Symbolizing life, wisdom, and organic growth, the willow tree is a fitting metaphor for the unique but interrelated languages spoken today. Mexican-Canadian artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer conceived of his interactive sculpture Speaking Willow to celebrate the world’s rich linguistic diversity. As visitors pass beneath the tree’s branches, they activate the bell-shaped speakers suspended directly overhead. Each speaker has been programmed with sample recordings of a different language. Together, they represent the native tongues of over 99% of the planet’s population. A walk around Speaking Willow evokes a journey around the world; it reminds us that language is what defines our specific communities and connects our many cultures.
Since the early 1990’s, Lozano-Hemmer has integrated artistic disciplines ranging from architecture to digital media to create experiential works that offer possibilities for social connection and free expression. Many of the artist’s interactive installations enable the public to participate in the artwork’s creation. Lozano-Hemmer is known for transforming intangible traces of human experience—voices, movement, breath, touch, heartbeats, and facial expressions—into monumental displays of light, image, and sound. His installations often animate vast public spaces and simultaneously amplify the voice of the individual, while evoking the power of collective voices. A trilingual speaker of Spanish, English, and French, Lozano-Hemmer frequently explores the phenomena of language, writing, and coding in his works. Speaking Willow’s synchronized play of light and language recalls the photophone, the first device to transmit the human voice on a beam of light. A precursor to today’s wireless communication technologies, the photophone was invented by Alexander Graham Bell, who first tested it in 1880 on the roof of the Franklin School building, today the home of Planet Word. Speaking Willow is the artist’s first permanent outdoor commission. Lozano-Hemmer lives and works in Montreal.
“Speaking Willow is a biomimetic sculpture with speakers that gently sway in the wind and respond to the presence of passers-by. The interaction is subtle and evokes the fragility and beauty of spoken communication, aural perception, and oral history. The recordings consist of general statements relating to each language and its culture, highlighting the distinct rhythms, intonations, emphases, and textures that make each one unique.”
Speaking Willow was commissioned by Ann and Tom Friedman in partnership with Public Art Fund
Speaking Willow is permanently installed in the courtyard of Planet Word, an immersive museum in Washington D.C. dedicated to the power, beauty, and fun of language, that opened in October 2020.
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Speaking Willow, 2020
18’ 13/16” high, 23’ 3 7/16” wide
Aluminum sculpture, custom-made speakers and electronics, LED lights, computer, patch bays, 365 unique language recordings on micro-SD cards, 3D cameras, and 3.6 miles (5.8 km) of Ethernet cable
Planet Word, Washington D.C.
Gift of Ann and Tom Friedman, commissioned in partnership with Public Art Fund
The language samples featured in Speaking Willow were originally recorded and published by Wikitongues and the Endangered Language Alliance; for a complete list of included languages, please click here.
For more information about Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, please visit www.lozano-hemmer.com
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer gratefully acknowledges Antimodular Research (Rebecca Murdock, Caroline Record, Stephan Schulz, Sarah Amarica, Carolina Murillo Morales, Jesse Morrison, Mariana Yañez, Susie Ramsay, Karine Charbonneau, Kitae Kim, Tegan Scott, Matthew Palmer, Pipo Pierre Louis, Guillaume Tremblay, Milan Simas, and Miguel Legault), UAP (Kevin Davey, Sean Kizy), Cross Museum Services (Rachel Schmidt, Bernie Braun), and Nottus Concept (Mark Sutton, William Sutton)
About Creative Partnerships
Extending our core mission to present dynamic exhibitions by the world’s most compelling artists and make culture accessible to all, Public Art Fund: Creative Partnerships brings strategic planning, curatorial, project management, and communications expertise to leading cultural institutions, corporations, and civic organizations across the globe. Through these collaborations, Public Art Fund commissions permanent installations and temporary exhibitions in line with the unique vision of our partners and the specific parameters of each site, resulting in new artworks that activate public spaces, create engaged constituencies, and amplify the impact of our partners’ own initiatives through the power of public art.