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Exhibition Review: Pulse by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer at the Hirschhorn Museum

photos by sheer figman

Art for all. That is what Rafael Lozano-Hemmer achieves with his new exhibition, Pulse, at the Hirshhorn Museum. Walking into the exhibit, visitors immediately enter a dark room that creates a serious, yet intimate, tone. Pulse begins by outlining what visitors should expect to see and hear as they walk around the exhibit: their own personal data. Additionally, the museum profiles Hemmer and provides information on his artistic background. Born in Mexico, Hemmer is internationally renowned for art that incorporates technology that visualizes human data. The museum goes the extra mile by creating a timeline of the influence of audiovisual and bio-technologies on the art world. This includes John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s song, Baby Heartbeat,  which was built using their unborn son’s heartbeat, and Pink Floyd’s 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon, which ends with a heartbeat. After this introduction, viewers are left to explore the exhibit with no additional direction. 

Pulse consists of three separate, yet intertwined, installations that “use biometric sensors to translate visitors’ heartbeats into interactive art” (Hirschhorn). Pulse Index, the first installation, projects visitors’ fingerprints onto the wall, acting as the room’s only light source and visual aid. 

Next, Pulse Tank invites people to touch a sensor connected to a small pool of water. The sensor projects an individual’s pulse into the water, creating waves that sync with the beat of individual pulses. There are multiple sensors connected to each pool of water,  causing the waves to collide with one another. The waves are reflected onto the wall so visitors can visually see their heartbeats and how they interact with others. Again, the reflections act as the room’s only visual aid. 

Finally, visitors walk into Pulse Room where light bulbs cover the ceiling. Each light bulb flickers to the heartbeat of a past visitor, illuminating the room in a non-uniform manner. This section includes the audio element of past visitors’ heartbeats eerily echoing around the room. Since the Hirschhorn is shaped in a circle, visitors exit where the exhibition began. 

Hemmer’s inspiration for the Pulse exhibit was a Mexican artist who used candles to mimic the flicker of a heartbeat. I appreciate that he found inspiration at home, yet applied the idea to become universal. One of my favorite components of the exhibition was not the artwork itself, but the description viewers see as they first enter the exhibition. It comes from Hemmer himself, as he recounts hearing his child’s heartbeat for the first time and how the experience inspired him to further explore the human pulse. This personal sentiment resonates with the masses, as a heartbeat is one of the most intimate, yet universal, sounds. It is recognized by all and is beautiful in the way that it cannot be controlled. 

I was lucky enough to visit the exhibition on two separate occasions. The first time was the day after Pulse opened and crowds filled the rooms. There were people of all different ages enjoying the spectacle before them. I saw parents help their children place their fingers on the sensor and watched their small faces light up with wonder as they saw what they had just created. That was the great thing about the crowds; you got to see how anyone of any age or background could enjoy the exhibition. Although children could not understand Pulse on a deep level, they understood the basic principle that they had the power to become a part of the exhibit and see themselves within the larger message. 

The second time I visited Pulse, with only a few people to fill the dark rooms, the exhibition became more intimate and, at times, eerie. Although there were only three sections, Hemmer created enough visual stimulation for the mind to make it feel much longer. His intention was not to have the audience admire his own work but have them admire the work they had created. The intimacy of the exhibit is established through the accumulation of audience participation and an understanding that everyone, despite our differences, has a pulse of our own. 

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