In the desert near Tonopah, Nevada, a circular sea of oversized mirrors — 10,000 mirrors — follow the sun, and direct its rays onto the power tower in the centre of the Crescent Dunes solar energy plant. Now, in the middle of Manhattan, a computer-generated visualisation of that scene glitters on an LED wall outside Lincoln Center.
Solar Reserve was commissioned by Lincoln Center, in association with Public Art Fund. The installation is by John Gerrard, an Irish artist with a knack for transforming real-world landscapes — barren, industrial and beautiful — into incredibly detailed virtual panoramas.
For this project, he sent a photographer to Tonopah to “function like a human scanner” and document… everything, from the shiny surfaces to down to small rocks on the dry ground. In the end, nearly 5000 pics of the vast locale in every kind of light from dusk to dawn to dusk again were given to his team of producers, who built digital 3D models of… everything, for manipulation in a game engine. “At the end of a long process, it’s exported as a piece of software,” he says of the public-ready final presentation. “It may look like a film, but its not really of that history. It’s an alternative history. It’s a file.” (Makes sense: A movie might spice things up with blinded pilots or fried birds.)
It’s also based around the complex choreography of actual astronomy. “The sun, moon and stars are situated as they would appear at the actual Nevada site over the course of a year. As this virtual world rotates on the earth’s axis throughout a 24-hour day, the perspective of the viewer gradually shifts from ground level to satellite view every 60 minutes, so that no view is precisely the same at any point during the course of the exhibition.”
Stand there long enough and you’ll see the “performers” — aka the animated mirrors — slowly reposition themselves. In-a-rush passerby might not get the full effect, but Gerrard feels that the placement is perfect. Going to a fancy Lincoln Center event? You’ll see one visual on the way in and a completely new one after the show. This “time delay” was designed to be part of its charm.