[ARENA] review of installation "polar m [mirrored]" by Carsten Nicolai and Marko Peljhan

Andreas Broeckmann ab dortmunder-u.de
Segunda-Feira, 6 de Dezembro de 2010 - 14:34:33 WET

"polar m [mirrored]" by Carsten Nicolai and Marko Peljhan
Yamaguchi Center for Art and Media (YCAM), Japan, until 6 February 2011

(reviewed by Andreas Broeckmann, Berlin, 5 Dec 2010)

This autumn, the Yamaguchi Center for Art and Media (YCAM) presents a new joint work by Carsten Nicolai and Marko Peljhan. The installation "polar m [mirrored]" constructs an environment which inserts the visitor into a multi-layered representation of radiation and particle events that happen at a level normally not sensed by humans. Here however we enter into a space that combines more or less concrete materials and analytical tools with different forms of audio-visual projection. The atmosphere is one of rational aesthetics combined with scientific wonder and a sublime presentation of the investigation of nature by technological means.

Let us first take a look at the installation's particular spatial and architectural structure. It is dominated by a continuous sequence of audio-visual events that are projected into two large white cubic spaces by means of video projectors, one hanging above each cube, and a sound system that is positioned around the two cubes, and in their floors. The space is bathed in black and white, the only colour appears in the display of some radio receivers, and small LED pilot lights on different sensors.
The entire room is filled with the irregular hissing and humming of electronic sounds, enhanced radio static, intersected by short acoustic events, clicks and occasional hard hits, digitally treated to form an interestingly tense, continuous soundscape which is ever changing.

As we enter the polar m [mirrored] environment, we see three layers of objects stacked behind each other in the space. The first layer consists of three technical installations, each placed on a small black platform of slightly different sizes. On the left there is a cloud chamber, equipped with a video camera whose images are the source for the images of visual noise projected onto the two cubic spaces; in the middle - though slightly off center - a constellation of four light-grey granite rocks with a white robotic arm fixed in the center of the platform which rotates its sensor-armed head among them, elegantly and inquisitively; and to the right there are three high frequency radio receivers on the floor of the platform, together with an analogue radiomeasuring device placed on its metre-high stand.

The second layer is made up of 48 smaller cubic, light-grey granite stones, each placed on a dark, transparent plexi plate at 40 cm from the floor, suspended from above, each plexi plate individually hung on four thin black threads. The stones are placed in two symmetrical fields left and right of a central corridor, on each side in three rows of eight stones. The stones on the right side all have a relatively rough and untreated surface, they are approximately cubic and approximately the same size, but each different from the others. The stones in the field to the left have been cut into exact and identical cubes of 7 x 7 x 7 cm. There is an electronic geiger counter sensor placed on a thin, metre-high stand in the middle of each of the two fields.

The third layer consists of the two almost identical white cubic spaces (7m x 7m x 4m), symmetrically placed, and separated from each other by a narrow corridor. The cubes are made up of metal-covered frames with white fabric covering the four sides and the ceiling. The front side of the right cube is half-open, and here it is possible to see and walk onto the white floor which, when you stand on it, sometimes vibrates slightly from the sound amplification system that is built in underneath. The video projector is projecting from above in such a manner that it lights up the cube with changing shapes of visual noise, as well as several straight lines of different thickness that can be interpreted as shifting axes, turning around an unmarked central position. The spatial changes of the soundscape that we hear when in the space corresponds to the movement of the thinner lines. The cube to the left is closed on all four sides and we cannot enter it or look inside whereas the soundscape encompasses the entire exhibition room and thus envelops also this closed space. Like in the case of the half open cube, we can see the deflections of the projected light passing through the fabric covering the sides of this cube, and we can observe the symmetry of these deflections between the two cubes.

On exiting the space of the installation, we see a video monitor with a display of different scales indicating events and changes in the movements of the robotic arm, as well as of the intensity of radiation measured by analogue and digital geiger counters, and spectrum readings from the three radio receivers.

