What does your heartbeat look like? The Japanese-born artist Sasaki has been painting the vital sign of life for 15 years, airbrushing the distinctive waves in blood-red paint onto a canvas. He'll be bringing The Heartbeat Drawing Project to Dwell on Design this weekend, where every heartbeat he paints will send a donation straight from your heart to Architecture for Humanity's rebuilding efforts in Japan.
When I first meet Sasaki he is wearing a shirt with an embroidered heart—not a heart shape, but an anatomically correct heart: valves, chambers, aorta. He answers the door to his studio and as I step into the stark white space, located in a former biscuit factory in downtown Los Angeles, I realize the only real color to be seen is red: a vivid, visceral, deep blood red that zig zags across the walls, along tables, and onto the floors. "In our own life, everything starts with the heartbeat," he says. "Before even our brain is formed, we have a heartbeat."
Although Sasaki started his career as a sculptor, he began The Heartbeat Drawing Project in 1995. At first he recorded his own heartbeat for over a decade in a series of canvases and drawings. But soon he realized the project was so universal that he should include as many people as possible. Five years ago, he started drawing the heartbeats of others. "I want to communicate to everybody," he says. "If I use the heartbeat then everybody will be able to understand."
There's only one way to show me how it works, he says. He slips an electronic pulse monitor onto my index finger, runs a cord from the device into an amplifier and plugs the output into a speaker. Suddenly the thud of my heart floods the room with as much bass as a dance floor at a hip hop club. Thu-bump, thu-bump, thu-bump! When I laugh, it pumps faster. When I breathe deeply it slows down. It's hard not to be mesmerized by the throbbing, human-powered rhythm echoing throughout the space.
Then Sasaki moves to the wall where he listens for a moment, then begins to draw the peaks and valleys that represent my heart's diastole and systole. Using a bright red lacquer paint, he draws one minute's worth of beats into the shape of a hexagon, which he says alludes to the cellular building blocks of human life. As I watch him trace the shapes onto the canvas, I realize that he does it with the precision of a surgeon. Even his tools—an industrial-sized silver airbrush gun and feet of clear vinyl tubing slightly spattered with red—have the appearance of medical equipment. But instead of a lab coat, Sasaki wears a silver pleather jumpsuit of his own design. He chose the color, he says, because of its ability to reflect everything around him. Several pairs of silver sneakers are lined up near the door.
After listening to each heartbeat, Sasaki assembles the collective beats into different structures, either onto a canvas or onto silver plates. The day before I met him, Sasaki had returned from the Venice Art Biennale where he drew the heartbeats of 299 people at Personal Structures, a show featuring artists like Lawrence Weiner and Marina Abramovic. After drawing each heartbeat onto square pieces of metal, he piled the heartbeats onto stacks that grew into tall towers throughout the installation. Skyscrapers of life.
Understandably, the reactions to Sasaki's artwork have been emotional. People can quickly see the similarities between their internal rhythms and that of another person, which he thinks creates deep connections, he says, as he stands before a pen and ink drawing which he says includes over 100,000 beats. In fact, that's why we shake hands, he says, as he extends his arm out to mine when he says goodbye. "This is an exchange of energy between two people," he says. "It's like electricity."
Sasaki will be drawing heartbeats this weekend at Dwell on Design. You can make a donation to include your heartbeat on the community canvas, but if you purchase a private canvas for $100, you'll be able to take your own heartbeat home with you. Plus, a large canvas of 72 heartbeats collected during a fundraiser held at Materials & Applications earlier this year will be auctioned off at Dwell on Design, with all proceeds going to Architecture for Humanity. See Sasaki (he'll be the on in the silver suit) as part of the Exhibition at Dwell on Design, which you can see with an Exhibition Plus ticket. Register at dwellondesign.com.