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True Colors

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Spring/Summer 2013 

True Colors

There has been public art before. There has been interactive art before. But there has never been anything quite like “Nature and Man in Rhapsody of Light at the Water Cube.”

This is the title of a permanent public artwork that covers more than a city block, rises five stories in the sky and channels the daily emotions of the people of the world’s most populous country. 

Steven Bleicher, associate dean of CCU’s Edwards College of Humanities and Fine Arts and professor of visual art, traveled to Beijing, China, this past summer to help run the final tests in preparation for its public debut and grand opening on June 23.

“It was frankly overwhelming to see the piece for the first time,” says Bleicher, color specialist for the project. “Up until then I had seen it through still pictures and videos online. Seeing it with my own eyes I was finally able to experience the tremendous scale of it.”

The Beijing National Aquatics Center was built to host aquatic events for the 2008 Olympics. The massive building has a unique exterior skin resembling a collection of giant water bubbles, each individually outfitted with LED lights. Also known as the Water Cube, it’s one of the most distinctive structures in Beijing, as well as one of the most popular attractions. 

The “Nature and Man in Rhapsody of Light” project was conceived by the distinguished Chinese artist Jennifer Wen Ma to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the building. Ma approached Bleicher, the only Westerner to serve on the core creative team, as the color specialist because of his background and reputation. She was acquainted with his textbook, Contemporary Color: Theory and Use, which addresses digital color, new technologies and global color issues. 

Bleicher spent more than a year developing a color design for a sophisticated aesthetic concept that encompasses both traditional and contemporary aspects of Chinese life, from the ancient I Ching to the latest social media tweet. Every evening from dusk until 

10 p.m., the surface of the massive building radiates a brilliant light show in which every color and every movement has a meaning. 

In preparation for the work, Bleicher immersed himself in the I Ching and its elaborate system of hexagrams, or “gua,” that represent elemental states of nature, such as water, earth, mountain, etc. He studied the ancient ideographs and the traditional colors associated with them. He assigned them specific colors and movement patterns: water is represented in waves of light; mountains are basically static; fire has a lively, flickering movement.

In addition, Bleicher selected colors to represent a range of eight emotions that correspond to the national temperament indicated by millions of emoticons gathered and sorted daily from social media services such as Weibo, China’s version of  Twitter.

“There is nothing quite like this project in the world,” says Bleicher. “As you tweet, you become part of the project. It gives a new definition to the term ‘public art.’ It allows the emotional feelings of the individual Chinese netizen to become a part of the artwork.”

The social media data are fed into a computer program each day at 2 p.m., and the information is translated into the appropriate color values and animated patterns for that night’s exhibition. At dusk, the building turns blue, its iconic “water” designation. The color rises slowly from bottom to top, taking around 10 minutes to cycle. After the cube “wakes up,” the next cycle begins as blended colors representing the ancient “gua” and the contemporary emoticons flood the giant exterior walls and rooftop, capturing the collective autobiographical pulse of a nation of 1.3 billion people. 

For Bleicher, part of the excitement of the project was engaging with artists from a different cultural background. In addition to Bleicher and Ma, the core team included lighting designer Zheng Jianwei and I Ching master Ren Zhong.

“As an artist I usually work alone, so it was an incredible experience collaborating with artists of this caliber,” says Bleicher. “Ma would send me emails of drawings and videos, and I would send back color concepts and swatches. We did a lot of Skyping,” he says, which was sometimes a challenge due to the 12-hour time difference.

Not surprisingly, the project has attracted a lot of attention the world over. The opening, which Bleicher attended with his wife, Helaine Cohn, was widely covered in the media, with stories by CNN, the Wall Street Journal and numerous art publications.