This monitor offers clues to an activity which, in the space, we can sense, without being able to comprehend it. The cloud chamber is an instrument for making events visible that take place at a particle level. These images being projected into the cube means that here we are surrounded by the visual reflections of minute and fully indeterminate events. The radio receivers pick up noise from the electromagnetic spectrum which, in its structure, is equally indeterminable. The immersion of the cubes with this noise complements the visual immersion and extends the field of reference from the located particle events in the cloud chamber, to the dislocated environmental presence of radio waves. The stones, finally, contain matter from which the radioactive impulses are released at irregular intervals. The geiger counters pick up these impulses, and when a defined threshold is reach, they are sonified and visualised as short bursts of light and sound, placing the visitor in the cube in the centre of these uncontrollable, amplified micro-events.

Outside the exhibition space, a projection screen has been set up where Andrei Tarkovsky's movie "Solaris" is playing in a loop. Peljhan and Nicolai make explicit and frequent reference to "Solaris", both to the movie, and to Stanislaw Lem's original novel. Their fascination with the thinking ocean of the Solaris planet has led to the founding idea of an intelligent space in which a visitor can be immersed in complex renditions of data. While their own reprentation may reflect some of the more positivistic speculations of the 'Solaristic' researchers on the space station described in the film, it lacks the psychological depth of the novel as well as the movie. The insistence on the genealogy of the installation from the "Solaris" ocean seems awkward, not least because the installation suggests the possibility of an immersion into and perception of the dynamic particle events without offering any reference to the drama into which the scientists observing the Solaris ocean are thrown. On the space ship, they are confronted with figure, apparently real people, that the ocean seems to construct from their memory and desires. These "guests" appear in flesh and blood and are a challenge and an embarrassment for the scientists who thus encounter some of their deepest wishes, and emotional and moral dilemmas. We find little of this emotional dreamscape in "polar m" and wonder whether the artists are, like the scientists, trying to hide their own ghosts from each other, and from us, presenting us instead with the illusion of a clean and rational, aesthetic and scientific experiment.

"polar m [mirrored]" forms a hugely impressive artistic environment whose aesthetic effect hinges on the carefully controlled representation of indeterminable physical events. While the predecessor of the installation of ten years ago, "POLAR", took the data communication of the internet as the material base of the immersion and offered interfaces for an interactive engagement with these data streams, the new version takes nature itself as the source for the aestheticisation of its events and structures.

We find resonances of the piece in the works of both artists. Carsten Nicolai has experimented with the cloud chamber before, and his "Wellenwanne" (2003/2008) and photographs of clouds (2002) show his interest in evoking natural phenomena that hover at the edge of indeterminacy. And Nicolai's last major project for YCAM, the spatial installation "syn chron" (2004) nodded to both the constructivist and to the romantic aspects of the Polar projects. Marko Peljhan, on the other hand, has pursued the scientific investigation of natural and communication structures in a trajectory that has led him from the "makrolab" project (since 1997), through the research that led to the exhibition "Situational Awareness" (2007), to the most recent "Arctic Perspective Initiative", and has explicitly paid hommage to the avant-guard Constructivist movement of the 1920s. The convergence of these different trajectories in "polar m [mirrored]" is consequential, even if the aesthetics of the space at YCAM seems more indebted to Nicolai's rationalism than to Peljhan's activism.

The new title may refer to the fact that the previous installation is now "mirrored" in time, but also to the symmetrical structure of the spatial lay-out of much, though not all of the exhibition space into the left and right hand side. There is also the mirror structure between the front row of the observation instruments, 'reflected' in the audio-visual events projected into the two cubes. Finally, the artists have also made reference to the conundrum of "Schroedinger's cat" from the theory of quantum physics, which is indicated by the second, closed cube which cannot be entered and which thus forms the unreachable reference space through which the actuality of the measured particle events might be ascertained. The translucent quality of the cube, however, reduces the enigma in favour of a visual symmetry which, in the generous black cube of YCAM's Studio A, appears as convincing as it is overwhelming.

project website and documentation: http://polar-m.ycam.jp

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