Into the Infinite
This year’s Rubenstein Guest Artist Kenzo Digital ’98 has altered the New York skyline with an immersive experience that will challenge your sense of the physical world.
While New York and the rest of the country were on lockdown in 2020, artist Kenzo Hakuta Digital ’98 and a team of engineers and construction workers crept through a mostly deserted Midtown Manhattan and began to erect one of the most evocative and innovative art installations on the planet. That’s not hyperbole: With 25,000 square feet of mirrors 93 floors above the streets in the tallest commercial building in New York, Digital’s Air, which opened one year ago, now attracts more than 7,000 visitors a day.
“Air is a story that you are the protagonist of,” Digital said at Sidwell Friends’ annual Daryl Reich Rubenstein Guest Artist program on Wednesday night. “It makes you question your reality; it forces you to restabilize your equilibrium.” The top three floors of the skyscraper SUMMIT One Vanderbilt invite visitors to step into a series of mind-bending spaces that are constantly changing based on the weather and time of day. It is like a massive kaleidoscope that, depending on where you aim it, can be covered in the soft yellow and pink pastels of morning light, the deep grays and blues of the city, or the ink blacks and rainbow neon colors of night in New York. Whatever time of day, though, the space creates its own a futuristic city inside a city, where a multiverse of New Yorks connect and build on each other.
As Middle School art teacher and Rubenstein Guest Artist curator Aaron Brophy put it: “For any other artist, this would be their magnum opus; but Kenzo is just getting started.” Indeed, at just 43, Digital is already in talks to create similar spaces around the world in cities like London, Tokyo, and Shanghai.
The Sidwell Friends alum grew up as a graffiti artist in DC, prowling the city streets at night and then passing his own work on the way to school the next morning. (He called graffiti a “mythology” of tags and aliases.) While in Upper School, Digital apprenticed under Sidwell Friends teacher and artist Lou Stovall, who taught Digital about printmaking and who was recently the subject of a retrospective at the Phillips Collection in DC. His work can also be seen on campus. Digital was further influenced by his great-uncle, the renowned Nam June Paik, an experimental artist who embraced technology as a medium and who was himself recently the subject of a retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Paik is also a feature at Sidwell Friends: Digital’s father, Ken Hakuta P ’98, ’00, and ’02, donated some of Paik’s work to the School, including the Lodish Robot in the Kogod Arts Center, and students study his work as part of the curriculum.
The effect of both of these artists on Digital is profound. Based on a recurring dream Digital describes having had for 25 years, Air features both the hyper-modern zeal of Paik and the carved overlapping shapes of a Stovall woodblock print. At the lecture, Digital showed a print he made under Stovall’s tutelage in his first attempt to record his recurring dream through art. The black-on-silver image captured the arced circles and refracted cut-glass shapes of Air decades before the exhibit came to life.
There are quantum levels of meta-meanings in everything Digital does. His recurring dream now manifests in visitors to Air as they start to dream about their own experiences there. There are illusions of time: Did Digital dream Air into being or did he see it in the future? And, of course, there are the reflections of reflections of reflections throughout Air that make the tangible all but impossible to discern.
What is tangible is the exhibit, which is now permanent, making the possible experiences available in Air quite literally endless.
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