Yuan Space Museum essay by Kevin Holden Platt

A slow-motion cinematic zoom centered at dusk on the Chapelle de la Perseverance in southern France reveals a golden glow emanating from the 17th century chapel that competes with and ultimately triumphs over the scattered weakened rays of the sun. As blue-black shadows ripple across the sky, a luminescent orb inside the chapel flickers like a new sun, with amber particles of light coloring the space.

A close-up on the source of the light brings into focus a glimmering gold Madonna in contemplation, ringed with a double-layer halo, and surrounded by a cluster of other solar-hued discs. Pulses of light dance through the work like musical notes across the score to a new ode to life.

Painter, sculptor and video-maker Grimanesa Amorós suggests this light sculpture, Golden Uros, actually represents the meshing and melding of cultures across the continents, of arts across the ages. Before creating the installation, she traveled back in time to the lost Empire of the Incas of her native Peru to examine Incan beliefs, gods, ideas and arts, and then blended these into the work.

The Incas created a breathtaking empire centered around Inti, the Sun God, and rulers who called themselves children of the Sun; painted pyramid-temples crisscrossing the land were platforms for the deity and the ruler to stand sentinel over Inca culture. Incan artisans sculpted disc-shaped images of the Sun God in gold, and followers would present offerings of coca leaves and silver in homage.

These Incan icons of the sun have been reborn in Golden Uros, and float in perfect harmony with the Queen of Heaven, symbol of the Spanish Catholic conquistadors who conquered the Incas and tried to crush their civilization. To blend these once-clashing symbols with the realm of the real, Grimanesa Amorós has inscribed her own image onto the Madonna; this is a portrait of the artist, and of the Incan-Catholic culture that surrounded her as a child on the Pacific coast of Peru.

The artist’s remixing of contrasting cultures in sculptures like Golden Uros and in a series of videos including Between Heaven and Earth has also helped her build a broad-based appeal: her short films have been screened from the Brooklyn Museum in New York City to the Art Forum Berlin, from the Hardcore Art Contemporary Space in Barcelona to the Athens Video Art Festival.

Golden Uros is also part of a series of light installations that depict the floating islands created by the Uros people along Lake Titicaca, one of the cradles of Inca civilization among the cloud-painted peaks of the pale blue Andean mountains. For centuries the Uros have engineered these artificial islets out of totora reeds, constructing ever-moving bases for homes and watchtowers – an ancient defense against would-be invaders.

Lake Titicaca’s unique floating oases in a high-elevation waterworld have also been recreated in Uros Island, an installation by Grimanesa Amorós that was featured last year at the Venice Biennale’s International Art Exhibition; the installation combines the shifting patterns of light and colors of Venice and of the sacred Inca lake as the sun arcs across the sky. When the sun actually sets over the Venetian exhibition site, and as sparkler stars begin spreading out across the sky, the glowing hemispheric islands in the Uros piece seem to float in mid-air, creating a fascinating illusion that gravity has temporarily disappeared.

The biennale show, titled ILLUMINATIONS, was the perfect forum for this computer-controlled light sculpture. Artists from more than 80 nations converged at Venice, where the director of the exhibition, one of the art world’s most important forums, said: “The Venice Biennale these days is the venue where different groups of artists, whether firmly resident in some place in the world or migrant and itinerant, can meet and intermingle, an arena of negotiation to ascertain what future role should be assumed by culture and art in a globalized world, which values ought to be safeguarded and which jettisoned.” The director added that the biennale in Italy’s ancient, canal-crossed city of culture “initiated new forms of collaboration among the artists … at a time when the ‘technology of border control’ is enjoying a dubious, if not macabre, commercial boom.”

To help circumvent increasingly sophisticated border controls separating countries and cultures, the leading-edge virtual art space Streaming Museum broadcast the Future Pass group show that Grimanesa Amorós joined at Venice online via its website at www.streamingmuseum.org and via public screens linked to the museum across the continents.

