Lateral Sky View explores our vital but tenuous connection to the world outside through an imperfect parabolic mirror installed in the basement floor of clothing retailer Morgane Le Fay.
“Lateral Sky View” Free-Floats the NYC Sky from Basement Floor of SoHo Retailer
The sky’s beauty is typically appreciated by looking up, and from a vantage point with a clear view of the sky. But neuroscientist Denis Pelli has managed to capture New York City’s sky with a site-specific art installation that requires neither.
Designed during the COVID-19 pandemic, Lateral Sky View explores our vital but tenuous connection to the world outside through an imperfect parabolic mirror (60"x50"x51") installed in the basement floor of clothing retailer Morgane Le Fay.
The work allows us to see the sky’s full brightness by looking not up, but, rather, straight ahead while submerged in a subterranean space. The view, through a skylight at the top of a stairwell, includes the black grating of a century-old fire escape and a neighboring red brick building—hovering in the air with no visible support. By watching the sky evolve throughout the day, and moving around the room, we can appreciate its enormity while feeling the limits of current restrictions.
“Growing up with architects, I always knew that light and space matter,” says Pelli, son of celebrated architects Cesar Pelli and Diana Balmori. “I knew that having daylight in this space would make it a better place to be, particuarly during the pandemic. Lateral Sky View lets the viewer stop and notice the beauty of New York’s sky. Really observing the world around us is key to both art and science.”
Pelli, a professor at NYU, developed the concept for Lateral Sky View when he accompanied Liliana Casabal, the fashion designer behind the Morgane Le Fay brand, to visit a potential new store site. He noted the windowless white space on the subterranean level. Concerned that “people working there would want daylight in the room,” Pelli crafted a parabolic cylindrical mirror, set at a 45-degree angle to the wall, reflecting the skylight a floor above. The effect is a free-floating bit of the New York City sky, a window-portal that brings the sky into an otherwise windowless room. The slowly passing clouds, the rhythm of the day’s passage to night, and the fading light as dusk darkens the city—all are made visible at eye level of the beholder.
As a professor of psychology and neural science, Pelli has spent decades interrogating the way neurons analyze visual stimuli—that is, how our brains make sense of what our eyes see—to learn how we recognize shapes, read, and even experience beauty.
As a visual artist, he has applied his scientific understanding to create works that blur the lines between art and science. With 1988’s Pelli-Robson Contrast Sensitivity Chart—in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City—Pelli and co-creator John Robson created a new eye chart, using gradually fading letters of a fixed large size to test the limits of viewer perception. Collaborating with choreographer Julia Gleich on a section of her 2012 ballet The Brodmann Areas, which is designed to be viewed out of the corner of the viewer’s eye, Pelli used visual “crowding”—the inability to individuate an object from others nearby—to hide or reveal a dancer in plain view.
Pelli takes particular inspiration from James Turrell and Mark Rothko, whose respective skyspaces and color fields each offer the viewer a “magical window,” says Pelli. His forays into art also include co-curating with architect Ana Maria Torres their 1997 Thresholds: Limits of Perception. This day-long NYU symposium and two-week gallery show exhibited works by artists and scientists including Chuck Close, Bela Julesz, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Robert Shapley, and Herman Snellen (world’s first eye chart, 1862). The show included Pelli’s sculpture, Something from Nothing, in which the same large letter is painted on each of five scrims, but it’s too faint to see unless all the scrims are visually aligned. In 1999, in Science, Pelli reported a simple rule that predicts the nearest distance at which one sees 3D depth in Chuck Close’s blocky portraits. For his father Cesar Pelli’s 2019 memorial at Yale University, he designed a Flower Wall consisting of hundreds of water-filled test tubes suspended on copper cables in a copper frame that accepted flowers, each hand-carried from the chapel by attendees of the memorial.
Pelli completed his undergraduate studies in applied math at Harvard and earned his Ph.D. in physiology at Cambridge University.
Lateral Sky View is on display, seven days a week, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Morgane Le Fay’s SoHo location (150 Greene St. [at W. Houston St.]) through March 31. For more information, please call 212.219.7672.
For more on Pelli's art, please visit his website.