By Christopher Sperandio


A solitary heliostat made of wood, metal, circuits, and mirrors confronts visitors to the Emergency Room. A homemade machine for tracking the X, Y and Z coordinates of the Sun, its parts were cut on a CNC machine. CNC stands for Computer Numerical Control, and is a machine that uses X, Y and Z coordinates in order to cut material — in this case, wood. While this heliostat is the object standing in the gallery, the artwork itself is intended as the transitory experience of viewing the light it reflects.

Heliostats are machines constructed to reflect sunlight onto a stationary point, tracking the apparent movement of the sun as it crosses the sky. Ancient Egyptians used mirrors to bounce sunlight indoors. Archimedes was said to have set a Roman fleet on fire by focusing mirrors on the attacking ships. Today, the principal use for heliostats is in farming solar-thermal energy, where mirrors with servos and digital brains and eyes aim sunlight at a boiler producing steam to drive a turbine.

4This heliostat is the work of of Logan Sebastian Beck, and is a project originally intended as a public artwork. In his original proposal, Beck states: “The project will use an array of heliostats (“sun trackers”) to project images created by sunlight into available shadow space. The project attempts to activate “dead” urban space such as the underside of freeway underpasses and other shaded concrete structures.”

Such a maneuver is heavily indebted to the pioneering work of the Light and Space artists, a group of artists based in California. Artists like Robert Irwin employed 1960s engineering and aerospace technology in the development of works bordering on the phenomenological. In thinking about Beck’s efforts, another artist, oddly, comes to mind. Tom Sachs, master of the homebrew, with an emphasis on branding, has clearly had some influence on Beck’s thinking, even if it’s not formally obvious. Beck’s branded web site for the project (adescriptionofthesun.com) is a rolling catalogue of project updates, research materials and reflections (pardon the pun) on light as an artists’ material. Here, as with Sachs, the research and the studio, along with the objects created, become part of a Gesamtkunstwerk.

A working photographer, it’s not a coincidence that Beck has made a work incorporating light. In his day job, Beck’s expertise is that of using lenses to capture fleeting moments for a range of clients. There is a perverse logic, then, that his studio work is based around unique events based in perception and time – experiences that cannot be easily distilled with a camera. The work can only be experienced directly.

1The caveat to this exhibition is that Beck has never built anything quite this complex and exacting before. There is the distinct chance that this machine won’t function quite the way it’s supposed to. To Beck’s generation of “makers,” however, failure is a transitory state, or maybe simply a node amongst other nodes. The research and construction of things is a process, sometimes without end. The network of those with a similar passion is a living thing, whether it’s heliostats, or some other device. Each stage of completion, or near completion, is a success, whether or not the device involved actually works. Of course, with the A Description of the Sun, and its incremental movement across a day, only the most ardent viewer would notice if the machine is operating to spec. However, to focus on the machine is to miss the work itself, an ever-changing halo of light. It’s an experience that is untranslatable, and that’s really the point. You’ll have had to be there.

Christopher Sperandio
Assistant Professor
Department of Visual and Dramatic Arts
Rice University

One thought on “EMPIRE OF THE SUN

  1. Pingback: A description of the sun – IPD Honours Research

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *