“The rainbow is a very deep memory for humans. It has been coded into our genetic material over millions of years. Seeing a rainbow restores our connection to Nature – it restores our physical and psychic functions.”
Jonas Salk, MD – inventor of the first polio vaccine, quoted in a conversation with Peter Erskine, 1995
What is Secrets of the Sun?
The Secrets of the Sun project is based on Three Big Ideas:
1. Sunlight is energy. 2. All life is solar powered. 3. Everything is connected to everything else.
Much more than art to be just made to be looked at, S.O.S. is an immersive, participatory Solar Spectrum Environmental Art experience. It is Erskine’s meditation on the beauty and dangers of human interaction with solar radiation: The beauty of the rainbow and solar energy, and the horrors of global warming, ozone depletion and mass species extinction – and the realization that solar and wind power will play a big role in mitigating climate change in future decades……and centuries.
Secrets of the Sun uses the emotional impact of art to address the full range of Nature from its most elemental expression as pure light to its most complex expression as global ecology. Erskine’s visionary installation addresses the possibility that what we thought was the road to progress, might in fact be the road to doom. Secrets of the Sun: Millennial Meditations was one of the first holistic attempts in the international art world to warn of the civilization threatening challenges of climate change.
S.O.S. premiered in Trajan’s Markets, a two thousand year old architectural jewel in the ancient Roman Forum. Viewer/participants arrived at the provocative site, signed a “legal” damage waiver acknowledging their contribution to global warming and mass species extinction and donned a white jump suit as “protection from the solar radiation in the installation.” Following a ritual path, and looking just like everyone else in their white suits, the viewer/participants walked a 2000 year old Roman road, encountered Erskine’s towering white heliostat tracking mirror and solar hardware array that looked like something out of NASA space probe. At the end of the ritual path that circumambulated the ancient site, they stepped into a dim corridor leading to darkened ancient rooms.
As they stepped inside the installation they were enveloped in huge splashes of nature’s most beautiful light. Their white jump suits became living canvases, as millions of gradually changing rainbow colors flowed across their bodies, mixing and creating colored shadows on the ancient walls, marble carvings and other visitors. And the entire ritual experience, including text and spoken word, was infused with a subtle, real-time, ambient sound installation created by sound artists Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger entitled “Traffic Mantra.” It transformed the racket of Rome’s fossil fueled traffic – into the “music of the spheres.” Their pioneering work with Erskine in Rome created the deep emotional inter-connectedness of Secrets of the Sun.
Visitors recorded their responses in the Room of Questions and Answers, the final chamber in the installation:
“Capturing the rays of the sun is like capturing dreams.” Adriano D’Andria
“I’ve seen color for the first time.” Claudia, Rome
“You feel more painted, more solar, more alive, after you see it.” Luigina Spautailli
“So simple and so strong, like the presence of God.” Lilliana, Rome
How it works
Secrets of the Sun starts at the sun, 93,000,000 miles away. Eight minutes later, Erskine’s ten foot square heliostat solar tracking mirror reflects an 8,000 watt beam of white sunlight onto an array secondary mirrors. Each mirror grabs a chunk of the heliostat’s sunlight, reflecting it into a darkened room, then down a further chain of mirrors and onto a motorized laser-cut flat prism. The three by four foot prisms refracted the rainbow light, drenching the architecture, roman sculpture and white suited visitors with the purest color one can see outside of a physics laboratory. A solar electric array generates 100% of the electricity for the installation – S.O.S. heliostat, sound system, computers and motors. The entire art experience becomes a Closed Solar Loop – Solar powered humans experience a Solar powered, participatory opera.
The Art Critics Respond
With its viewer participation, text, costumes, ritual, rainbows and music, German art critic, Benigna Mallebrein, described Secrets of the Sun – Rome as “Erskine’s twenty first century re-invention of Richard Wagner’s Gesamtkunst.”
Italian art critic, Gennaro Coviello, writing in the newspaper, Il Corriere di Roma said, “A new kind of show. Expressly involves the art of science. A show of marvel and awe where the impalpable face of light is true radiance and beauty, permeating creation and its creatures.”
And, American art historian and critic, John R. Clarke wrote about S.O.S, “Erskine has developed a project that is more holistic than any site-specific installation… more thought-provoking than any conceptual piece… and visually more enthralling than any painting, sculpture, or light-installation work in the past two decades.”
The Rome installation was funded by the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation of Los Angeles, the Teresa and H. John Heinz III Foundation, the American Academy in Rome, ENEL, and Bettoja Hotels – with production support from Cesare Silvi of the Italian Section of the International Solar Energy Association. The project was sponsored by the Cultural Affairs Department of the City of Rome. Secrets of the Sun was the first in a series of major exhibitions at Trajan’s Markets by international sculptors including Anthony Caro and Richard Serra.