Pixels and petals: ‘Ultra-Nature’ at the Wood Street Galleries

Carnegie Mellon prides itself on its outstanding programs in both computer science and visual art. But what if these two seemingly different subjects could somehow be combined? At the Wood Street Galleries in downtown Pittsburgh, “Ultra-Nature,” a new exhibit by French artist Miguel Chevalier, uses mathematical equations and an aesthetic eye to do just that.

One enters the “RGB World” room to the haunting sound of a chorus of bass voices, their tone so constant and low that it immediately sets the mood for the futuristic exhibit. In an otherwise plain white room, three projectors display a virtual landscape of red, green, and blue. The landforms continuously move towards the viewer, as though one is a bird flying low over the computerized canyons, plateaus, lakes, and rivers. The landscape resembles that of the Grand Canyon or the Andes, but in actuality is entirely fake, created by Chevalier using algorithms and fractals.

Fractal art is characterized by the use of a relatively simple equation to create a very complicated, repeating structure. These equations have many different applications, including plant growth simulation and landscape generation, as evidenced in Chevalier’s work.

The second half of the exhibit is a virtual garden ofmulti- colored plants against a tranquil blue background. Computerized flowers grow and blossom and periodically move with a virtual wind. Motion sensors allow visitors to interact with the exhibit — as they wave their arms, dance around, or even bounce up and down, the plants do the same. “[The flowers are] so pretty, really hypnotic,” said Robin Scheines, a first-year art major at Carnegie Mellon. “It’s like a living jungle, really serene. Each flower has a life of its own.” In fact, each plant and its life cycle is unique, “defined by its morphogenetic characteristics,” according to the exhibit’s press release.

Sam Kennedy, a computer programmer from Birmingham, Ala., said he particularly liked Chevalier’s work in its unique combination of science and art. “[Using the computer] there are unlimited ways you can express things. This exhibit reflects a lot about the universe and how it is put together, how there are mathematical equations in the biological world.”

Chevalier, who studied at École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris and went on to École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, began focusing on computer art in 1992. He has since exhibited his work at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, the Pompidou Center in Paris, Monterrey Museum in Mexico City, and many other venues around the world including Asia and South America.

The “Ultra-Nature” exhibit is an excellent example of how art can be used to connect and communicate some of the most fascinating and mysterious elements of our world. Chevalier’s creation of an entirely unique botanic and geographical “planet” with the use of math and computers is something you won’t want to miss, whether you are a biology, computer science, or art major.