New HSIB art installation challenges viewers’ perceptions

Sept. 14, 2023

Jim Campbell’s Untangled Shadows is the latest addition to the El Mirador Project, a visionary merging of art, health care education and creativity.

In the fast-paced world of health care and health care education, it's easy for medical students and professionals to become focused on innovative science and technology. However, effective care also requires connecting with patients on a deeper level to understand their fears, concerns and emotions.

Housed within the University of Arizona Health Sciences Innovation Building is the El Mirador Project, a visionary public art program spearheaded by Michael D. Dake, MD, senior vice president for the University of Arizona Health Sciences. It recognizes the transformative power of art to nurture empathy, observational skills and critical thinking in students, faculty, staff and the community.

Renowned video artist Jim Campbell was commissioned to create an original LED light sculpture for El Mirador. Campbell, who is best known for his electronic low-resolution abstract imagery, has many of his works displayed in other public collections such as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

"My works tend to be more about perception than they are about the content of the imagery within them," said Campbell. He added that successful pieces create a sense of magic that draws viewers in, challenging them to understand their own perceptual processes.

For the HSIB piece Untangled Shadows, Campbell drew inspiration from birds. The soaring open space of HSIB and the elevated location of the installation, combined with its dynamic nature, reminded him of the ethereal quality of clouds he said. With their distinctive rhythms of movement, birds became a fitting subject for an artwork centered around perception. Campbell said his intention was not to create a literal representation of birds but to capture their essence through the interplay of movement and abstraction.

"Beyond verbal communication, nonverbal cues and emotional engagement play vital roles in patient well-being."
Michael D. Dake, MD

Campbell began the artwork as a video image of birds in flight which he then translated into a 21-by-21-foot chandelier-type LED light sculpture. He spent months carefully plucking out hundreds of thousands of pixels and then selected and mapped 3,000 pixels to the sculpture. "The way that I look at it is right at that edge of perception," he said.

Each pixel resembles a lightbulb that randomly flashes on and off to create an abstract, yet recognizable image of flying birds. Because birds have distinct rhythms in their movements, they are identifiable even in abstract form. It is the motion of the birds that give way to clarity and recognition. Their fluttering wings, viewed from below or at a distance, provide cues for understanding the artwork's subject matter. The resulting artwork exists on the edge of perception, requiring viewers to learn how to look at it by engaging with it over time. The simplicity of the imagery, combined with the movement, creates a unique and immersive experience.

The connection between art and health care is profound. Art encourages the identification of recognizable shapes and pattern recognition. It invites acceptance of ambiguity and allows for more than one interpretation, thereby promoting creative problem-solving. "Visual perception in health care environments is very important," said Dake. "Beyond verbal communication, nonverbal cues and emotional engagement play vital roles in patient well-being."

Incorporating art, such as Campbell's Untangled Shadows, helps students and trainees develop a heightened sensitivity to these cues in a health-related setting. Whether it be visual art, dance, or other creative mediums, the goal is to foster an environment that promotes emotional connection and understanding.