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<nettime> review of installation "polar m [mirrored]" by Carsten Nicolai
Andreas Broeckmann on Mon, 6 Dec 2010 16:46:20 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> review of installation "polar m [mirrored]" by Carsten Nicolai and Marko Peljhan

"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 

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 

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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