Shade by Simon Heijdens


18 October 2014

On a crisp autumn morning, an Audi 90 from 1994 pulls up outside my house. The driver is Dutch artist Simon Heijdens and our destination is Now Gallery on the Greenwich peninsula where Heijden’s work Shade has just been installed.

The car’s interiors look ancient. “We are 20 years on since this was made,” says Heijdens. “Sometimes we seem to forget how much has happened in that time. There's even a plug for a car phone here,” he gestures. Meanwhile I locate our position on my smartphone’s Google app. Twenty years is a long time indeed.

In that same timespan computers have changed the way in which we interact with the world and Heijdens has spent the last ten years been employing their software as the raw material in his work. “Software is a material like paint or bronze or liquid crystal and it’s quite open to change,” he says, but the machines on which software is used are surprisingly static in comparison. “The world is full technology and so much has happened in the last ten years in terms of how we use it, everything is possible and everything is connected. But on a very human level, we still sit in front of light-emitting square screens. I’m surprised that there isn’t more out there. For example, the Kindle is the only device that has come up with something which is pleasing to the eye, something which is much more human.”

It is this human aspect of technology and the urban environment in which it is used that Heijdens addresses with Shade – a 140m2 responsive facade that uses daylight as its only light source. As its outdoor sensors react to wind speed, they feed into a computer fitted with Heijdens’s software that causes the screens triangulated pattern to flicker and change in opacity. It flits between the peaceful and serene, to the mad and close to epilepsy-inducing manic. “I can change the pace of the work if it gets too much,” Heijdens reassures me.

It’s a digital work without any of its technology apparent to the eye. Even the huge liquid crystal screen is unimposing; you can see straight through it. “All you are seeing is daylight and the point is that that was already there. All I do is to fold it and manipulate it to give it that awareness,” says Heijdens. “The bottom line, so to speak, is to create an awareness, to unravel something, to show the hidden character of a space, that’s what all my work is about.”

Heijdens has experimented previously with similar technology to create Branches for Gallery Libby Sellers (2010), and Lightweeds (2006), which is now in the permanent collection at MoMA. He developes his projects, often results of specific commissions, alone in his London-studio and they can take up to two years at a time to complete. Heijdens likes this slow pace and experimentation and it's maybe because of this very hands-on approach that his work feels so personal and at one with its environment. However, one of the main side effects of Heijdens's work and the invisible technologies it employs is the unexpected reaction from his audience. “It sometimes put people on the wrong foot,” says Heijdens.

When he showed Phare No. 1-9 at Design Miami in 2013 it lead to an extended argument between Dezeen founder Marcus Fairs and Heijdens, published in full on the Dezeen’s website about how it was actually made. Phare consisted of nine hand-blown glass vessels suspended from the ceiling, each contained a mixture of water and an unknown component which has the ability to turn from transparent to a reddish tint. When the water was activated electronically a drawing emerged within it, just to disappear moments later. “What was interesting with the show in Miami, was that for everybody that went to look at it in person, there is this one nanosecond in which you don’t know what you’re looking at,” says Heijdens. “For some people it took longer than others, but for everybody there was this sense of wonder that hits. And people are very uncomfortable with that, as soon as you look at something you try to place it and understand what it is.”

But having to explain how his pieces work practically doesn’t interest Heijdens. Possibly Fairs's pushing to understand how Heijdens work functions is a symptom of the lack of conversation surrounding this type of work, we don't know how to read it or discuss it. Digital art and design is still in its infancy, even to the degree that Heijdens finds the term problematic or even incorrect ("I strongly feel that it taints people's perspective when something is served as design and their openness to look at the work changes"), and while Heijdens is preoccupied with how to humanise the technology we surround ourselves with by linking it to nature's forces, as in the case of Shade, as journalists we typically try to decipher it technologically. We resort to the questions we are familiar with from industry (How is it made? How is it produced), even if Heijdens' answers to these don't necessarily add anything to the experience of the work itself.

On the day we meet, a new exhibition is opening at Färgfabriken in Stockholm (Ursinnen) that features a version of Phare. It’s a show that explores the experience of these types of works from the perspective of a child, an interesting reaction to the above debate around function. “As we grow up we become diluted and spoilt and nothing hits anymore,” says Heijdens. “But as a child you can just like things as they are without understanding what they are. In this moment of unawareness, not really having a notion of the object, it can be a much stronger experience.”

As a result it is the unsuspecting passer-by who experiences Shade spontaneously who stands to gain the most from it. Just before all the questions starts flooding in.