When artists depict soil, it is often as a dark, heavy, brown mass. Philip Beesley sees it differently. His 2013 installation, Radiant Soil, is full of light and movement, glittering with metal and glass. As Beesley describes it, “this contemporary soil seethes with a myriad of seeded viscera, miniscule fragments gathering and efflorescing, redolent with chorusing oceans of growth to come.”
“Radiant Soil forms interlinking clouds of industrial design biomimetic components of polymer, metal and glass, arranged in suspended filter layers contain a near-living carbon-capture metabolism. Frond-clusters fitted with shape-memory alloy mechanisms react to viewers as they approach, flexing and setting off bursts of light that stimulate the protocells and trigger chains of motion that ripple throughout the environment. Scent-emitting glands attract viewers and encourage interaction with the system, providing stimulus that increases air circulation and protocell formation.” (source)
Is this really happening beneath your peaceful front lawn? Well, yes and no. Beesley is not trying to make an enormous, interactive scale model of actual soil. His goal is to make us rethink the boundaries of our environment. There may not be flashing lights in soil, but there are signals flying among plants, animals and microbes, there are minerals glinting and spores bursting. There’s a lot going on beneath our feet, and Beesley brings it to the surface with bravura.
In his ongoing Hylozoic Series of installations, which have been exhibited around the world, he and his team are “trying to provoke a reconception of architecture, not as a set of closed walls where you see your office as a fort, but rather to think of architectural walls and roofs as deeply layered zones for interchange.” (Wired)
Originally an architect working on much more conventional projects, Beesley changed direction in 2001 after meeting Mitchell Resnick, an MIT professor who introduced him to the possibilities of digital fabrication and low-cost sensors. Using what he calls the “little bits of intelligence and interactivity” the technology provided, he began to create interactive, immersive environments, evoking forests, jungles, plant cells, or in this case, soil. Beesley now works with a team of architects, mechanical engineers and chemists, who (among other things) create interactive features that move, “breathe”, and release scents when activated by visitors
The series title, Hylozoic, refers to the belief that all matter is alive. Looking at Beesley’s conception of soil as a light, airy, sparkling and motion-filled space (video), it’s hard to disagree.