In Las Vegas, Refik Anadol’s Biggest Undertaking Yet
The Turkish-American artist is inaugurating Las Vegas’s new Sphere with his swirling, real-time generated digital collages of space and nature. Not only a feat of technical ingenuity, it cements the Populous-designed venue as a platform for high-concept artwork in a city still lacking a major cultural institution.
Refik Anadol’s hallucinatory visuals, which pull from data sets to display dynamic collages of imagery taken from outer space and the deep sea, have recast a multitude of hallowed venues into breathtaking canvases for his swirling abstractions. The recent settings need no introduction: Walt Disney Concert Hall, the stage for this year’s Grammy Awards, Antoni Gaudí’s Casa Batlló, and the Museum of Modern Art’s cavernous Gund Lobby. Each venue presents its own technical challenges the Turkish-American digital artist and computer programmer needed to overcome, but the latest is his most ambitious undertaking yet in terms of both style and scale.
That’s because he’s inaugurating the soon-to-debut Sphere in Las Vegas, the 366-foot-tall Populous-designed venue whose globe-shaped exterior is clad in 580,000 square feet of programmable LED screens. (When viewed from afar, it’s essentially the world’s largest screen and a “Blade Runner moment,” Anadol quips.) Projected on the surface are the latest installments of his Machine Hallucinations—a series he began seven years ago during a Google AI residency—that plugs publicly available images into machine-learning models that create hundreds of colorful abstractions. Two debut on the Sphere: Space, which pulls raw footage from the Hubble Space Telescope, and Nature, where 400 million images of flora and fauna are animated by data of gust speeds and air pressure captured by local sensors.
“To me, it’s questioning reality,” Anadol tells the Los Angeles Times. “[It’s] this incredible architectural form in public urban space and this incredible art form. We’re used to canvas and sculpture and paintings and video, but this time, the whole building is a canvas—and not one with corners. It’s challenging our perceptions. It’s a really powerful statement and experiment reinterpreting the limits of our understanding of what is a canvas.”
The canvas, of course, is anything but square, requiring extra legwork to get right. Anadol applied his real-time generated artwork to an equidistant cylindrical projection, a type of model that produces flat maps from spheres. That equirectangular projection then seamlessly wraps the sphere with Anadol’s artwork. The existential themes interwoven in space travel—as well as the technical ingenuity required to execute such high-concept artwork at a monumental scale—may contradict Sin City’s penchant for quick thrills and blacked-out blurs. If executed well, though, the Sphere can potentially bring high-concept artwork to a city still woefully lacking a major institution beyond the Neon Boneyard. To wit, Darren Aronofsky created an immersive sci-fi documentary, Postcard from Earth, specifically for the new venue. Here’s to hoping that giant blinking eyeballs don’t take up too much screen time.