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How Jeppe Hein’s ‘Changing Spaces’ Turns the Rules of Art on Their Head

By Emmie MurphyJun 24 2022

There is often a “no-touch” rule associated with art. In galleries and museums, we’re conditioned to stand at a safe distance, observe with our eyes, and keep our hands to ourselves. Jeppe Hein turns this rule on its head. Throughout his career, the Danish artist has worked to bring audiences and artwork together, striving to integrate art into the everyday through public, interactive installations. This month, he reimagines Center Plaza, transforming it through a water sculpture entitled Changing Spaces.

Hein, who is based in Berlin, is known for conceptual art projects that often communicate directly with an audience. Incorporating multisensory elements, unusual materials, and a trademark whimsy, he challenges viewers to engage with the unexpected. His 2019 exhibition Breathe With Me became a worldwide phenomenon that touched on issues of mindfulness and human environmental impact. A version of the project was ultimately installed in Central Park, and passersby were encouraged to participate by painting their own blue streaks – meant to convey an exhaled breath – along the 600-foot-long canvas.

Hein’s installation at Rockefeller Center is a similar exercise in mindfulness and public interaction. Changing Spaces includes four circular walls of water that shoot up from the ground at random. The movement of the walls adheres to no set pattern, and visitors are encouraged to move through the installation as the ever-changing jets of water rise and fall, merge and pull apart. “My aim is to exhibit artworks that approach visitors on different levels, awaken their senses and touch their hearts, activate various emotions, and encourage mutual exchange,” Hein says.

Though constantly innovating, Hein has used water as a medium for years now, referring to his water sculptures as “liquid architecture.” He has activated public spaces around the world with these installations, which he describes as “tangible and intangible at the same time.” In Florida, Hein installed Water Pavilion West Palm, a permanent, site-specific waterwork that featured two interlocking circles. In contrast to this, Appearing Rooms, now permanently installed in both London and Zaragoza, Spain, is a work of liquid architecture made of four square walls of water. Hein often utilizes different shapes and contrasting architectural configurations that are striking in their disparity. His most paradoxical work, however, is probably Water Flame, first exhibited in Düsseldorf in 2006. The installation features a cascading fountain topped with a dancing flame, the two opposing elements – water and fire – somehow mixing together in an awe-inspiring illusion.

Water, in its dynamism, allows for flexibility, playfulness, and wonder. “These water pavilions are appreciated for both the physical experience and the opportunity for active participation they offer to the public. Independent from any background, gender or age, no matter if it’s a child or an art critic, people are encouraged to interact and communicate with the work, the surroundings, and other individuals,” Hein says. This idea of active communication is central to much of what he does. His approach is rooted in the idea of mutual exchange and interaction. “Ideally, my work fosters communication and empathy that people will pass on to others,” he explains.

In this way, Rockefeller Center was a fitting venue for Hein. Located in the center of the city and open to all, the plaza is a central gathering space for all walks of life. “Rockefeller Center is a great place for an interactive installation because so many different people pass by there every day, and my water pavilion will give them a reason to stay,” Hein says. The spirit of Center Plaza also informed his concept, and he sought to further activate the space through his design scheme. “My artistic approach was to invite people to make use of the work, either as a space for seclusion and relaxation or the opposite, a place of pure joy and playfulness. The shape was meant to contrast the rectangular layout of New York, embracing people in a circle of water.”

Whether you hesitate or jump right in, find calm in the water’s movement, or feel energized by its changing spirit, this is an installation that invites everyone to embrace the unexpected.

Jeppe Hein’s ‘Changing Spaces’ can be found on Center Plaza through September 9. The exhibition is free and open to the public.

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