Some of the best art often comes out of tragedy.
Government-funded green energy firm Solyndra made national headlines when it imploded last year. And now, a Bay Area artist has turned 1,400 glass tubes originally owned by the company into an art installation at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden.
The SOL Grotto, a work created by Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello, takes a tiny fraction of the millions of glass tubes Solynda used to manufacture solar energy cells and converts them into shining beacons of light and sonic amplifiers for a nearby waterfall.
Since the exhibition was installed last month, it has attracted the attention and scorn of congressional Republicans and members of the right-wing media. After all, it combines things conservatives regularly rail against: green energy, modern art, government, higher education and recycling.
"Now our loss is someone's hip, pretentious art," sneered Fox News commentator Greg Gutfeld. "Which makes sense because most modern art and alternative energies are a lot alike. It's for the believer to find value in it because, for the rest of us, there is none. Both function as a platform for phony intellectualism and the only energy comes from greedy bureaucrats drunk on our cash and driven for a need for acceptance from the cool green crowd."
Gutfeld then jokingly suggested someone should destroy the installation with a baseball bat, calling it performance art, and offered to "improve" it with a crayon drawing of a unicorn.
The Republicans on the House Energy & Commerce Committee, on the other hand, took more of an exception to the government funding part than modern art part.
"To date, the most expensive piece of art ever sold is Paul Cezanne’s 'The Card Players,' which the country of Qatar bought for $250 million in 2011 from the late Greek shipping magnate George Embiricos," the legislators wrote in a press release. "With a price tag of half a billion dollars, and just $24 million expected to be repaid, the amount taxpayers forked over with little to see in return except for the SOL Grotto would make this piece of art shatter the previous record."
Berkeley officials defended their project. "We were totally taken by surprise [by the controversy]…We weren't making any political statements. [These attacks are] an attempt to create news," Botanical Gardens Director Paul Licht told Berkleyside. "Not everyone likes every work in this exhibition, but I've met no one who doesn't like this work. It's a fascinating use of materials."
Solyndra's business plan was to convert the tubes into cylindrical solar panels for commercial rooftops. The company argued the panels could be packed more tightly into a given space than traditional flat-panel solar arrays, capture more energy for less cost and, due to their unique shape, never need to be reoriented towards the sun to achieve maximum efficiency.
The firm applied for a $535 government loan under a Department of Energy program to fund renewable energy technologies during the Bush administration. The project was ultimately approved, and heavily promoted, by the Obama administration as an example of the type of green projects that the country should be pursuing. President Obama even visited and gave a speech the Solyndra factory in 2010.
The following year, prevailing trends in the broader solar industry and alleged mismanagement by top company execs caused the firm to declare bankruptcy and shut down operations with little warning given to employees or outside vendors and contractors.
Solydra has been hit with a rash of lawsuits and become a campaign issue for Republicans looking to paint the government's funding of green energy projects as a bad investment.
After Solyndra collapsed, JIT Transportation, a San Jose-based company hired to transport and store the materials, ended up with $30,000 in unpaid invoices and whole lot of glass tubes it suddenly needed to unload.
JIT President Gene Ashley told the San Jose Mercury News he initially had trouble unloading the tubes and started to look for local artists interested in taking some off his hands.
"A while back the TV news did a segment on Solyndra where they showed all of these glass tubes being dumped in a Dumpster," Ashley explained. "That really frustrated me. I want people to make some use of it. Luckily Ron [Rael] and a few others have tried to put it to good use."
SOL Grotto is part a larger, multi-exhibit installation of site-specific art called "Natural Discourse," in which pieces are placed selectively around the 34-acre garden. The art incorporates everything from lace making to heat-sensitive videography, complementing the surrounding natural environment rather than distracting from it.
Rael and San Fratello constructed SOL Grotto next to a waterfall in Strawberry Creek. "We felt the sound and light would add a whole new layer to experiencing the creek," San Fratello explained to the San Francisco Chronicle. "The glass is so conductive, even on a foggy day it glows."
On a plaque next to the installation, the artists explain:
SOL Grotto is a contemporary take on a grotto or Thoreau's cabin--a Spartan retreat that is a space of solitude and close to nature--where one is presented with a mediated experience of water, coolness and light. The SOL Grotto also explores Solyndra's role as a company S#@t Out of Luck. 1,368 of the 24 million high tech glass tubes destined to be destroyed as a casualty of their bankruptcy, are used in the installation
Despite all the controversy, Licht has been taking it all in stride. "I've been told that no publicity is bad publicity," he said.
This art installation isn't the only Solyndra remnant being put to alternative use. Memory device manufacturer Seagate recently agreed to purchase the 412,000 square foot Fremont factory where Solyndra formerly made its solar panels.
The SOL Grotto exhibit will run through next January.
Take a look at images from the installation below: