Dancing on air 

An odd sort of synchronicity links Greg Hull’s new installation, “Breath,” and its host institution, the new Indianapolis International Airport.

Airplanes are ostensibly made safe with good maintenance; Hull’s sculptures will also remain airborne with regular maintenance checks.

This might not seem like much of a coincidence. After all, Hull was commissioned to create his permanent installation specifically for the airport renovation. So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that his sculpture would reflect the fancy of flight. But Hull’s interest in air, its ephemeral nature made concrete through the deft combination of mechanical and artistic gymnastics, goes back far prior to the airport project — a commission which was initiated for Hull about two and a half years ago.

And despite outward appearances, planes don’t float; they fly. Hull’s sculptures float, given agency by a trick of the eye. This gives the illusion of flight.

A pound of force

The Herron School of Art Sculpture and Ceramics building is a behemoth of a structure. Resembling the cavernous expanse of an airport hangar, its cool, concrete corridors skirt large workspaces; in one of these, Hull shows me a prototype for “Breath.”

Nearby, a student is ruminating over hunks of steel, rock music coming from unseen speakers. The music quits and Hull leans into a red cloth structure, flipping a hidden switch that sends air into the form, filling it like a red lung in the shape of a starburst. From the front, the structure whispers into fullness, the gears doing their thing, giving the illusion of breath.

“It takes about one pound of force to open and close it,” Hull says, standing back as the sculpture shudders closed with what sounds like a sharp intake of breath. One pound is all it takes: the power behind a baby’s fist, the flap of a crow’s wings.

The prototype, seen at such close quarters, resembles a tent, an air vent giving purchase to the air that is called into service.

“Breath,” a fleet of 11 similarly shaped sculptures that will float from 20 to 45 feet above ground level in the atrium of the airport’s new parking garage, adjacent to the new midfield terminal, is among a number of permanent artworks that have been created in tandem with the airport renovation, a project that includes a budget of $3.9 million for art, according to Julia Muney Moore, public art administratorfor Blackburn Architects.

Hull is among 17 artists who are being commissioned to create permanent works, with two temporary projects also being planned. “Breath” is slated for completion by the time the new airport opens this month.

Moore, who has long been familiar with Hull’s art, believes “Breath” is indicative of much of Hull’s work. “Greg’s work is fabulous in general — it has a very simple look but there is quite a bit of engineering and mechanics to it, and the engineering is largely hidden from public view so it seems like magic,” Moore says.

“This piece for the airport is striking because of the color and movement, and for the way the sculptural units seem to hang in space. Its grace belies the complexity of the design.”

Hull’s piece, which recalls elements of many of his earlier kinetic installations, will strike a new pose on each viewing. Although the sculptures are fixed in their locations, they “breathe” at uncoordinated intervals, creating a dance that looks choreographed but is, instead, random, or as random as the mechanized format allows. As Hull has described the work, the motorized sculptures are set into motion by 6 rpm AC gear-motors to provide “even, smooth, reciprocating motion that is reminiscent of human respiration, the movement of birds in slow motion flight and/or aquatic organisms moving through the water.” Hull’s description continues, “The 11 elements regularly drift into patterns and then drift out of sync again.” The intention is to give the impression of seamlessness, an absence of the mechanical workings.

This sort of mechanical poetry is typical of Hull’s work, and has characterized his perspective as an artist — creating soulful movement without visible human agency.

An atypical garden

Hull was taking photographs in a bricked gap between 4 Star Gallery and a building next door, and just happened to notice a sign in the gallery promoting its Installation Fest, an event celebrating conceptual art that was once held regularly in the city. Hull entered the competition that year with “An Atypical Garden,” composed of grass, steel and video monitors. The work took the viewer down a grass corridor, its tilted walls embedded with video monitors. “Only the screens showed through the grass,” Hull recalls. “They were arranged to wash down the grass slope like water down a waterfall.”

The piece earned Hull Best of Show, and an exhibition at 4 Star Gallery, where he has been showing his work ever since. In that first show, The History of Bridges and the Crux of Matter, also in 1996, Hull mechanized sets of crutches in the main work, “Desire,” that pulled and gathered a long length of red fabric. Other crutches were composed from glass tubes and were filled with organic materials. “The glass crutch was intended as a metaphor for the fragile strength of beauty,” Hull explains.

Hull’s first signature work that mimicked the act of respiration was created for an exhibition at 4 Star Gallery. “Undertow,” exhibited in 2000, was a roomful of umbrellas set into motion by some unseen mechanism, giving the impression of a roomful of ghosts caught in the stasis of the in-between: opening and closing umbrellas under an uncertain sky. The work had a remote, but meditative quality, suggesting that art is indeed driven by poetry, and the methods to achieve that poetry are simply tools.

“It’s not about those tools or those materials. It’s about what happens in the end … the poetics,” Hull tells me as we sit in a nearby computer lab in Herron’s sculpture building.

Hull first became enamored with umbrellas on a trip to New York City. He recalls leaning out an upper story window as it began to rain, watching the umbrellas pop open beneath him “like firecrackers.” Later, in his studio, “I put a motor on one to see what it would do.”

“Undertow” and subsequent projects included the umbrella as the primary medium, and clearly, Hull isn’t finished with the form — the airport project is a variation, although it does represent a move in a slightly different direction: up.

The notion of flight also isn’t new to Hull. In 1997 the city of Atchison, Kan., commissioned Hull to create another permanent installation, an Amelia Earhart memorial. “Amelia’s Gate” now lights up the bridge that serves as a gateway to Atchison, casting two columns of light 10,000 feet into the sky at night. Fiber optic cable spans the bridge, changing color with each seasonal change, beginning with blue and moving through red, amber and green.

Down on the farm

George Gregory Hull was born in Richmond, Ind., to parents who not only encouraged his artmaking but considered it a legitimate choice for a life path. When asked about his early years, Hull recalls, laughing, a “great childhood,” as if to recognize the cliché inherent in such a statement. “Both of my parents were accepting of the idea that art was a career possibility,” Hull says.

His parents purchased a farm when Hull was still a child, giving him access to all the mechanical tools and machines that would later pique his curiosity as an artist. In addition to earning a living as a businessman, “My dad was kind of an engineer,” Hull recalls, a propensity Hull seems to have picked up. His dad was also a ham radio operator, and for a time the family owned a 40-foot sailboat.

“We had lots of different experiences,” Hull recalls. And those experiences seem to inform his work: the love of movement, water, the fascination with electricity and engineering — the mechanics of making things, and making things work. The first time Hull tried making a perpetual motion machine, he recalls, “It ended up looking like a piece of farm equipment.”

Hull eventually left Indiana to pursue two degrees: a BFA in sculpture from the Kansas City Art Institute and an MFA in sculpture from the University of Delaware. Living for a time in Texas, Hull and his wife returned to Indiana in 1996 — the year he made his “first piece that moved” — and have lived here ever since. The couple have two children ages 10 and 13.

Community artist

Hull joined the faculty of Herron School of Art in 1998, and is now associate professor of sculpture, following the university into its new facilities on the IUPUI campus, which now includes the main building on the campus proper and the sculpture and ceramics building on Indiana Avenue to the west of downtown.

Hull’s first years back in Indiana seemed to mark a watershed moment for his art in the public sphere. Around the time of the “Amelia’s Gate” commission, and soon after beginning to teach at Herron, a quick succession of commissions and gallery shows came one after the other, including two works at the Indianapolis Museum of Art within a few years of one another, and a smaller scale installation at the fledgling Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art.

Hull’s “Amelia’s Gate” coincided with his first commission from the IMA. “I got the call from Holly Day the same day I got the call for the bridge,” Hull recalls. Day, then IMA curator of contemporary art, invited Hull to create a work to be installed on the museum building that could be seen from a great distance. In the finished work, neon lights flashed around the limestone façade giving the impression of Morse code, or white heat through an electrical conduit.

“Introducing the Ocean” included a Web component in which viewers from anywhere in the world could log on and manipulate the patterns that were run on the 624-piece neon installation. “In my mind, the work mimicked the ocean or a large body of water, placing the surface of the water over our heads — at a similar level as it would have been many millions of years ago,” Hull describes. The marks, or “ripples,” symbolizing the participants themselves, “surfaced on the façade of the building as literal ripples and patterns of light on the sculpture.”

“Amelia’s Gate” and the airport project, “Breath,” are permanent installations, which, for Hull, present a different sort of challenge than temporary installations or gallery work. “Permanent work is very different from temporary work,” he says. “Temporary installations are more challenging, intellectually.”

One of his favorite temporary projects, three years ago, was an installation of umbrellas emerging from windows of the Conrad Hotel, which was then under construction. Students helped Hull create stands for the umbrellas, numbering “just shy of 50,” Hull recalls. “The piece existed for 30 minutes and it was gone.” The commission was representative of what Hull loves about public art, and represents an important component of his teaching, which is to connect art and artists with the community.

“Artists can be these amazing liaisons between technology and the public,” Hull says. “It’s a way to share some things that are really special to me.”

Hull encourages his students to take commissions in town, and guides them, along with Eric Nordgulen, Herron’s fine arts faculty chair, through the process of securing the commission, including making a proposal, budget and realizing the work. Herron students continue to work with Celadon Trucking and Community Hospital North and other Indiana businesses.

The driving force behind all of it — the artmaking, the teaching — Hull says, is “a sense of wonder,” a curiosity that is constantly rekindled by his own children. “Part of it is probably being a parent and watching my kids discover something, invent something,” he says. His interest in dance and theater offer another perspective, nudging him further, taking his work out of the realm of cold gears and mechanics into movement, and further into conceptual and metaphorical terrain.

“I have this real intense interest in technology — video, electrical … but part of that can be really cold,” Hull admits. This is, in part, what inspires him to add, as he puts it, “some element of movement. I think in part it’s the poetics of the movement. It touches me in a way that I think I can communicate with people.”

In art school, a professor warned him not to make things that moved. That became the challenge that drove him forward. As “Breath” moves into place — and out of it, and back in again — Hull will no doubt be moving himself, on to the next thing, the next challenge.

“For me, limitations are the things to push against. That becomes the territory to mine.”

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