Please Touch the Art: Jesús Rafael Soto’s Interactive Mind-Benders

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When people talk about how art feels, they’re usually referring to the emotions that the work evokes in the viewer. With Jesús Rafael Soto’s art, you’re certainly getting a new mental perspective — but you’re also actually feeling it. That’s how it is with the work of one of the 20th Century’s masters of op and kinetic art. To experience his work is to become immersed in it, letting it envelop you, and even getting a little lost.

It’s all a bit hard to grasp without seeing it–and feeling it–yourself. Fortunately, you don’t have to, because starting this week, one of the Venezuelan artist’s major works is on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, and if you’ve got a few friends who love art as much as you do, it makes a spectacular group outing. Hanging from the ceiling, Pénétrable de Chicago is a tightly arranged grouping of thousands of lighted nylon filaments. It sounds deceptively simple, but you don’t just stand there and look at it. You and your friends plunge into the forest of threads, giddy at the sensation. Moving in here is a wild experience. With every movement — every step forward, every swing of the arm or turn of the head — the space around you shifts and shimmers. It keeps your environment in a state of motion, something Soto described as being “in the world like fish in water,” and invites you to feel your body interact with the world in a whole new way.

You’ll want to stay in there awhile. It’s fun, of course, but it’s more than that. Like with all great art, it absorbs your attention and shakes up your perspectives. The glowing lights and new sensations rattle your complacency in a fundamental way, going beyond your thoughts and ideas, and right down into how you’re oriented in space. It seems like a product of the 21st Century, but this was unveiled back in 1971, when it was truly seen as avant-garde.

It’s a rare experience in more ways that one. Soto’s installation hasn’t been on display since 1986. This pénétrable is a great way to learn more about postwar art that experiments with your perceptions and experience. Soto was a big deal in Europe and South America, but he’s far less known in the U.S. From now until March 15, 2015, you have the chance to get acquainted with his work in the most immersive way.

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