Wave After Wave – Cathleen Kong ’20

Renwick Stairwell Carpet

As a second semester senior in high school, my friends and I had no shortage of trips to DC. After school we’d take short, 30 minute metro rides to the city, and arrive at different stops each week: Dupont Circle, Gallery Place, Smithsonian, and occasionally, U-Street. Our adventures were varied, one day we’d check out a small concert venue, another we’d hunt down the best empanada place, but by far our most frequent trips were to art museums.

Throughout my years of living close to DC, I’d been to the Smithsonian museums quite frequently, especially the National Gallery of Art. But beyond these more famous museums, we also loved exploring the lesser known, such as private collections and street art hubs. My personal favorite is the Renwick Gallery of Smithsonian American Art.

Our senior year was when the museum opened again after a two-year renovation period, and their flagship exhibition was one entitled “Wonder,” featuring grand installations made from unexpected materials. Works included were a giant wooden sculpture made from tree saplings, and piles of index cards in the formation of miniature mountains covering the floor of a room.

When I walked into the Grand salon of the Renwick, I literally said: “Wow.” Suspended from the ceiling of the 4,000 square-foot room was a woven sculpture made of netted twine covering the entire upper half of the space. The sculpture undulated as light of changing color was projected on the twine. The lighting in the room was dim, focused on the transforming artwork as shadows projected over the walls and the waves turned from red to purple, to orange, to pink, to blue, and every mixture in between.

The piece, by Janet Echelman, titled “1.8 Renwick” is based upon wave data from the Tohoku earthquake and resulting tsunami in March 2011 in the Pacific Ocean. Due to the sheer power of the earthquake, the length of the day was shortened by 1.8 millionths of a second, hence the installation’s name.

My friends and I joined the crowds of people lying together on the floor, faces turned towards the impressive scene above us. We lie there for a while, as our breathing mirrored the slow movements of the netting, in rhythm with the artwork but also with the people surrounding us. It was incredible being in that room with so many strangers, but finding a common ground from the collective awe we experienced as we looked upwards. We were all engulfed by the waves, sandwiched between the carpet decorated with a 2D portrayal of the wave data and the three dimensional massive form moving above us.

Eventually, and reluctantly, we had to leave the museum, but my first exposure to the Renwick was a memorable one, and one that made me aware of the deep relationship between art and nature.

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