The Mori Art Museum on the 52nd Floor of the recently constructed Roppongi Hills complex is an adventure from the minute you step foot inside the complex. The very idea of a gallery on the top of a high rise shopping center and apartment complex feels like the future has arrived. It is the perfect location for an exhibition of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, and even more appropriate is the choice of The Kaleidoscopic Eye.
The exhibition focuses on the challenges to our perception of reality, encouraging us to perceive reality as multiple, kaleidoscopic. It all begins with the experience of different realities enabled by the chosen art works’ attempt to change the relationship between ourselves, or our senses, and the art object. While the conception of the exhibition promises a potentially profound experience, the reality is more uneven. Nevertheless, those pieces that do have the desired effect of challenging the way we perceive (visually, aurally and haptically) are strong enough to carry the exhibition. In particular, the stronger examples very successfully question the wisdom of the ostensible privilege we give to vision and sight. And yet, at times unaware of their own underlying assumptions, some of the pieces, however innovative, return to a privilege of vision if only through the frustration of the other senses.
Although it is not exhibited as such, for me Olafur Eliasson’s Your Welcome Reflected, 2003, two suspended rotating glass discs are the exhibition centerpiece. With characteristic humility, yet provocation, Eliasson’s art works, absorb and reflect all of the issues at stake in the The Kaleidoscopic Eye. The two glass discs that have been dipped into a silicium- and titandioxide hang from the ceiling a meter apart, and rotate on their own axis, under a beam of white light. Their interaction with the light produce ever-evolving discs of yellow, magenta, blue and white reflections on the walls, floor and spectator’s body as she inhabits the room. In typical Eliasson fashion, our experience of Your Welcome Reflected will depend on where we stand, at what moment of the discs’ cycle of motion we are in the room, and how long we stay. And so we become immersed in the “kaleidoscopic eye” of art and life as they are merged in the space of the room, on the surface of our bodies, in the presence of Eliasson’s Your Welcome Reflected. What we see here is so unstable, dependent on an array of constantly mutating factors such as time, space and the randomness of objects outside of ourselves, that our vision and visual experiences are never fixed or predictable. For me, the irregularities and uncertainties of Your Welcome Reflected powerfully summarize all that was on display at the Mori. Similarly, unlike a number of the other pieces in the exhibition, Eliasson does not get caught up in the contradictions of claiming to challenge vision via its denigration through privileging of the other senses. With Eliasson, knowledge and experience are unapologetically in the realm of the visual, and we are left vulnerable to the uncertainty of that realm, with no other sense to fall back on.
Among my other favorites was Janet Cardiff’s wonderfully complex and provocative piece, To Touch, 1994. In a dark room with speakers on the wall and an old wooden carpenter’s table in the middle, we motion our hands over the surface of the table and voices are triggered. The more people in the room, the more cacophonous and conflicting the voices and sounds emitted from the speakers. We hear someone reading out the alphabet, gun shots, movie music, car screeches, a telephone ringing and lovers in intimate conversation. We are unsure of the relationship between these different sounds, and we are held by the attempt to make sense of them. When I was in the room alone I felt I had some grasp of the conversations taking place between voices emitted from one or two speakers. When others visitors walked in, the voices and sounds became cacophonous. I was frustrated by the intrusion of other people into the orderliness of my world. In the darkened room, seeing only the old table, our hands and our ears take over as the tools of perception. And yet, we are constantly stymied in our attempts to grasp, at least to control, the aural environment. To Touch is an exercise in the interrelatedness, yet powerlessness, of touch and hearing in the absence of vision.
Peter Tscherkassky’s Outer Space, 1999 continues the filmmaker’s engagement with the overwhelm of the senses. Tcherkassky takes a fragment of the 1981 horror film, The Entity, and manipulates it: he slows it down, repeats certain frames, distresses them, stretches the sound, remixes sound and image. The resulting film is a violent, abrasive composition of images and sounds, both in a process of gradual breaking away from each other, and breaking down, as the film progresses. The resulting strobe effect of quick cut images, screeching sounds and unrecognizable image-sound relations, gives a sensory bombardment that leaves us physically uncomfortable and overwhelmed.
