Jeppe Hein, Mirror Labyrinth NY, 2015. Courtesy KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin, 303 Gallery, New York and Galleri Nicolai Wallner, Copenhagen. Photo: James Ewing.

Sitting Pretty: Interactive Art Installations That Invite You In

Jeppe Hein’s interactive art installations and sculptures bring the intimacy of the indoors outside. “It’s important to me that my art is not only exhibited in the context of the art world, but is also seen and experienced by people who usually don’t visit art museums,” says Hein, whose artistic installations grace parks, plazas—and yes, art institutes—around the world.

Jeppe Hein’s modified social benches

Jeppe Hein, Modified Social Bench #19, 2012. Courtesy KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin, 303 Gallery, New York and Galleri Nicolai Wallner, Copenhagen. Anders Norrsell.

Hein may be best known for a series he began in 2005 called “Modified Social Benches.” Manufactured alternately in steel, aluminum and wood, the brightly colored benches borrow from traditional design before departing in a playful direction.

Convex, concave, legless or weirdly angled, the benches are part seating, part sculpture. They’re what Hein calls a modification of their “architectural and social function,” challenging seating often used for quiet respite. “Their design has an influence on people’s behavior in public, by giving them the opportunity to place themselves in order to discourage or encourage others to take a seat next to them,” Hein says.

Cherry-red bench at the Brooklyn Bridge Park

Jeppe Hein, Modified Social Bench NY, 2015. Courtesy KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin, 303 Gallery, New York and Galleri Nicolai Wallner, Copenhagen. Photo: James Ewing.

The 2015 cherry-red interactive art installation at the Brooklyn Bridge Park in Brooklyn, N.Y., showcased benches suited to various levels of communal interaction. One bench dipped in the middle, making it perfect for a single sitter; another wrapped around a tree, offering two private seats with blooming branches between them; a third rose into something of a slide, often surrounded by children waiting for their turn.

“Due to their alterations, the benches end up somewhere between a dysfunctional object and a functional piece of furniture, and thus point out the contradiction between artwork and functional object,” Hein says. He often stays behind after installations to see people’s responses, which can be a combination of delight and awe.

Dipped cherry-red bench at the Brooklyn Bridge Park

Jeppe Hein, Modified Social Bench NY, 2015. Courtesy KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin, 303 Gallery, New York and Galleri Nicolai Wallner, Copenhagen. Photo: James Ewing.

But his work isn’t just about bemusing viewers. “Artworks in public spaces open up new possibilities for the viewer to lose his timidity towards art,” Hein says. Passersby can interact with his works without even knowing that they’re art, and that’s part of the point.

Hein grew up in a creative family surrounded by arts and artists, studying at the Royal Danish Academy of Arts in Copenhagen, as well as the Städel Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Frankfurt before opening his studio in Berlin. Hein sees his artistic pieces as a way to unite people of different backgrounds, encouraging interaction and engagement. His interactive art installations often appeal to people who didn’t grow up attending gallery nights and find museums intimidating, rather than inspiring.

Not only do Hein’s pieces put people in dialogue with one another, they provoke a discourse about public space. “This is particularly relevant at a time when places for communication—such as free, creative spaces and areas designed to enable interaction and involve people in a dialogue with their surroundings and others—are absent from most contemporary cities,” Hein says.

Hide and Seek by Jeppe Hein in Amsterdam

Jeppe Hein, Appearing Rooms, 2004. Courtesy KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin, 303 Gallery, New York and Galleri Nicolai Wallner, Copenhagen. Photo: Sylvia Rose. Silvia Rose.

“Hide and See(k)” (2013), a permanent interactive art installation outside of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, includes fountains that spring up to create walls of water, making rooms out of what was a flat space. Numerous works feature mirrored surfaces installed in parks, encouraging viewers to really see themselves within these spaces. These critical interactions foster a deeper reckoning with public spaces. By bringing hallmarks of private interiors—mirrors, rooms and copious seating—outside, Hein encourages us to take a collective ownership of spaces that are increasingly being whittled away.