What is that? And what is it made out of? The aptly named "Wonder” exhibit at the Renwick Gallery immediately sets of a chain of questions with each piece.
Textural, sculptural, and life sized, each piece almost cries out to be touched & interacted with. They are understandably hands-off, yet they still manage to be physically engaging. Visitors wind around stacks of index cards, through beams of color, into nests of branches, and under abstract netting and LED chandeliers. Twigs twist and turn to weave story-tall cocoons, yet leave openings to duck inside, ovular holes perfect for peering your head through, and become irresistible photo ops. The marbles of Maya Lin’s “Folding the Chesapeake” trace upon the walls, as I attempt to trace where I lived and where we are on the map that folded down across the floor. In the Grand Salon, Janet Echleman’s “1.8” is hoisted along the ceiling, and the light that shines through it the fills the entire room. Light patterns dance along the curves of net, intensifying, shifting, ebbing and flowing, like the waves of the form itself. Patrons sit on the chairs below or lay on their backs gazing upwards, soaking it all in. It’s an immersive experience.
The light that emits from Leo Villarreal’s “Volume” sparkles along the grand staircase and as I moved upwards I slowly realized this chandelier was more vivid than those made of crystal. Instead it is comprised of 23,000 LEDs on 320 hanging rods, all programmed in an endless sequence. And the rays in Gabriel Dawe’s “Plexus A1" that appear to be light, are actually comprised of a rainbow of miles of embroidery thread stretching from the floor to the ceiling. I wandered through the rays, observing how my perception changed by altering my alignment to the strands, marveling at the multicolored illusion.
With Jennifer Angus’s “A Midnight Garden”, I entered what I could describe as a nightmare of being surrounded my enormous insects. However, Angus displays the beauty in what is often considered disgusting, using some insects with fine details, some with leaf-like camouflage, and some whose wings are so glossy they seem painted. It was astonishing to read that each bug in the piece is unaltered. I could hardly imagine the enormous task of collecting, sorting, and arranging them.
The enormity of the artistic task was also apparent in John Grade’s “Middle Fork”. The piece was cast from a 160-year old hemlock tree, then recreated with thousands of recycled cedar strips by hundreds of volunteers. The piece is a tribute to the Renwick building, which itself is 160 years old.
The Wonder exhibits are impressive and immersive. It’s a complete sensory experience, and one that can be completed in one day since the Renwick is a relatively small building. The scale of the sculptures purposefully overwhelms, but the overall exhibit is contained, making the space feel at once expansive and intimate. I highly recommend seeing it for yourself. The exhibition opened in November of 2015, the second floor will be showing until May 8th 2016, the first floor until July 10th, 2016.