Janet Echelman's Apple MacBook Air

Janet Echelman's Apple MacBook Air
American artist Janet Echelman

I like them to look like you can touch them, but when you get close, you can't," said artist Janet Echelman of her fishnet-like sculptures that float tantalisingly above the audience.

I know this for a fact, because I tried and failed to touch her 1.26 installation when it was suspended over the Marina Bay floating platform back in March as part of the i Light Marina Bay 2014 festival.

The sculpture was inspired by the tsunami waves resulting from the 2010 Chilean earthquake. The quake was so strong that seismologists estimate that it shortened the length of a day by 1.26 microseconds.

Since its 2010 Denver debut, her 1.26 installation has travelled to places such as Sydney and Amsterdam. But the Singapore version posed a unique challenge as it was mounted on a float. As the water level in the bay changes, the float moves and the crew had to adjust the tension of the sculpture's supporting trusses.

Before embarking on any project, Ms Echelman learns everything she can about the installation site, its physical characteristics and history.

"I always talk to people and sort of interview them without telling them who I am," she said. For the 1.26 installation at Marina Bay, she designed the lighting remotely using Skype, which is a first for her.

She started out as a painter but has since moved to water, mist and coloured lights. She explained: "If you ask me what is my material, I would say urban space. I'm sculpting urban airspace."

She first realised that she wanted to be an artist in her senior year at Harvard University, unlike her classmates who were all pursuing jobs in Wall Street.

However, she was rejected by all seven art schools she applied to after graduation. Undaunted, she moved to Bali, Indonesia, in 1992 to be an artist on her own. She lived simply and painted every day.

A trip to a fishing village in India to exhibit her paintings started off badly when her supplies were lost en route. This led her to improvise with the nets used by the local fishermen. From these, she created soft and changing sculptures.

She observed: "It is not one circumstance of losing my paints. We know things always go wrong along the way. We don't have an ideal situation to design, ever. So it's really about bringing our creativity to meet the constraints of where we are."

Her sculptures are now so large that she uses high-tech fibres that are 15 times stronger than steel.

Ms Echelman, who visited Singapore almost 20 years ago during her Bali stint, said she is impressed with the changes in the urban landscape here.

"The city has changed so much. It's like nothing is too difficult. They have turned Marina Bay into fresh water," she exclaimed.

Boston is now home for the artist, who has a 11-year-old son and a nine-year-old daughter. Despite her hectic schedule, she tries to spend time with her family on activities such as snow-skiing. She loves cooking for her family, which she likens to being an art project.

If you missed her Marina Bay sculpture in March, catch her on YouTube, speaking about her journey in art at www.ted.com/talks/janet_echelman.

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