In my last post, I described a brief history of artists throughout the ages – musicians, architects, sculptors – who have created a variety of works of art powered by the wind.
In this post, I shift our focus to contemporary artists who are re-imagining solar energy as an art form. In particular, I am fascinated by those artists who, at the dawn of the Anthropocene, have adopted the ubiquitous rectangular blue solar photovoltaic (PV) panel as an artistic medium in and of itself. It was only a matter of time…
Berlin-based magazine The Beam, in collaboration with the Little Sun Foundation and Street Art Berlin, launched the Solar Panel Art Series in 2017, the first international art exhibit of painted solar PV panels. The Beam invited over 40 artists and designers from around the world to create works of art using recycled solar panels as their canvas. The exhibited panels were sold via online auction to benefit the Solar Kids School Program, one of the many programs of the Little Sun Foundation co-founded by the Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson. The goal of the Solar Kids School Program is to provide safe and sustainable light and phone charging to students and teachers in off-grid schools in rural Rwanda.
It is important to note that the painted solar panels sold online via The Beam’s Solar Panel Art Series do not generate electricity. However, two groups of artists in the United States have already demonstrated that it is indeed possible to generate electricity through the marriage of solar technology and artistic creativity.
In Chicago, the Nigerian-American social-impact artist Shala. uses the profits from his media company and multimedia installations to fund solar-powered art installations and murals that provide lighting in underprivileged areas. For example, in 2017 Shala. collaborated with high school students from ComEd’s 2017 Solar Spotlight Program to design the Solar Spotlight Pyramid, the world’s first solar pyramid that generates electricity using decorated PV panels.
Students worked with ComEd mentors to design more than 240 urban “hieroglyphics” that represented their historic Bronzeville neighborhood. This 7-foot tall by 15-feet wide pyramid was installed in the summer of 2017 in Gallery Guichard’s Great Migration Sculpture Garden in Bronzeville.
According to Shala., “People have always felt that a lot of power comes from pyramids, especially in ancient times. A pyramid also has a strong foundation. That imagery will mean something to people.”
In Texas, the Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI), which I have written about previously here and here, unveiled the world’s first solar mural installation – La Monarca – in November 2017. Designed by San Antonio artist Cruz Ortiz under the creative direction of Penelope Boyer, La Monarca raises awareness of the plight of the Monarch butterfly while at the same time generating clean electricity to feed into the local power grid.
The La Monarca solar mural is composed of a group of four solar panels, each 66” x 40”. The image for each panel was printed onto a special solar-energy-producing film that visually masks the standard dark blue solar cells. Produced by Sistine Solar, this film allows sunlight to reach the solar module underneath so that the silicon cells can generate electricity. See the LAGI website for more images of the technical process involved to produce these artistic solar panels.
To date, La Monarca has been exhibited in two locations: in November 2017 at Luminaria, San Antonio’s 10th annual Contemporary Arts Festival, and in March 2018 at the San Antonio Zoo’s Monarch Fest. La Monarca, the first panel of a planned “swarm” of Monarch butterfly-inspired solar panels to be installed throughout the City of San Antonio, will find a permanent home later this year inside a pollinator garden on the EPIcenter campus along the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River where it will generate clean electricity that will feed directly into the property’s power supply.
As the global energy transition picks up speed, I look forward to reporting here how other artists are experimenting with recycled and upcycled solar PV panels in new and innovative ways. The Beam, Shala. and LAGI were the first to adopt solar panels as artistic canvas. I can’t wait to see what the second wave will bring. Stay tuned.
(Top image: Two solar panels created by Korean artist Choi, Jin-youn downloaded from The Beam website.)
This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.
Joan Sullivan is a renewable energy photographer based in Québec, Canada. Since 2009, Joan has focused her cameras (and more recently her drones) exclusively on the energy transition. Her goal is to create positive images and stories that help us embrace the tantalizing concept that the Holy Grail is finally within reach: a 100% post-carbon economy within our lifetimes. Joan collaborates frequently with filmmakers on documentary films that explore the human side of the energy transition. She is currently working on a photo book about the energy transition. Her renewable energy photos have been exhibited in group shows in Canada, Italy and the UK. You can find Joan on Twitter and Instagram.