The particles collide, gleaming like melting ice, bouncing and reconstituting. Flowers, spiky and delicate, meander through the coruscating field. Fog settles in, blue and green and red and yellow.
This visual dreamscape, which evokes water without literally representing it, would be mesmerizing enough in a gallery or museum.
But it will be laid out along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. And it's inspired by Ben Franklin himself.
Jennifer Steinkamp's Winter Fountains are four enormous domes – she calls them "giants" – that are now rising on both sides of the Parkway as part of its centennial celebration. Starting Thursday, they will be covered in nighttime displays of fluid digital projections.
There will be one dome outside the Franklin Institute, one outside the Rodin Museum, one outside the Park Towne Place Residences, and one at the Spring Garden triangle across from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Each 4,500-pound, fiberglass dome is 13 feet high and 26 feet wide. They'll be on display through March 18.
Steinkamp came up with the concept after months of study in the bowels of the Parkway institutions, seeking some insight into the meaning of the road and the city and the past and future.
"I did rummage," the 58-year-old artist said by phone the other day from her Los Angeles studio. "I went through so many museums and libraries, websites, collections, the Horticultural Society, dinosaur bones," she said. It led her into the byways of the city's past — its role in the Lewis and Clark expedition, for instance, serving as Meriwether Lewis' base for botanical study.
But nothing seemed quite right.
The Parkway Council has been heading a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the road, and Steinkamp's charge, from the Association of Public Art, which commissioned her for the project, was to illuminate the Parkway and to "respond to its design while acknowledging the cultural institutions" that line it, said Penny Balkin Bach, the association's executive director and chief curator.
After all the research, Steinkamp had her eureka! moment, a moment that has struck countless others before her, with diminishing success:
"I started thinking static electricity and lightning are the same thing, which is something he discovered – small particles bump into each other and become lightning," she said. "It's how electricity forms in the clouds. That was the inspiration."
Bach allows she had misgivings, which she did not hesitate to share with the artist.
" 'Jennifer, Jennifer! You have no idea,' " Bach recalls saying. " 'Be careful!' "
But there was no need for caution. Steinkamp conceived a pure metaphor for Franklin's genius, which makes no visual allusion to its source. Franklin is not mentioned in any way. It is his forward-looking intellect that she has rendered, infused by the institutions — the collections, the research libraries, the rarities that fill the Parkway institutions – that fill the city's past and provide grist for its future.
Thanks to all of those old institutions, Steinkamp has been inspired to create a dreamy animated cascade of the Parkway's identity, glimmering and changing in the dark night.
Her original concept was to have domes covering the Parkway's fountains, which, of course, are dry in the winter. That proved impractical and costly. So Steinkamp came up with a different idea of fountains.
The little digital particles are covered with digitized ice, she said, which "gives them a glisteny feel." It appears that water is moving across the surface of the animated dreamscapes of the domes and the ice on the particles is melting away.
It appears, she said, that the surface is melting.
But the surfaces will not actually be melting. All is created by Steinkamp's meticulous digital projections. The surface of each dome will be animated by images from four projectors.
During the day, when there will be no animation, Steinkamp will jazz up the fiberglass structures by having the fabricator, Edon Corp. of Horsham, embed glitter.
"You have to go right up to see the glitter, but I thought it would make it more interesting in the daylight," she said.
Bach is more than delighted with the piece, which the Parkway Council has deemed the centerpiece of its centennial celebration.
"The imagery is obviously a metaphor for water flowing," Bach said. "But also it speaks to the fact that creative and scientific inquiry are very similar."
And Steinkamp surely evokes Franklin, Bach said.