Murmuration Wave

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2014 – 3′ x 3′ x 7’tall. 400 acrylic rods, wood, steel, string, two motors.

A murmuration of starlings is one of the most mysterious and beautiful spectacles nature has to offer. I’ve only seen it a couple times, and both were fairly small-scale events, but each nevertheless left me spellbound. Paradoxically, things of such beauty don’t actually make for very good sources of inspiration. The best one can do is sit back and enjoy. Anything more direct is futile, as inspiration isn’t something like a net that can be cast over a beautiful object, then drawn in.

This sculpture finds its origins from an entirely different place. If I ask my five year-old daughter what I do at work, she answers “make waves”. This, of course, makes me very happy! But once I asked her what waves do, and she answered “go up-and-down”. On one hand this seems like a good observation, but it made me think that waves don’t just go up-and-down, but also side-to-side, back-and-forth, and in pretty much every other direction you can think of. And so I took her statement as a challenge and set out to make a sculpture that went both up-and-down AND side-to-side.

The advantage of up-and-down is that gravity automatically takes care of half of the equation, and so you only have to worry about the up. If gravity also pulled to the side, a wide range of other movements would suddenly be possible, but there would be significant other issues, for example it might become really hard to ride my bike to the shop in the morning. Or it might be easy to get to the shop in the morning, but practically impossible to get home in the evening. And so all in all I’m not complaining.

The most obvious way to accomplish lateral movement would be to have strings go from both sides, with the object you’re trying to move in the middle, sort of like what I had done with the Yellow Rings in 2007. This strategy works fine, but has some limitations. One disadvantage is that the side-to-side strings prevent people from getting close to the sculpture. The second is that sideways tension tends to flatten up-and-down waves (if you pull on both ends of a undulating form it’s going to straighten). After some brainstorming I decided to oscillate the entire grid that distributed the strings, and hope the lower part followed the lateral movement without swinging around too much.

After digging around my shop I discovered hundreds of stainless steel rods left over from the Soda Fountain sculpture. The rods had turned out too heavy for that sculpture, and I’d replaced them all with aluminum rods, and put the stainless ones in a box and forgotten about them. They gave me an idea, and at 22 inches long they dictated the overall scale of this side-to-side piece. I didn’t recut them, but used them as they were. I also had a bunch of 3/4″ square steel tubing left over from a different project, and suddenly a design started to make sense and I got to work without knowing what the lower part of the sculpture would be.

I share a warehouse with a husband and wife team who make ceramics, and one of their products is a towel holder, with a cast acrylic towel rod. Over the years they had amassed hundreds of acrylic off-cuts, which were too short to use for towel rods, but looked like they might be just the thing for waves. After cutting one to size, and polishing the ends, I grew very excited about how they responded to light, and so picked a length that would use up as much of the acrylic scrap as possible. One motor makes the up-and-down wave, and one the side-to-side wave. Both motors are 40 watt AC gear heads. The yellow levers are wood, and the string is a 10 lb test Spectra braid. That’s about it. The fact that the acrylic rods don’t bang into each other is baffling, and a very happy surprise. My best guess is that since the strings are continually changing length this dampens the natural pendulum effect that I expected from lateral movement. Enjoy!