How Artist Sarah Meyohas Transformed 100,000 Rose Petals Into a Steely Critique of Big Data

Get lost in Sarah Meyohas's digital cloud of petals.

Sarah Meyohas, photograph by Charlie Rubin.
Sarah Meyohas, photograph by Charlie Rubin.

Don’t be fooled by the title of Sarah Meyohas’s current exhibition, “Cloud of Petals,” which seems to suggest a stereotypically girly flower display. On the contrary, the artist approaches roses from a no-nonsense, analytical perspective, informed by her clear-eyed take on the commercial aspect of the floral business—a far cry from the romance and femininity typically associated with such fragrant blooms.

“Yes, roses are a super symbol of love and beauty, but they are also a big business product,” Meyohas told artnet News during a visit to Red Bull Arts New York, where she was hard at work installing the show, which opened to the public October 12.

The exhibition is the outgrowth of a project that began last year at Bell Labs in Holmdel, New Jersey, once a site of major scientific and technological innovation as the headquarters of the telephone and information giant. When Meyohas first set foot inside the historic, Eero Saarinen-designed space—then empty ahead of its conversion into Bell Works, a new multi-purpose development—the 26-year-old artist had no idea what she was getting herself into.

Film still from Sarah Meyohas's Cloud of Petals (2017). Courtesy of the artist and Red Bull Arts New York.

Film still from Sarah Meyohas’s Cloud of Petals (2017). Courtesy of the artist and Red Bull Arts New York.

A photographer acquaintance who had worked on a fashion shoot at the abandoned research and development facility had told Meyohas about the space. Within days, the artist was there visiting, brimming with ideas for potential new work. Bell Labs became the venue for an ambitious and carefully documented performance/data-collecting mission in which Meyohas hired workers to sort 10,000 flowers’ worth of roses, sorting the petals according to their perceived beauty. Before long, that three-day project, held last August, snowballed into something much bigger.

“The project kept revealing itself to me,” Meyohas explained of the work’s evolution.

Film still from Sarah Meyohas's Cloud of Petals (2017). Courtesy of the artist and Red Bull Arts New York.

Film still from Sarah Meyohas’s Cloud of Petals (2017). Courtesy of the artist and Red Bull Arts New York.

A little less than a year later, the artist is presenting her most ambitious and largest exhibition to date. The show includes her first film, her first virtual reality works, and, save for a few self-described “shitty” grad school projects, her first sculpture.

It sounds ambitious because it is—but Meyohas has never been afraid of tackling new challenges. The art world first took notice of her cleverly named cryptocurrency, Bitch Coin, which literally turned her artwork into a commodity. More recently, you may have heard of her attempt to turn the stock market into art, making paintings based on the rise and fall of share prices. (During the exhibition’s run, her broker, Charles Schwab, dropped her as a client.)

Detail, Bell Vitrines from "Sarah Meyohas: Cloud of Petals". Courtesy of the artist and Red Bull Arts.

Detail, Bell Vitrines from “Sarah Meyohas: Cloud of Petals”. Courtesy of the artist and Red Bull Arts.

“Cloud of Petals” is just as conceptually driven as her earlier works, despite being a radical departure in subject and form.

The 100,000 petals selected and photographed at Bell Labs became Meyohas’s data set, a jumping-off point for the artist’s ruminations on human subjectivity, automation, and artificial intelligence, among other concepts.

Installation view, detail Most Beautiful Petals from "Sarah Meyohas: Cloud of Petals". Courtesy of the artist and Red Bull Arts.

Installation view, detail Most Beautiful Petals from “Sarah Meyohas: Cloud of Petals.” Courtesy of the artist and Red Bull Arts.

There are two walls covered in pressed rose petals, the ones judged most beautiful by her performance team, who she mostly hired from a local temp agency called Man Power, rather than enlisting artist types.

“This one guy Rodwin only wanted to pick the strangest petals as beautiful,” Meyohas recalled, pointing to several torn and ragged specimens, out of place amid the full, perfect-looking petals favored by the other workers.

Installation view, Sarah Meyohas's Bell Vitrines. Photo: Lance Brewer, courtesy of Sarah Meyohas and Red Bull Arts.

Installation view, Sarah Meyohas’s Bell Vitrines. Photo: Lance Brewer, courtesy of Sarah Meyohas and Red Bull Arts.

The walls serve as a physical artifact of the performance (which was held in private), and pair nicely with Meyohas’s sculptures—mirrored infinity boxes made from discarded wall paneling from Bell Labs. The works, which feel like futuristic portals out of some kind of retro science fiction movie, are inspired by the building’s mirrored glass and feature wiring scavenged from the old Bell Labs switchboards.

Meyohas had asked if she could take the wires last year but had been rebuffed. On a recent return visit, building management changed their mind—a lucky thing, as she needed something to fill her infinity boxes.

Detail, Bell Vitrines from "Sarah Meyohas: Cloud of Petals". Courtesy of the artist and Red Bull Arts.

Detail, Bell Vitrines from “Sarah Meyohas: Cloud of Petals”. Courtesy of the artist and Red Bull Arts.

“At first I wanted them to be super stark,” Meyohas explained, but once she saw them in the gallery, she knew they needed something more. The tangle of colored wires, presumably once an integral part of our nation’s communication system, was the missing piece.

In the back room, visitors can relive the grueling flower-sorting project in a meditative half-hour film that showcases the gutted interior of Bell Labs, populated only by Meyohas’s small staff. There are plenty of close-ups of flowers being torn apart, but Meyohas also zooms in on the computer screen, the images of the petals suddenly reduced to indecipherable pixels.

One of Sarah Meyohas's VR pieces. Courtesy of the artist and Red Bull Arts New York.

One of Sarah Meyohas’s VR pieces. Courtesy of the artist and Red Bull Arts New York.

Downstairs are six different virtual reality headsets, with which you can interact with the titular petal cloud as it floats through the digital void. Meyohas fed her rose petals/data points into a machine learning system, for instance, which then generated digital petals of its own.

The scent of roses hangs in the air, a floral, musky blend specially created for the show by a perfumer. (Meyohas has also enlisted the expertise of others to direct the film and generate the VR pieces.)

Film still from Sarah Meyohas's <i>Cloud of Petals</i> (2017). Courtesy of the artist and Red Bull Arts New York.

Film still from Sarah Meyohas’s Cloud of Petals (2017). Courtesy of the artist and Red Bull Arts New York.

Meyohas has hopes of traveling “Cloud of Petals” to additional venues, but she is also finished with the project—at least in one regard. “You know,” she said, “roses don’t do it for me anymore.”


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