Why you should care

Because your own rhythm becomes part of the show.

The room flickers with hundreds of pulsating bulbs, each tied to a heartbeat. Each of the beats is taken, recorded and then replayed. Different rhythms form variant shadows as they play off one another. And then they reset, suddenly fluttering to the same step, the same beat. Yours, as you step up to the sensor and place your finger on it, is broadcast for dozens of others too.

Artists who want to create art that speaks to viewers are a dime a dozen. But with Pulse, the Montreal-based Mexican-Canadian artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer lets viewers create art from the heart — far from figuratively — transmitting their heartbeats into an immersive audiovisual experience that few other museum exhibits even dream to offer.

Pulse exhibit at Hirschhorn

Heartbeats are reflected in ripples of light at the Pulse exhibit.

Source Nick Fouriezos

Lozano-Hemmer “continues to locate interactivity in a physical space, when it’s still so often placed in a virtual space like our phones. He takes it away from the screen,” says Leah Sandals, an editor at Canadian Art Magazine. That interactive vision is spread across three installations that fill the entire second level of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., through April 28. In a city famous for its museums, Pulse is quickly becoming a must-see for visitors to the U.S. capital.

The Hirshhorn exhibit starts with a pensive note from the 50-year-old artist, whose own heart shines through in his long-standing interest in heartbeats. Born in Mexico City, Lozano-Hemmer learned during his wife’s pregnancy in 2003 that the couple could listen to the pulse of the fetus. But, as he notes, the ultrasound isn’t the actual heartbeat but a sonification of data. What we perceive as a sound is an image, formed from high-frequency sound waves of the soft tissue. “Even though we can instantly recognize a heartbeat, what is more poetic is the fact that we do not control it,” Lozano-Hemmer writes, “that our life depends on involuntary spasms of muscular tissue.”

The fingerprints of the last 10,000 users are projected over a massive wall, which constantly changes as each new visitor records their pulse.

Pulse begins with an homage to those creators who have utilized heartbeats in their art throughout history. Like the Boyle Family, who in 1966 projected light shows of bodily fluids — tears, saliva, sperm, vomit — and, yes, heartbeats, and the French artist Aurel de Coloblo Mendoza, who in 2010 built a soundproof booth in the back of a truck, where visitors entered into darkness accompanied by the amplified sounds of their own heartbeats. The sound of the heart has been used in myriad ways, from the heartbeats of classically trained musicians creating a “living score” in Finland and those of passers-by creating high-powered light beams over Toronto to the recording of a NASA creative director sent into space as part of the Voyager 1 launch.

Pulse exhibit at Hirschhorn

Overhead lights respond to the pulses of visitors.

Source Nick Fouriezos

The first room hosts Lozano-Hemmer’s Pulse Index, initially produced in 2010 and now fully realized in its largest scale to date. The fingerprints of the last 10,000 users are projected over a massive wall, which constantly changes as each new visitor records their pulse. The second room houses an updated version of Pulse Tank, which premiered in New Orleans in 2008. You insert your finger into a sensor and your pulse creates ripples in pools of water that are reflected in bright light. The final act, Pulse Room, which made its debut in 2006, features those aforementioned lightbulbs, constantly flickering in incandescent dance.

It’s somewhat eerie in this age of extreme data accumulation that guests’ fingerprints and heartbeats are recorded, although each new one replaces an old one. And while exhibits like Pulse create “immediacy to the art that most viewers can understand,” Sandals says, there is a segment of the art world –- critics who believe exclusivity is important — that may consider Lozano-Hemmer’s work overly simplistic.

But these gripes are only for those with the most specialized artistic sensibilities. For most viewers, the Pulse exhibit is a thought-provoking experience. Especially Pulse Room, where, as you watch the lights dance in their ceiling ballet, you get a sense of your own smallness — and your mortality, as bulbs flicker in, and out.

You can see Pulse at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., from Nov. 1, 2018, to April 28, 2019. Admission is free.

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