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‘Curtain’ may upstage the winners it frames

SHARE ‘Curtain’ may upstage the winners it frames

Sometimes people are afraid of getting upstaged by the others on stage with them, but it's not often a part of the stage itself is doing the upstaging. At the Medals Plaza, though, the curtain that will rise to start each medals ceremony is itself already raising a few eyebrows.

The curtain is a creation of artist/engineer Chuck Hoberman whose kinetic sculptures have gained popularity around the world.

Hoberman is the creator of "unfolding structures," which change in their shape and size as they expand and contract. His unique folding methods have been developed for uses ranging from miniature surgical tools to retractable stadium roofs.

"There's a simplicity in the complexity of the structures I do," Hoberman said in a phone interview from his New York City office. "Each is organized in a clear way with a geometry that has a fundamental simplicity."

Hoberman began his career as an artist, earning a bachelor's degree in sculpture from Cooper Union in New York City. While studying, he was assigned to do a kinetic sculpture and he was hooked. Hoberman said he wasn't really interested in just being a regular artist like so many others in New York.

"I wanted to be working in a wider arena. . . . I knew crossing boundaries between disciplines would lead to something exciting," Hoberman said.

Hoberman returned to school, this time to get an engineering degree from Columbia. After getting his master's degree, Hoberman worked as a robotics engineer, doing art in his free time.

Hoberman's big break artistically came with The Hoberman Sphere at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, N.J., which was his first widely exhibited piece. The metal sphere continuously expands and contracts between 4.5 feet and 18 feet in diameter.

The sphere brought him more fame later when he created small plastic toy replicas of the expanding/contracting sphere which are now sold all over the nation in toy stores and museums.

Hoberman's pieces, which he describes as "somewhere between a structure and a mechanism," are a marriage of science and art, which means his pieces can be found in both kinds of museums around the globe including in Chile, Japan and Germany.

Though what Hoberman is creating for the Medals Plaza is called a curtain, Steve Bass, the production designer of the medals ceremony, said the term is misleading.

"It's more of a mechanical portal than a curtain," Bass said. "When you hear curtain you think of something soft, and there's nothing soft about this."

The curtain, which will weigh 15,000 pounds, will be a 36-foot tall, 72-foot diameter arch that will be made of semi-circular aluminum latticework backed by translucent panels.

The size of the arch is imposing, but the movement of the arch is what will take those watching the medals ceremony by surprise.

It is known as an "iris" structure because the way it opens is similar to the iris of the eye. The 4,000 individually machined pieces of the arch pull away in a fluid, twisting motion which, Hoberman said, has been described as resembling "a time-lapse motion of a flower blooming."

Hoberman said it works on principles of origami and "continuous transformation."

"I'm really excited about it (the arch). Chuck's work makes the stage something more than a stage, it elevates the whole project," Bass said.

It all works into the purpose of the podium, Bass said.

"The motto of the Olympics is Light the Fire Within and the podium represents the passion, the triumph of the athletes," Bass said. "Through lighting effects there will be a sense of the fire though the stage."

Bass said he originally spoke with Hoberman about doing something for the Olympics in Atlanta. With so many other things going on, though, the magnitude of a project wouldn't have been able to get the kind of attention it deserved, Bass said.

The Salt Lake Games Medals Plaza stage, though, will be able to properly feature Hoberman's work, Bass said.

Hoberman said he is excited to have his work as a part of the Olympics.

"It's all based on portraying a magical transformation," Hoberman said. "And the Olympics has this feeling of magic to it. . . . With 192 panels flying through the air, it's something you'll have to see to believe."

E-MAIL: pthunell@desnews.com