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Illuminating the Landscape

Accompanied by an electronic music score specifically composed for “Electric Desert,” artist Ricardo Rivera projects light and moving images—and even uses mirrors—to create what he calls “a chaos bomb of beauty.”

Desert Botanical Garden’s latest exhibit turns up the energy with video, lights and music.

By Shannon Severson | Photography by Kevin Ritchie

Philadelphia-based artist Ricardo Rivera can’t recall a time in his life that he didn’t want to tell immersive stories using images, light and sound. “I was a weirdo kid in a country town who wanted to make movies,” he says. “I grew up in Delaware as the son of immigrant parents without a single artist in my family background. My college film professor, who became a mentor, was really the first one who introduced me to the idea of film as art. He saw something in me and gave me the confidence and the tools to make it a career.”

Rivera’s passion for film eventually merged with a love of electronic music, and while working as a video jockey, he became obsessed with projectors and what he calls “video mapping,” which turns irregular-shaped objects into display surfaces. “I started producing visuals at raves during the ’90s. I was basically doing installations in warehouses, visualizing music and projecting it into weird spaces,” he says. In the early 2000s, Rivera developed a technologically painstaking 3D project mapping process, for which he holds five patents. “Now I’m projecting onto a butte in the middle of the desert.”

Using cacti, desert plants and the arid Sonoran landscape as his canvas, the artist will be showcasing his innovative work in Phoenix beginning Oct. 12 as Desert Botanical Garden debuts his most recent immersive installation, “Electric Desert.”

This latest exhibit comes on the heels of Rivera’s first major garden sound and light experience, “Nightscape,” at famed Longwood Gardens, just outside of Philadelphia, in 2016. 

“Nightscape blended moving imagery, projections technology, music and our gardens—and the result was amazing,” says Longwood President and CEO Paul B. Redman. “Ricardo and his team created imaginative installations, both on a grand scale and in more intimate moments throughout the gardens, from the whimsical transformation of our topiaries into musical instruments to the awe-inspiring journey through the seasons projected onto the trees of our large lake.”

A moody and mysterious illuminated path leads Longwood guests through a densely foliated hedge tunnel. This element of mystery also plays a leading role in “Electric Desert” at Desert Botanical Gardens.

It was at this former farm of philanthropist and renowned horticulturist Pierre S. du Pont where Desert Botanical Garden Executive Director Ken Schutz discovered Rivera’s work and knew he had to bring it west for the Phoenix audience.

“I saw the exhibit and fell in love with it,” Schutz says. “We’ve spent two years in planning to bring Rivera’s art to Phoenix. Here, he is using the same technology and creating all new imagery, adding new music and projecting it onto a different screen, if you will. It’s like Peter Max in motion.”

Rivera created his first garden exhibit, “Nightscape,” for Longwood Gardens in 2016. At the attraction’s Large Lake, a 10-minute-long symphony of sound and imagery, featuring trees, plants, fish and fireflies leaping and soaring above the water, was so moving it inspired several on-the-spot marriage proposals.

Projecting onto objects with varying planes and at varying distances requires every ray of light, every leaf, and every surface of every cactus to be individually measured and mapped so that the images are fully in focus, regardless of the distance from the projector. 

“The crazy thing is that it’s a literal collaboration with the plant,” says Rivera. “The shape of the object is meeting me halfway. What we get in the end is a combination, not just of what I’m projecting but also of how that projection is affected by the shape of what it’s displayed on.

“For example, when I shine a completely symmetrical image onto an agave, a twisting, rotation effect naturally happens because of the plant, even though the projection isn’t moving at all. It’s a chaos bomb of beauty.”

I immediately fell in love with Desert Botanical Garden. It blew my mind the first time I walked through it.”

—Ricardo Rivera, artist

1. Sculptural blue agave plants change hues with light projected from above. 2. Above right Rivera created a 3D model of Desert Botanical Garden’s massive butte. Every cacti and shrub was meticulously measured for the exhibit’s spectacular centerpiece. “Installation art is tough because you can’t see it fully realized until it’s finished,” says Rivera. “My work is intricate and intense, but the temporal nature of it is what makes it special.” 3. A barrel cactus is an ideal canvas for Rivera’s projection mapping. Its symmetrical spines and curvature create the effect of kaleidoscopic movement even though the light remains stationary.

In order for Rivera to complete his mapping, which he does with the aid of 3D models, all elements of the installation had to be “frozen” in place. Nothing can be moved or rearranged until the exhibit concludes.  This makes slow-growing desert plants the perfect foil for his art.

“I immediately fell in love with Desert Botanical Garden,” recalls Rivera fondly. “This is such an amazing space. It blew my mind the first time I walked through it. I’ve always loved succulents and cacti. They’re great for projection mapping; they just make a lot of sense.”

Rivera mounts his projectors on every available structure, trellis and tree so that visitors are surrounded by the sensory experience.
Part of the planning process was exploration, getting the feel and flow of the space. Rivera doesn’t like things to be too linear. 
“Electric Desert” winds its way through seven different installations; each one has sound and music accompaniment by Berlin-based musical artist, Julian Grafe. Most are abstract and visceral, as Rivera weaves a visual language across different plants and textures. Some, such as the Cactus Gallery, are incredibly intense, whereas the Meditation Garden, which Rivera describes as a “hidden treasure,” is subtle and Zen-like. The Succulent Gallery features lighting design by Drew Billiau, director of design and technology for Opera Philadelphia.

The Butte, which Schutz describes as a “masterpiece,” features a light show that is more composed and emotional—and runs every 20 minutes—with animated representations of hummingbirds, snakes and cacti. Guests can view the Butte while wandering through the garden from both the front, on Ullman Terrace, and from the side, on Sonoran Desert Nature Loop Trail for two unique experiences.

Here for only seven months—“Electric Desert” closes on May 12, 2019—the event’s temporality and site specificity are part of what makes it special. Rivera has created a magical world that he wants each viewer to explore, experience and take from it what they will.

“Discovery is a huge part of what we like to tap into when we build these experiences,” he says. “I like that feeling of getting lost for a second and then chancing upon this beautiful installation. There’s magic in that.” 

For more information, see Sources.
A light and sound experience by Klip Collective
Dates: Oct. 12, 2018 through May 12, 2019
Hours: Doors open at 6 p.m.; exhibit is best viewed after dark.
Tickets go on sale Sept. 24.
Ticket prices: $24.95-$29.95/adults; $12.95-$15.95/ages 3-17

An all-day pass that includes daytime admission to the garden is available for $34.95-$39.95/adults; $19.95-$22.95/youth.
Admission is free for garden members.
For more information, call (480) 941-1225.


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