Art and Technology: Funded by the Sun

During a Year of Ecological Advocacy, Vienna Turns an Exhibition into a Political Statement

On The Town | Christian Cummins | November 2007

The illuminated trees outside of the Museum of Applied Arts on the Ring, takes on solar power as an art form (Photo: Christian Cummins)

A soupy mist of diesel fumes hangs in the wet morning air. It’s the back-end of morning rush hour in front of the MAK, the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts, and there’s still not a gap to be seen in the roaring four lanes of traffic that’s moodily accelerating and hooting its way along the Ring towards the Stadtpark.

This noise, this poisonous weight of traffic is an "evil," says conceptual artist Ross Lovegrove. It’s a necessary evil perhaps, but it’s "violence" nonetheless. And then there’s Lovegrove’s antidote to this mayhem – a row of so-called "solar trees" lining the roadside.

Just looking at the "trees" makes you feel cheerful during these late autumn days. The vivid green of the stalk-like branches provides a welcome contrast to the mournful colors of a damp late autumn. At first glance they look like a row of space-age celery bunches – each stalk holding proudly aloft a bluish dish, like the arms of a waiter at a busy cocktail party.

"There they are - my silent trees," says Lovegrove proudly.

This is not art for art’s sake. It’s 2007 - the year of ecological advocacy; the year that the Nobel Peace Prize was dedicated to the struggle against climate change; and this project along the Ring is a cross between an outdoor exhibition and a statement of political intent.

"The trees are funded by the sun," explains Lovegrove, "absorbing the light during the day and giving it back to society during the night for free."

A simple concept backed up by complicated technology involving an intricate web of steel pipes, light bubbles and sophisticated solar cells. Lovegrove says the project shows "that it is possible to create beautiful things using the most advanced technology."

The designer would like us to take his solar trees very seriously. He sees them as a "metaphor for change". Okay, it might only power a few street lamps now, but the trees can serve as living ambassadors for ‘urban transformation’.

As you drive past his eye-catching project, you’re treated to a daily reminder that the power of the natural world is there to be harvested, whether it be solar power or wind energy or any other renewable source of power. The technology that powers the trees could and should, he says, be incorporated into all aspects of our modern lives. Green technology should be in our cars and our trains and even in our architecture.

Lovegrove, who grew up in the wild countryside along the Welsh coast, says the age-old lessons of the natural world should be an inspiration for all futuristic designers. He points out that evolution, the survival of the fittest, has been a procedure of refinement and improvement, if something is wasteful, not needed for survival, future generations will shed it:

"There is nothing extraneous." And the solutions of nature tend to be aesthetically attractive: "You don’t see many ugly trees."

This is all terribly high-minded, but the solar tree project is refreshingly fun. Ecology isn’t just about forbearance, it seems, it can also be a celebration.

I went back to the MAK at night and cycled underneath the garishly lit branches of the solar tree. Metaphor for change or not, the experience gave me a frisson of childish pleasure. It’s certainly a great deal sexier than a recycling bin.

"All these things should be glamorized," says Lovegrove. "Sustainability has to become fashionable so that people buy into things that can do some good."

Call it a gimmick if you will, but Lovegrove has an important point to make here. The technology of solar power has been around for a long time, but, like many renewable energy sources, it has failed to capture the public’s imagination.

Maybe art projects such as this have negligible environmental impact, but their value in challenging perceptions shouldn’t be underestimated.

As environmentalists drum the dangers of climate change into our heads, it can be refreshing to see projects that work on a sense of fantasy rather than anxiety. Fear alone is not enough. People need to believe in the future. To harness the power of nature, as Ross Lovegrove points out, we also "need to harvest our own potential."

In the battle ahead, our imagination may be the most potent weapon we have.


Solar Trees was created by Ross Lovegrove and developed and produced by the design group Artemide in collaboration with the technology company Sharp Solar.

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