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Ghost art

Posted by Stephen Heuser  October 23, 2012 12:40 PM

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A few weeks ago on Brainiac, Josh Rothman blogged about a sculpture called Point Cloud – a sinuous lattice of wire and tiny motors whose slow movements reflected weather data in a very abstract way. Not long after the item ran, I got a surprising email from sometime Ideas contributor Matthew Battles, now at the Harvard digital think tank metaLAB.

I was surprised (and pleased) to see James Leng's "Point Cloud" featured in Brainiac; Leng developed the piece in a class at Harvard's GSD taught by metaLAB affiliates—and there was a bit of drama at the end of the year which, to make a sordid story short, involved me pulling the piece out of a dumpster, where it had been deposited by clueless contractors…James (post-dumpster) had been despondent about the prospects for the piece, as it would need extensIve repair to make it ready to show again. It was all rather sad, and seeing the post, I hoped Joshua Rothman had seen the piece live, which would mean James had managed to resuscitate it. Alas, it appears, this isn't the case.

Was this true? In highlighting this sculpture, had we accidentally blogged about a ghost? As it turns out, yes. I emailed Leng and asked him about Point Cloud. He wrote back:

I now have the remnants of it in my possession, the inner structure is largely intact, but to be honest it is pretty much beyond repair (I would be better off constructing a completely new version of it).

Yikes. Leng, it turns out, is a Harvard graduate architecture student who also recently won a prize for designing a cultural center for the Moon. Point Cloud was his foray into sculpture, and he estimates he sank about 800 hours into the piece -- which existed for only two months, between May and July, before what Leng calls “the worst-case scenario” transpired. Now the sculpture survives only as its own cloud of data on Vimeo.

In the art world, there’s a charming and mysterious phenomenon where certain old artworks live on only through their appearances in other art -- the original is lost to history, but someone else happened to include it in a painting. But this seemed sadder, like a movie star whose image dances across the screen while the real person lies crippled in bed. Leng himself, though, didn’t seem too spooked, or morose.

Among other things, he said, working on the piece had become “kind of a nonstop process and I kind of needed a break – not that I ever imagined a break would come in the form of destroying it.”

Leng imagines a larger version, one that ripples across an entire room, though for that he’d need grant money and a lot more time than he has on his hands in grad school. For now he takes at least one lesson from the experience: “Basically, don’t leave your valuables where you’re not.”

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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