‘Anything is possible’ at the Bemis

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June 20th, 2012

Omaha, NE – The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts is readying one of the largest exhibition undertakings of the studio’s history. The piece required months of work restructuring the Bemis’ five-storey building downtown to produce one of nature’s simplest works of art.

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Standing next to six enormous black drums outside the Bemis Center’s warehouse-style building downtown, Hesse McGraw pointed to the towering storage tanks, and said each holds 10,500 gallons of water. McGraw is the chief curator of the Bemis Center, and for the last few months, he’s been testing his general contracting skills.

The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts has installed a water system that harvests and recycles rainwater from the rooftop of its building. (Photo credit Larry Gawel/Bemis Center)

“These tanks collect all the water that comes off of our roof,” he said, and as of this week, they’re full. “The vulnerabilities of the project are inherent.”

The project is one of the largest exhibitions undertaken by the Bemis in its 30-year history. Partnering with general contractors, plumbers and water landscaping and technology companies, the Bemis has installed a massive new water system that collects and recycles rainwater from the rooftop of the building. Last year, as record rainfalls flooded the nearby Missouri River, harvesting water would have been simple. This year, dealing with near drought conditions has made it more difficult. “It required us to adjust our water use models and optimize the way we recapture the water.”

Anything is possible

The project is the concept of Micronesia-born artist Michael Jones McKean, who was inspired by an installation he worked on where he inadvertently created a rainbow. “So in about 2008, we asked Michael if it was possible to present this work publicly, he’d never done so before,” McGraw said. “Michael sent back a very small sketch and just wrote on the sketch, ‘Anything is possible.’”

Concept sketch, 2009 of the rainbow above the Bemis Center, by Michael Jones McKean.

“We try to embrace that ethos that anything is possible,” he said. “We want to say yes to artists regardless of the scale of their ambitions.”

McKean’s water system extends from the rooftop of the building, through the mostly-unused top floor and into the main gallery, where a sprawling pump system – looking modern in silver polished paint – sends the harvested water through a UV filtration system. And then, fires it back up.

“So it pressurizes the water to 300 psi (pounds per square inch),” he said. “The water runs up this galvanized line to the roof and these switches control the nozzles on the roof.” There are nine nozzles on the rooftop, and beginning Friday, they will fire a stream of water 150 feet in the air, forming a rainbow arched across the Bemis’ rooftop.

“The rainbow as an image is something that’s been commodified (sic), branded and politicized,” McGraw said. “But when you take a step back and consider it, it still has the capacity of magic and wonder.”
The project creates an experience of “science, ecology and wonder,” he said, a “point of hope in the sky” that encourages people to look up – and away from their smart phones.

The Rainbow” tested above the Bemis Center on Oct. 28, 2011. (Photo credit Hesse McGraw/Bemis Center)

“The moments when we’ve done tests and had a crowd appear were almost magical in itself,” he said. “There’s a moment in which you’re standing on the street looking at the sky, and people are pulling off the road, they’re coming out of their apartments or businesses and really collecting… I think there’s something about this project which really makes one aware of their physical presence within an urban location. That’s a pretty powerful thing.”

The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts will exhibit The Rainbow: Certain Principles of Light and Shapes Between Forms beginning Friday evening at 6pm. Exact display times will vary depending on the weather. A panel discussion and opening reception takes place Saturday night.

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