The Future Pass exhibition at Venice brought together sculptors, painters and animators from the Americas, Europe and Asia, and featured Chinese experimental artist Xu Bing, who introduced his compilation of a new purely visual language composed of symbols, icons, and Internet-Age hieroglyphs in an interactive installation called Book from the Ground, and Beijing-based sculptor Li Hui, who combined ancient Buddhist concepts with cutting-edge laser technology in a piece titled Reincarnation.

From Venice this cross-cultural group show was set to skip across the planet, touching down at the Wereldmuseum in the Netherlands, at the Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, and other points East. Earlier this year, Grimanesa Amorós made a stopover in Beijing to hold a dialogue with students and scholars at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, China’s leading art school, where she said she “was hanging out with a lot of students – the youth of China – a lot of brilliant minds from the academy’s experimental art department, design department and architecture school” She is set to return to the academy in October, when she will introduce a new programed light installation, titled Huanchaco, that is set to be launched at the same time in an exhibition on the periphery of Mexico City. Huanchaco is an Expressionist explosion of light and color, set inside the cool circle-shaped Tower of the Winds, that fans can walk through and be surrounded by, becoming part of the artwork.

Grimanesa Amorós touched down in the Chinese capital en route to South Korea, to open an exhibition of her mixed media light sculpture Aurora. The work, which recreates the ever-changing lights and colors of the Aurora Borealis, premiered at a New York space opposite a titanium sculpture by Frank Gehry, and then traveled to the Rem Koolhaas-designed Seoul National University Museum of Art.

The Peruvian-American artist-filmmaker returns to the megacity of Beijing in October to launch a multi-channel video exhibition – the premiere of her short films in China – here at the gallery Yuan Space in central Beijing. While the light installations sculpted and programmed by Grimanesa Amorós emanate a glow of almost pure joy, some of her videos explore darker worlds: life and death and rebirth in La Procesion, or wanderers living on the extreme fringes of society in the avalanche-threatened Arctic peaks of Norway or in the impoverished alienating tenements of the Bronx in Between Heaven and Earth.

Following the Beijing premiere, Grimanesa Amorós jets back to her studio in Manhattan, and then to Madrid to complete a new installation commissioned by Spain’s Ministry of Culture; she will recombine the floating worlds of Lake Titicaca in a new light sculpture titled Uros that will illuminate the facade of the ministry’s headquarters in the Spanish capital’s Plaza del Rey. In late 2012, she presents a series of light installations at Art Basel Miami Beach, a satellite of Switzerland’s Art Basel, one of the planet’s leading platforms for the exhibition of contemporary artists.

The artist, raised in Peru’s coastal capital Lima, studied at the Art Students League in New York in preparation to launch a life in painting, but, like Michelangelo, later switched to three-dimensional sculpture. Yet many of these works are painted sculptures, like the Golden Uros installation, which features not only the Madonna, but also the totora reeds used by the Uros islanders, inscribed onto golden discs.

Although the islands and waterways and Incan images and colors of Peru float through some of her light sculptures, Grimanesa Amorós has not yet trained her cinematic sights on this culture, but that is about to change. She is now preparing an animated film, Golden Connection, that will be set amid the Nasca Lines, the strange gigantic geoglyphs, in the shape of otherworldly winged figures or geometric patterns, carved into the desert sands of Peru.

And in 2013, the video maker will return to Titicaca to film the 8000-square-kilometer lake in the sky. The lake, the mythical birthplace of the Sun God, is still believed by some to be a cosmic crossroads between Earth and Heaven. And although the Uros people and unique lifestyle have survived for centuries due to the strategic ingenuity and sophisticated engineering of their self-built islands, they are now endangered by a new form of infiltration: These days, they are being threatened by an invasion of tourists from around the world who are armed with iPads, Internet access and images of urban life, acting as high-tech Pied Pipers for Uros youths who want to migrate to Web-wired worlds.

Kevin Holden Platt writes about art and architecture for the International Herald Tribune, the global edition of the New York Times.