Carsten Nicolai: moiré

Originally posted at GalleryCrawl

Under Pseudonym: Erin Tireses  

Carsten Nicolai’s show “moire,” at the Pace Gallery, is a comprehensive exploration of human perception. Each piece forces its viewers to question their own ability to perceive its true nature. The wide range of concepts and mediums on display—from drawing to video to sculpture to instillation—each confront a different assumption about perception, forcing the viewer to tackle a series of existential questions.

Six drawings in black ink are the most accessible. Thousands of curved, black lines are drawn from the top to the bottom of white canvases. The viewer is drawn in by the aesthetic curves, then held to examine them closer by the extraordinary details. A series of lines curving at slightly different angles create a pattern of diamonds, each slightly different than the next. At first glance, these drawings appear mechanical, as though the lines could have been created systematically, but each contains deviations from the pattern. They create a visual tension between the expected and the random, and illustrate how order must be created in order for chaos to arise. One drawing shifts the viewer’s perception of negative and positive space, allowing the viewer to move between multiple visual experiences, while another uses the same set of continuous lines to flow back and forth between flatness and curved space.  However, the sheer number of lines forces the viewer to question whether this pattern was planned by the artist, or is entirely random – a system of order imposed on a work of pure chaos. Every artist knows that works of art will begin to inform their own creation, wrestle control away from their creators, and express their own free will. A work of art can change the artist as much as the artist can change a canvas, adding another level to a finished piece like this – a possible life of its own.


Carsten Nicolai, Installation View of “moiré.” Image courtesy Pace Gallery.

On the wall adjacent to these drawings, an instillation of strings stretches across an entire wall. The pattern here is clearly deliberate, even obvious. But because of slight variances in the thicknesses of the strings, and a small space between the strings and the wall, the strings appear to shift as the viewer walks across the gallery. The effect is fascinating. The work will never look exactly the same to two different people, standing at different heights, gazing from different angles.


Carsten Nicolai, detail of moiré tape. Image courtesy Pace Gallery.

A video playing on a small screen plays on the ideas of randomness and imposing our perceptions on an object. At first glance, black forms seem to swirl on a white background, constantly shifting, but viewed at length, one realizes white forms could just as easily be swirling across a black screen. But in fact, there are no forms at all, simply two grids of evenly spaced black dots sliding over the top of each other.  I watched these screens for a long time – long after many viewers had moved on – waiting for repetition, for a beginning and an end, for any sign that there was purpose behind the movement, but I saw no example of this. I had to conclude that the shapes I had seen were random, creations of my own desire for order that no one else would ever share, or that far more work went into this design than I could ever perceive or prove, no matter how long I watched.

A large sculpture in the center of the room displays what could be the slides that move atop one another in the video: huge ten by ten panes of glass with grids of black dots painted on them, all connected to a single focal point with massive hinges, perfectly vertical, but with differing amounts of spaces between each pane. Again, patterns are created and shift as the viewer walks around the piece, like in the string instillation and the video. Here, these odd angles invite the viewer to interact – not only to move around the piece, but to touch it. I wanted to swing the hinges, to create new angles between the panes, to see if this would change the piece entirely and create a whole new perception. But I was intimidated by the rigidity of the structure, by the idea that it may be carefully planned, and I could potentially ruin it.

In a separate room, Nicolai adds another layer to these questions. Strings are once again stretched along a single wall, but this time they are parallel and appear to move, creating an experience of apparent randomness and structure that reminded me of the richness and calmness of watching the light on the surface of the ocean, stirring with the wind and tide. The faint hum of a machine, and the apparent juxtaposition of two sets of strings, one behind the other, drew me in to examine the mechanism that moves them, to see if one or both move, and if they touch. But when I got close enough, I discovered that there is only one set of strings, that it does not move, and that the faint hum comes from the back of the room, where a box light moves up and down near the ceiling. What I thought was a second set of strings was actually a shadow of the first. The patterns that I had originally perceived were a trick of light – the most basic element of human perception – and their interaction was far more nuanced than I had originally imagined.

Lastly, another instillation resides in a separate room. This room is entirely devoid of light save that created by the work of art: two identical sculptures, one behind the other, of several lit bulbs at the end of black poles, which extend orbitally from a center point, and spin rapidly. The light dazzles. Many viewers back away, muttering about dizziness, but if you manage to stand and stare, a range of perceptions emerge. If you widen your gaze, the swirling seems chaotic, like the ink drawings at first glance. Yet, if you focus on the lights, a pattern emerges in the continuous motion, possibly out of design and possibly out of your own perception. And if you look longer, something else comes forward, from farther back, a pattern more constant than anything else, from the empty spaces, where the light never travels.


Carsten Nicolai, detail of moiré rota. Image courtesy Pace Gallery.


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