Why does this giant metal flower in Austin open and close at different times of day?
This story was originally published on November 30, 2017.
At the corner of Airport Boulevard and Schieffer Avenue, there’s something that sticks out. Next to the community garden and skate park in Patterson Park, there’s a giant metal flower, surrounded by a colorful concrete mosaic. On a pole nearby, there’s a plaque shaped like a leaf that explains — kind of.
"DANCE OF THE COSMOS BY JENNIFER CHENOWETH, ROBERT WHITEHURST, JOHN DOLECEK OF FISTERRA STUDIO 2015"
The piece was moved to Patterson Park earlier this year from its temporary home at the Elisabet Ney Museum in Hyde Park. That’s where it caught the eye of Candace Bunkley.
“Where the statue was, I would see it on my way to work, on my way to the grocery store, when I was going out to a restaurant, when I was meeting friends,” she says. But sometimes the petals on the metal flower were open; sometimes they were closed. She became obsessed with finding out why.
“It was a mystery to me,” she says. “I would think about it every day on my drive. I wanted to know: Why is it opening and why is it closing? And then, who is opening and closing it?”
So Bunkley asked about it for our ATXplained project.
'Whole Flower Of Experience'
Finding the artist behind the flower was easy enough. Jennifer Chenoweth is the first one listed on the plaque next to the piece.
The contemporary artist created it as part of her XYZ Atlas project, which mapped Austin’s “collective experiences.”
The idea is to represent a kind of emotional wholeness, she says. It came about out of frustration, really. Chenoweth said she had a hard time dealing with much of the negativity in the world. Disasters. Tragedy. Violence.
But through this work – and other pieces in her XYZ Atlas project – she tried to express something that reflected the spectrum of emotions. The good and the bad. The dark and the light.
“This was a way for me to kind of like, get that in my gut," Chenoweth says, "and to understand that there really is beauty in all of it, even if there is horror in some of it.”
“So it’s a way to embrace an idea that your life is actually a whole flower of experience,” she says.
The colorful tiles in Dance of the Cosmos – and this idea of a “whole flower” of emotional experience – comes back to another preoccupation of Chenoweth’s.
“I’m really interested in a psychological theory of emotional wholeness created by Robert Plutchik in 1980," she says. "And he drew a diagram using words about how your emotions are connected and relational.”
Plutchik's Theory Of Emotion
Plutchik first came up with his theory of emotion back in the late 1950s. He proposed that there are eight basic emotions — four opposing pairs. Joy and sorrow. Anger and fear. Acceptance and disgust. Surprise and expectancy.
In 1980, he wrote:
“If there are eight basic emotion dimensions (each with a number of synonyms or related terms), how can we account for the total language of emotions? Various published studies imply that the few hundred emotion words tend to fall into families based on similarity. If we follow the pattern used in color theory and research, we can obtain judgments about combinations – the emotions that result when two or more fundamental emotions are combined, in the same way red and blue make purple. Judges in these studies have agreed that mixing joy and acceptance produces the mixed emotion of love; disgust plus anger produces hatred or hostility. Such mixtures have been called the primary dyads in the theory. One can continue on in this way and account for hundreds of emotion terms by mixing two or more emotions at different levels of intensity.”
He came up with a visual to illustrate it.
“What he did was to create a cone, where the elements on the cone are the different emotions, and the higher up you go, the more intense the emotions are,” says Art Markman, a psychologist at UT-Austin. “And so, those [emotions] sit on opposite sides of the cone and when you flatten that cone out ... it becomes a flower.”
Chenoweth reimagined Plutchik’s design and changed the colors slightly for Dance of the Cosmos.
But back to our original question from Candace Bunkley:
Why is the flower opening and closing? And who is opening and closing it?
It goes back to Chenoweth's idea of that “whole flower of experience.”
“Even in a whole flower of experience, sometimes we’re open and sometimes we’re closed,” she says. It’s all part of the Dance of the Cosmos.
“The cosmos is you, the cosmos is everything we’re in. It’s a microcosm, it’s a macrocosm," she says. "So, I feel like dance is that dance of life — birth and death, opening and closing, growth and renewal, creation and destruction.”
That's the why. But who is doing it?
Turns out, the flower opens and closes itself. That pole with the leaf-shaped plaque on it has a solar panel that sits atop it. During the day, it collects the sun’s energy. At night, it powers a device inside the base of the flower, which closes the petals. In the morning, it opens back up.
Back when Bunkley saw it in Hyde Park, there were some issues with the mechanism that opens and closes it, so it would be open or closed for days, which explains why it seemed so random at the time. That’s not a problem in its new home in Patterson Park.
I brought Chenoweth to meet Bunkley at the Dance of the Cosmos. She explained the thinking behind the flower's opening and closing – that idea of emotional wholeness.
“When it opens it’s really uplifting and joyous. And then when it closes, it’s just like 'Awwww.' It really is closure,” Chenoweth says.
“I totally get what you mean,” Bunkley says. “Because some days, I would just be my best self and be driving down the road and be like, ‘The flower is open! Yes! This reflects my day.’”