Art Meets Science and Light Turns Liquid at ARTECHOUSE’s “Naked Eyes”

In the southwest corner of Washington DC, just across the river from the Pentagon, you’ll find the unassuming entrance to one of the city’s most fascinating places: ARTECHOUSE. Descend the seemingly endless staircase inside, and you’ll emerge into a cavernous underground space where light and sound are twisted into dazzling, dynamic displays. This is Naked Eyes.

As you make your way through the rooms of the subterranean space, you’ll find yourself immersed in a series of distinct atmospheres, all created with little more than white light and the shadows it casts. In a small subspace, a display piece called Ocean occupies an entire wall, giving new meaning to the concept of “light waves”; pulses of illumination seem to slosh and drift, washing over you like ripples on a shore.


In another room, swiveling spotlights perform a synchronized, frenetic dance. Pivoting and tilting but never turning on, they give the impression of robots at a rave, lit by strobes and accompanied by an almost-ominous techno soundtrack. Here, as in the installation’s other spaces, it’s clear that a lot of the technical skill on display at this gallery is found in the ones and zeros that coordinate the whole show, rather than in the physical construction of the art pieces.

That’s not to suggest that the design and construction is anything less than artful, though. Naked Eyes is the brainchild of Paris-based artists Noemi Schipfer and Takami Nakamoto, known collectively by their studio’s name, Nonotak. Schipfer is a visual artist, while Nakamoto describes himself as both a musician and an architect, and this combination of skills has helped the pair create their uniquely cohesive sensory experiences in galleries all over the world. Though Naked Eyes is only the latest incarnation of ARTECHOUSE’s space, which changes hands every few months for a full makeover, it’s Nonotak’s first-ever solo exhibition in the US.

The project was completed on a nearly unbelievable timetable, too. Walking in, the pair knew that their exhibit would be focused on light, because the project was produced in partnership with the Optical Society, the American Physical Society, and the American Institute of Physics, as part of the first annual UNESCO International Day of Light—celebrating the anniversary of the invention of the laser. But because Nonotak’s art is so focused on the atmosphere their installations create, the pair wanted to let the space shape their ideas about what to do with it.

This meant that, from start to finish, the duo had just over a week between the closing of ARTECHOUSE’s last piece and the opening of Naked Eyes to design, build, and program the entire exhibit. While this approach undoubtedly led to some sleepless nights, their flexibility paid off: each room in the gallery possesses a precise character, a distinct-but-mysterious sensory texture, like a word spoken clearly in a language you don’t understand.

That feeling is strongest in a room at the back of the gallery, featuring a piece called Zero Point One. The title is a reference to the diameter of the ultra-thin optical fibers that crisscross a cubic space, spanning the entire height of the room to form a laser-lit lattice that serves as the only source of illumination in an otherwise pitch-black environment.

While most laser-based light displays require fog or some other medium to scatter light and make the beam visible, Nonotak created Zero Point One with a special kind of optical fiber, designed specifically for applications like this one. In most optical fibers, like the kind that provide high-speed internet, the goal is to keep all the light bouncing around inside the wire, so that signals can be transmitted over long distances at light speed. With the fibers Nonotak use, however, the glass wire is infused with tiny particles that scatter light, causing it to escape out the sides so it can reach our eyes and create the sharp, solid-seeming line of illumination

It’s interesting to note the resemblance between these fibers and electroluminescent (EL) wire, a favorite tool of artists, hobbyists, and cosplayers alike—but EL wire operates on completely different principles, relying on a high voltage between a central core wire and a thinner wire wrapped around it. In Zero Point One, each hair-thin strand of glass has blue lasers on either end, which switch on and off simultaneously to produce the uniform brightness that makes the display so dazzling. As blue light is scattered outward by the particles in the fiber, it hits a phosphorescent coating, which absorbs some of the light and re-radiates it as longer-wavelength colors, creating the piece’s pure white light. Among other benefits, using lasers doesn’t produce any of the waste heat or electromagnetic interference you can get from EL wire.

In the information age, where the full catalogue of any Renaissance master’s work can be pulled up and perused at your convenience, Naked Eyes stands out as the kind of art that’s absolutely still worth going to see—which is probably why tickets for ARTECHOUSE’s events often sell out well before the end of the exhibit’s run. The work is immersive and hypnotic, the fancy cocktails at the in-house bar are delicious, and you leave feeling like you’ve experienced something that can’t be captured in photos—although the installations would certainly make a great background for your next profile pic.

—Stephen Skolnick

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