Amid overcast skies and intermittent rain, a tornado touched down on New York’s High Line last week—well, an approximately 9-foot-tall, motorized foam sculpture of a tornado. Windy by Morocco-born artist Meriem Bennani made its debut and became the first of its kind in more ways than one: It’s the first public sculpture by Bennani and the inaugural piece co-commissioned and curated by High Line Art along with Audemars Piguet Contemporary, the art-commissioning arm of luxury Swiss watch company Audemars Piguet.
Bennani, who is currently based in New York, is most recognized for her prior work with large-scale video installations. In early 2020, she created 2 Lizards with Orian Barki, a series of short animated films. Recognized at the London Short Film Festival and MoMA’s The Contenders film festival, the series captured the oddities of the “new normal” in New York brought on by the pandemic. In the tongue-in-cheek videos, Dr. Anthony Fauci is a green reptile with glasses, lizards are mask-wearing city dwellers, and a mouse is a news anchor. For her latest work, Bennani has transitioned to working in 3D instead of 2D, though motion is still involved.
Although Windy was a step out of her comfort zone, the touch of absurd cartoonishness often seen in her animations still comes through.
“I really think of this sculpture… as a moving image and also an homage to my love for animation, because the sculpture moves so fast that you can’t separate every frame,” Bennani told AN. “You can’t see it for what it is, you just see the movement visually. And that’s the same as the process of animation. But the process of making it is completely different.”
The concept for Windy was conceived and developed in a way not unlike Bennani’s approach to animation. Bennani created everything in a 3D program, where neither gravity nor the complicated logistics of fabrication feasibility were of concern yet.
“The work is a translation of what she does digitally into a physical form,” Audemars Piguet Contemporary curator Audrey Teichmann told AN.
Jordan Benke, production director with High Line Art, shared the sculpture’s inner workings with AN. The piece comprises approximately 200 stacked UV and waterproof foam discs which rotate at various speeds grouped in clusters around ten electric bike motors. These motors are powered via wired connections threaded through the fixed hollow steel support post.
The piece underwent three major iterative stages, Benke explained. For the first conceptual prototype, Benke experimented with a ceiling fan motor. Later iterations used electric bike motors with custom bearings to power the movement of the sculpture’s segments, formed by the foam disks. Bennani and the High Line team also tested different materials for the mobile disks, ultimately deciding on a lightweight UV-proof and waterproof foam This was a good specification, not only because the outdoor sculpture would be able to withstand the elements, but also because many passersby on opening day were overheard saying that the piece was tantalizingly tactile. The rounded foam pieces were cut based on dimensions from renderings developed by Bennani and were glued together in clusters, each powered by a single motor.
The final product was assembled in the High Line’s workshop before it was wheeled on a pallet to the 23rd Street entrance and lifted via elevator onto the elevated park, where finishing touches were made once the piece was installed.
Provided it survives this year’s hurricane season, Windy will be on view through May 2023.