Another piece that sits comfortably within the rubric of the exhibition is German artist Carsten Nicolai’s Telefunken (wtc), 2000-2009. Unsurprisingly Nicolai has collaborated with avant-garde Japanese artist and musician, Ryoji Ikeda [reviewed in this issue]. Like Ikeda, Nicolai is interested in the visualization of sound, the sonic representation of the image and the confusion of the senses through digital mixing. On a series of four screens we see the result of what Nicolai refers to as a “mistake.” He plugs the sound cable into the video input of a television monitor and we are treated to a visual composition of vertical lines, each with their own beat, their own rhythm, their own logical formation. Sound is also emitted, but the piece is at its most thought-provoking when we approach it as an image of what we are meant to be hearing.
Like Cerith Wyn Evans’ ’Astrophotography-Stages of Photographic Development’ by Siegfried Marx (1987), 2007, Nicolai’s Telefunken still inadvertently denigrates both image and sound in their mutual co-dependence. Cerith Wyn Evans adds the element of text when he transforms portions of the book named in the title of the piece into Morse code. The Morse code, a one time cutting edge technology is, in turn, converted to computer language and then used to dictate the otherwise seemingly irregular illumination and extinguishing of the light bulbs of a huge Murano glass chandelier. The work engages with discourses on craftsmanship and technology, the confusion of the senses to effect a disorientation in the world, and some of the ideological and social questions that are central to much of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary Collection. His Untitled, 2008/09 in which blinding light pilons at the beginning of the current exhibition make being in the room unbearable, also move along these same lines. Having just entered the exhibition, the only work we have seen being Tracy Emin’s neon script, I Dream of Sleep, 2002, Wyn Evans’ light is so disturbing that we don’t really know if it is the work itself that makes us uncomfortable, or if our eyes simply need to adjust to the exhibition. However, when they don’t, our question is quickly answered.
Lastly, Carsten Höller, Y, 2003 which is shown on all the publicity material and therefore held up as exemplar of the exhibition, is complicated and disturbing in a whole other way. Höller attaches household light bulbs to steel spirals moulded into the shape of a Y, through which we can walk. A mirror is put at the end of the two prongs of the Y, and another at the end of the trunk of the Y. The lights turn on and off in various rhythms, and as we walk through the Y, no matter which direction we face, our vision is fractured, the steel rings appear as though they are moving at different speeds, and again, it is impossible to get a complete grasp of the piece. Like models on a catwalk, basking in the lights, we become integrated into the piece and completely lose perspective on where we are in relation to the piece as a whole, where the Y begins and ends, and the dimensions of the room in which it sits. There is a funfair-like visual stimulation and inspiration of Höller’s art that, like so many of the other pieces in The Kaleidoscopic Eye becomes physically unsettling, just like the visual dynamism of the city outside the walls of the Mori Tower.
(*Images, from top to bottom: Olafur Eliasson, Your welcome reflected, 2003, Red and blue glass, steel cables, 2 motors, HMI spotlight, ballast, tripod, Dimensions variable, each glass 75 cm diameter; Mori Art Museum “The Kaleidoscopic Eye: Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary Collection”, 2009/4/4-7/5, Photo: Watanabe Osamu, Photo Courtesy: Mori Art Museum.
Mori Art Museum “The Kaleidoscopic Eye: Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary Collection”, 2009/4/4-7/5, Photo: Watanabe Osamu, Photo Courtesy: Mori Art Museum.
Cerith Wyn Evans, Untitled, 2008/09, Multiple fluorescent tubes, wood, 402 x 50 cm diameter (each); One evening late in the war…, 2008, Mauve neon, 118 x 472 cm; Mori Art Museum “The Kaleidoscopic Eye: Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary Collection”, 2009/4/4-7/5, Photo: Watanabe Osamu, Photo Courtesy: Mori Art Museum.
Carsten Holler, Y, 2003, 960 lightbulbs, aluminum, wood, cables, electronic circuitry, light signs, mirrors, Overall dimensions (approx.1300 x 850 x 320 cm); Mori Art Museum “The Kaleidoscopic Eye: Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary Collection”, 2009/4/4-7/5, Photo: Watanabe Osamu, Photo Courtesy: Mori Art Museum.)