Judy Chicago’s Atmospheres Enter the Digital Realm

Thanks to augmented reality, the American feminist artist’s signature technicolor smoke plumes can now soften your living room.

Pink Atmosphere (1971) at Cal-State Fullerton. © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In 1970, shortly after Judy Chicago graduated from UCLA, she encountered a Richard Serra work that rubbed her the wrong way. For an exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum), Serra cut down a few of the state’s gargantuan Redwood trees and piled them in the gallery. Horrified at the “masculine” gesture of felling trees and destroying the environment, Chicago channeled her anger into her own practice, thus creating the first iteration of her legendary Atmospheres series. She famously used smoke machines to shroud a Pasadena side street in ethereal white mist, which “softened everything,” she tells Artsy, noting how the effect cast the surroundings in an entirely new light. “There was a moment when the smoke began to clear, but a haze lingered. And the whole world was feminized—if only for a moment.”

Chicago stopped making Atmospheres in the mid-1970s due to financial constraints and sexual harassment allegations against the owner of a prominent fireworks company where she apprenticed, but the series’ influence looms large today. And thanks to a new augmented reality app, the series is enjoying a newfound appreciation in an era marked by #MeToo, climate change, and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Judy Chicago RainbowAR

Though Atmospheres translate beautifully to photography and film, the works carry a mystical grandeur that’s best experienced in person. That unfortunately won’t happen for the foreseeable future due to the pandemic, which prompted Chicago to join forces with Light Art Space and the experiential design firm International Magic to translate Atmospheres into an AR app. Users can now bring Chicago’s Atmospheres anywhere they please thanks to the virtual artwork, called Judy Chicago RainbowAR, that officially debuted yesterday.

Judy Chicago RainbowAR unfolds as an interactive performance of sorts, releasing plumes of technicolor smoke that billow across phone screens and invite users to walk through and around it. To achieve the realistic visual effects, International Magic used cutting-edge technologies including device motion, fluid smoke simulations, real-time particle systems, noise shaders, and harmonic sound that make each experience truly one-of-a-kind. It’s accompanied by a polyphonic soundtrack, released in collaboration with the sound designer Colin Bailey, that uses soundscapes made from recordings from Chicago’s work with the pyrotechnician Chris Souza of Pyro Spectaculars. “Bringing Atmospheres into the digital realm not only offers new perspectives to transform our environment,” says Light Art Space head of programs Amira Gad, “it’s also symbolic of togetherness, solidarity, and harmony.”

Judy Chicago. Photography by Donald Woodman

The piece also marks Chicago’s initial foray into virtual art. “At this moment in time, it seems even more important to offer the opportunity to bathe our environments with light, art, and beauty in order to inspire hope and through a visual metaphor, suggest the possibility of positive change,” Chicago says of the artwork, which “softens and feminizes the often harsh, patriarchal world around us.” And though the AR experience may not entirely measure up to the spectacle of technicolor smoke billowing through California’s High Desert, who wouldn’t want to bring that sensation to their home during today’s monotony? Downloadable via the App Store and Google Play, Judy Chicago RainbowAR is poised to be a much-needed quarantine mood-booster.

Despite their fleeting nature, Atmospheres is sticking around. This year, the Nevada Museum of Art acquired Chicago’s entire Fireworks archive with the goal of reinvestigating the mid-20th century’s historically male-dominated Land Art Movement. The archive, which contains thousands of photographs, digital images, films, and drawings, joined the museum’s Center for Art and Environment Archive, home to extensive holdings by such renowned land artists as Michael Heizer and Water de Maria. “Her legendary Atmospheres works were a beautiful response to the perceived ‘destruction’ or altering of the landscape by her male counterparts working in the American deserts at that time,” says David Walker, the museum’s chief executive. The institution plans to show parts of the archive in a landmark exhibition next October. Until then, we recommend hunkering down and softening your living room.

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