Spectral Vision by Paul Hond – Columbia University Magazine – Yvette Mattern

Y_R_9Columbia University Alumni Magazine, Spring 2009

Artist Yvette Mattern ’87SOA beamed lasers eastward from Manhattan across the Brooklyn Bridge on the evening of January 19. Spectral vision In January 2007, artist Yvette Mattern ’87SOA was driving through Concord, Massachusetts, when she saw something remarkable in the turbulent sky above Walden Pond: a brilliant, sky-sweeping, pot-o’-gold rainbow “coming out of those apocalyptic clouds like a true vision.” All at once, Mattern got the big idea: to create a giant virtual rainbow. She read books on light refraction, consulted physicists. The logistics were daunting. Then, in September 2008, she saw a laser display in Berlin and was struck by its power. Now she envisioned a beautiful rainbow made of lasers. But there was one small question: How do you bend the light into an arc? Mattern arrived at a witty if unscientific solution: If rainbows were to be projected simultaneously in multiple cities, then the light, which she imagined as being interconnected, would bend, in theory, with the curvature of the planet. What she needed now was the proper occasion for which to try out the idea. Little did she know, even in September, just what history had in store. When Barack Obama was elected president on November 4, Mattern, who is multiracial (German father, Afro-Caribbean mother), decided to stage a single rainbow installation, which she called The Global Rainbow. The date she wanted was Monday, January 19, 2009, which was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and also the day before Obama’s inauguration: a once-in-a-lifetime moment, the very culmination, it seemed, of all the optimistic things a rainbow stood for. With barely any time to raise money, the Berlin-based Mattern decided to foot the $20,000 bill herself. A realtor friend in New York helped her find the ideal location from which to mount the two sets of laser boxes and beam the lights: the pyramid-shaped top of 14 Wall Street, the former penthouse apartment of J. P. Morgan. The proximity to the World Trade Center site and to the Brooklyn Bridge would frame the display in a certain grandeur. The January 19 date was, for Mattern, nonnegotiable, and she labored feverishly to assemble her team of technicians and to secure the necessary permissions. But then, a week before the King holiday, she received an 11th-hour bombshell. To project the lights, she was told, she needed clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration — a process that would take up to 30 days. All her plans threatened to come undone. As it happened, Mattern’s father had worked for decades as an inspector at the FAA. She called him and explained the situation, and he made some calls of his own. When he got back to her that day, he said that she would have clearance within hours. Five minutes later, a news flash appeared on Mattern’s TV: a commercial airliner had crash-landed in the Hudson River. Everyone survived. The evening of January 19 was cold, with a steady snowfall. At 5 p.m., in the canyon of Wall Street, seven rays of light, glittering like diamonds as snowflakes passed through them, shot east and west across Lower Manhattan, from ground zero to the far end of the Brooklyn Bridge. Mattern hired a gypsy cab to drive her and a photographer around so she could observe her handiwork. As the night progressed and people became aware of the spectacle, crowds formed on the pier at Fulton Ferry Landing. Tour buses pulled over, cameras flashed. “It was a spontaneous gathering, a community feeling,” Mattern says. “People were in awe. It was exactly how I wanted it to be.” — PH



carnival within – Yvette Mattern

Yvette Mattern’s text-based light sign Mulatta (2007), with its many blinking light bulbs, has the garish, yet exciting and alluring look of amusement parks, street festivals, 1930s and 1940s Broadway marquees, and cheesy boardwalk attractions. Together with a musical score by the renowned jazz musician and composer Don Byron, it also evokes a whole lost milieu of circa 1950s Puerto Rican dance halls in New York and elsewhere, which helped to inspire the famous 1957 Broadway musical (and later film) West Side Story, with its tale of transcendent biracial love tragically enmeshed with racial and ethnic conflict. Mattern’s term mulatta refers to a woman of both black and white ancestry, and while no commentary is provided, this illuminated word seems imbued with longstanding stereotypes: excessive sensuality, dangerous beauty, exoticism, emotional turmoil linked to not fitting in with “normal” racial categories, parental rejection, and social ostracization, to mention but a few. With dazzling lights and wonderful music, Mattern’s work is attractive and compelling, yet its single brazen word seems rife with fractious matters of identity, in a world which still has enormous troubles dealing with those who do not easily fit into readily understandable and identifiable racial categories. It is likely that Mattern’s own experience as someone born in Puerto Rico to mixed-race parents, and who grew up with an ambiguous racial and cultural identity, infuses Mulatta, but the work goes much further than autobiographical concerns, inspiring a fresh reappraisal of what this oftentimes pejorative word really signifies and evokes. In a remarkable time when the new president of the United States is himself of mixed-race heritage, with an African father from Kenya and white American mother from Kansas, Mattern’s work is especially apt.

Mattern’s Mulatta combines sculpture, music, and installation, and working in a combinatory way across media is her forte. Now based in Berlin, Mattern is also an acclaimed video artist and video designer involved with avant-garde opera, theater, and performance, including providing the video stage design for a production of Wolfgang Rihm’s opera Jakob Lenz at the National Opera House in Riga, Latvia.mulatta


Global Rainbow – Yvette Mattern

New York
The Global Rainbow over New York

January 19, Martin Luther King Day, saw The Global Rainbow projected from downtown Manhattan on a span extending to Brooklyn Bridge to the east and the Hudson River to the west, directly over the fallen WTC towers between the hours of 5pm and midnight.

The Global Rainbow is a laser installation created by artist Yvette Mattern that beams rays of light representing the spectrum of the seven colors of the rainbow. Encompassing geographical and social diversity in its reach and symbolic of hope, Mattern’s installation projected from the pyramid top (former penthouse of J. Paul Getty) of 14 Wall Street.

Projections of the Global Rainbow are being planned in various locations around the world including London, Berlin, Oslo, Jerusalem and Beijing.

Yvette Mattern was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and now lives between New York and Berlin. She works mainly in temporal media such as video and film, which she fuses with elements of performance, public art and sculpture. In 2005/2006, Mattern completed a residency at the BALTIC Center for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, England, and then later at the Centre for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw in 2007/2008. In 2008 she was involved in the exhibition “Cinema Remixed and Reloaded” at the Spelman Museum of Art and “Black Light/White Noise” at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston.