and the bustle pops up, like the tail of a wary animal. Its fringe of metal spikes suddenly aims toward you.

''It is," she says of the dress, ''my response to people invading my private space."

''White Noise/White Light" operates 24 hours a day through Sunday in front of MIT's Kresge Auditorium.

''Rock Paper Scissors: Projects by MY Studio" is at the Wolk Gallery at MIT's School of Architecture and Planning, 77 Mass. Ave., through Sept. 16., 617-258-9106.

Christine Temin's Perspectives column runs on Wednesdays.

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