“Some people grumble that roses have thorns; I am grateful that thorns have roses.”
― Alphonse Karr, A Tour Round My Garden
For artist Sarah Meyohas, the space came before the idea. After visiting Bell Works in the spring, she was immediately moved to create, but her iconic muse did not immediately inspire her to action. Then she had a dream. A dream about a cloud of rose petals.
“I started thinking about the history of Bell Labs ushering in the information era, where we find ourselves today,” said Sarah. “I thought about the cloud of petals and the process of making it.”
That cloud of petals became the multi-layered conceptual performance art piece named Roses at Bell, consisting of 10,000 roses, photographs of the petals, and a narrative documentary-style 16 mm film.
On August 24, 16 men took their places at individual work stations strategically placed in a pattern on the color theorist Josef Albers-inspired black, gray and white tiled atrium, each tasked with dissecting roses of different colors and taking photos of each petal. Each man chose the most beautiful petal from each rose to save for pressing. Those subjectively chosen petals, along with the photos of each, were turned into pixels.
Sarah, who attended Yale University, alma mater of both Albers and Eero Saarinen, the famous architect behind the iconic 2-million-square foot mid-century Bell Labs building in Holmdel, said the number of photos taken is too many to count, but believes it to be in the six figure range.
Roses is reminiscent of the technology advancements attributed to the scientists who worked at Bell Labs in its heyday, but inspired by the transitional state the building is in today, and its adaptive reuse into a live, work, play space.
“It’s changing its character without losing its past,” said Sarah. “I wanted to locate this performance within this transition, in this in between.”
The mechanical process of registering each petal is nostalgic of the days when archival work was done by hand, primarily by women, to document and record history, science and technology. Sarah purposely flipped that gender role ideation on its head by choosing men to complete the meticulous work of deconstructing each rose by hand.
“I wanted to force men to do delicate work,” said Sarah. “This is similar to the Google scanning project, which is full of heartfelt accidents since every page is scanned by a human. People often see fingerprints on the scans, a reminder that the physical labor was done by a living person.”
These seemingly tiny and mundane archival tasks of the past were used to empower huge recognition systems, paving the way for the information age.
“Archives, throughout history, affirm power,” said Sarah. “What narrative, what type of info we pick and why we record it. That hasn’t changed, technology just makes it different.”
Sarah’s piece is archival yet current, black and white but colorful, mechanical yet digital, fleeting but timeless. This mirroring is an ever-common theme in Sarah’s work. The rose petals have since dried and withered, but the photos of the velvet beauties will exist forever. It’s about what is lost and what is gained from losing.
“We’ve created such an archive of information, but it’s sort of this manic situation and sometimes makes no sense, but it’s so romantic at the same time,” said Sarah.
A film documenting the project was shot on 16mm film, reflecting the end of the mechanical era and a new resurgence of the information era. But the choice to shoot with an obsolete technology is a timeless artifact of the process and outcome of the exhibit.
“It’s much more material than digital,” said Sarah, who found it difficult even getting 16mm film. “With the photos it was about volume. With the film we only shot when we really had what we wanted.”
Sarah, who had a team of more than 40 people working with her, is now tasked with sifting through the photos and finding a link. A link between shape perhaps, or color.
“We have our desires encoded in our choices,” said Sarah. “We were very much like worker bees in this project. In order to survive, roses need to attract the bees, so they became the most beautiful. That’s why roses are associated with love. Beauty calls copies of itself into existence. When something is beautiful, you want to draw it or photograph it.”
Sarah plans to use the pressed rose petals as wall art to premier at an upcoming exhibit, and would like to use the film, meant to be a sort of art reality television, as documentation of the event. And the photos? To be decided by Sarah later.
“I’m not for or against anything that comes out of this project,” said Sarah. “I wanted people, and myself, to be confronted and feel different things. So many things went into this project and so many things can come out.”
Architecture, design and art. At Bell Works, they are one.
Roses at Bell isn’t the only artistic thing to happen in the Bell Works building. The space has attracted director Daniel Arsham who chose the building to shoot several scenes for the film Future Relic ‘03” starring James Franco and Juliette Lewis. Arsham, a fan of Saarinen’s work, deemed the 473-acre site the “perfect location.” It’s also the kind of space that drew country singer Tim McGraw and his crew to feature Bell and its sprawling grass fields as backdrop for the cover of the singer’s 14th album, Damn Country Music.
And Roses certainly won’t be the last expression of art that happens in this historic backdrop.
Interested in using Bell Works as a space for artistic work? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 732-226-8818.