Over the course of several days, 16 men scrutinized 100,000 rose petals in a two million square-feet space formerly known as Bell Labs. In the same building where several Nobel Prize–winning scientists worked years before, these men pulled the roses apart with meticulous precision, examining every petal until they settled on the most beautiful petal of each rose. This was the start of Sarah Meyohas’s largest scale project, and first virtual-reality installation.
Named as part of the Forbes 30 under 30 Arts and Style list this year, artist and gallery owner Meyohas says Cloud of Petals started by chance when she visited the former research and development facility. While Bell Labs is in the process of being revived as a mixed-use space and has been re-dubbed Bell Works, she could still “feel” the lab where science and technology research once thrived. “It was immediately pretty clear to me that I had to do something there, I just didn’t know what.” More than a year later Cloud of Petals comprises of a virtual-reality component on the basement level of Red Bull Arts in Chelsea, New York, a 30-minute short film shot on 16 mm film, a mosaic of 3,289 preserved rose petals, and four infinity-mirror sculptures that she made from wall panels she salvaged from the lab.
In the summer of 2016, Meyohas hired the men from a work agency — “I didn’t want New York City interns” — and prompted them to choose the most beautiful petal on every rose. She filmed the men as they selected, photographed and preserved the petals at individual workstations. Individual trends started to emerge. Some men almost always chose the softest petals, others opted for rounder, or square shapes. “They might seem the same,” she says of the petals, “and if you look at them you might wonder if they really are that different. But the point is that there is always human bias in any form of perception.” Meyohas specifically chose men for the art project to juxtapose ideas of feminine and masculine labor. She then turned the photos into a “frivolous and romantic” data set that became the basis of an artificial-intelligence algorithm that learned to create new petals ad infinitum. The combination of nature and technology, real flowers and virtual ones, as well as an algorithm that flows out of human choice and bias, is part of Meyohas’s commentary on how we perceive and manufacture beauty. The show hasn’t changed her perception of beauty per se, but rather how she views “the importance of beauty, especially as it represents human subjectivity,” she says.
As part of the virtual-reality component of the exhibition, there are six hanging Oculus headsets that show different virtual environments that are derived from the algorithm and run on an endless loop. Meyohas is Zen-like as she talks about the show. Having weathered worries about the show’s cost, delays and late deliveries, the worst thing that can go wrong now, she says matter of fact, “is that I die.”
A book featuring Meyohas’s photos, is set to be released on November 16.
Cloud of Petals will be on exhibit for the public at Red Bull Arts New York, 220 W 18th St, from October 12 through December 10.