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Everyday Objects Become ‘Extra’ in New Exploratorium Exhibit

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Four people smile up at lit sculpture made of light bulbs with chains dangling around them
Visitors under Caitlind r.c. Brown and Wayne Garrett's 'CLOUD,' 2012. (Ida Tietgen Høyrup/Exploratorium)

The Exploratorium, the 55-year-old San Francisco institution full of frenetic energy, hands-on science and roving gangs of ecstatic children, might not seem like a place for visual art. And it’s true this museum doesn’t contain the sort of white-walled, hushed gallery spaces you find in certain cultural institutions.

But what the Exploratorium does provide in terms of a viewing environment is perhaps more immediate and compelling: art that is accessible to all ages, and finds guests in the midst of other discoveries to broaden their understanding of what art is.

ExtraOrdinary!, the museum’s newest exhibition of seven artists and collectives, meets all of the above criteria. Tied together by bright pink signage and lighting across several zones of the museum, this is a show of artwork made from everyday materials. The artists have taken cotton balls, wooden blocks, Lego bricks, burned-out lightbulbs and so much yarn, and turned them into sculptures, installations and interactive artworks.

Some of the pleasure in ExtraOrdinary! comes from seeing generally available materials achieve surprising shifts in scale. The Slow Art Collective’s Bamboo Weaving Star, a massive shelter-like structure made from criss-crossing poles and dangling yarn, invites visitors to weave, braid and knot to their heart’s content. The project is a bit like making potholders and friendship bracelets for giants; its cozy ambiance offers a calm area for focused activity within the bustle of the museum.

People walk under hanging strings in rainbow colors
Visitors under HOTTEA’s ‘Analog Technicolor,’ 2024. (Courtesy of the Exploratorium)

Further along the museum’s long pier, HOTTEA’s yarn installation, a three-dimensional “color picker” from the world of digital design, hangs from a wire grid near the pier’s ceiling, dangling single strings in nearly every shade imaginable over the heads of those walking or lounging below. In this part of the museum, with its taller ceiling and less dense exhibits, Analog Technicolor acts like a diffuse color bath, a bit of soothing amid all the ongoing stimulation.


At the other end of the experiential spectrum (pun intended), ExtraOrdinary! demonstrates how magnitude can yield an audible, physical presence. Zimoun’s 405 prepared dc motors, cotton balls, cardboard boxes 46x46x46 creates a wall of sound, as its title signals, with cotton balls and cardboard boxes. Small motors that originally wound up window shades send the cotton balls on a tight back-and-forth arc lighty pounding against the empty cubes. Together the 405 drums create a chamber of deep tectonic rumbling.

If one half of the show is about experiments in scale, the other half is about the kind of alchemy artists achieve with everyday materials, taking recognizable things and turning them, convincingly, into something completely different.

People walk past a wall display of lit wooden blocks that create a shadow silhouette
A view of Kumi Yamashita’s ‘Building Blocks,’ 2014. (Courtesy of the Exploratorium)

The most stunning of these is Kumi Yamashita’s Building Blocks, a simple wall installation of custom-made wooden blocks — the arches, cylinders and cubes used to build imaginary cities — that, when arranged and lit just so, create a child’s silhouette. The entire display evokes a near magical feeling: hard edges become the soft curves of a face, 3D abstract objects morph into an immediately recognizable 2D thing.

Similar transmutations take place in Caitlind r.c. Brown and Wayne Garrett’s CLOUD (light bulbs become a lightning-filled storm cloud) and Ekow Nimako’s Building Black Mythos: DIVINITIES (ordinary Lego bricks become figures from African mythology).

But it’s Willie Cole’s Masks that are the most fun of the “transformation” bunch. The artist takes shoes found in thrift stores and reassembles them into charismatic, dragon-like masks. As you look at them, Cole’s sculptures play a delightful perceptual game, bouncing back and forth between individual parts and their new identity as a whole.

Two people stand in front of sculptures made of used shoes
Visitors in front of Willie Cole’s ‘Masks.’ (Courtesy of the Exploratorium)

In true Exploratorium fashion, ExtraOrdinary! also extends into hands-on activities in the museum’s Pop-Up Workshop. In collaboration with Community Science Workshops, visitors can make their own mini, DIY versions of popular Exploratorium exhibits (including a variation on Ned Kahn’s Cloud Rings) using low-cost materials. These instructions are also available online.

Artists know there is no such thing as an “off-limit” material in the realm of visual art. Food, earth, animals, their own bodies — it’s all fair game when it comes to expression. But most visitors to the Exploratorium, especially the youngest of the bunch, may think of art as a block of time in their school day, one that involves pencils, paint and paper. ExtraOrdinary! is an introduction to the vast artistic possibilities inherent in even the most commonplace stuff, and an invitation to start thinking of that stuff in a different, transformative way.

ExtraOrdinary!’ in on view at the Exploratorium (Pier 15, San Francisco) through Sept. 8, 2024.

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