Art & Photography

Carsten Nicolai: Observatory

Carsten Nicolai thermic, 2011. Courtesy of IBID Gallery

Making the invisible visible: William Kherbek reviews Carsten Nicolai’s exhibition at the IBID Projects Space

Last year, the Hayward Gallery held an exhibition called, Art About the Unseen in which the works included were mostly invisible. Unfortunately, they didn’t let patrons pay with invisible money, so there was a dangerous inconsistency in the logic of the exhibition. In his show, Observatory , Carsten Nicolai also considers the invisible things of the world, but his approach is less precious and takes the opposite position to the Hayward. Instead of making art that you can’t see, Nikolai takes things you can’t see and makes them art; the bonus is that you can actually see some of them too.

On the first floor of IBID Projects Space in Hoxton sits a device that looks like a radiator, and then you realise that it is a radiator – so much for conceptualism – but the work isn’t just another tired marcher in the parade of ready-mades. A light shines on the lower part of the gallery’s western wall and you see tiny wavelets spiralling upward. The wavelets in question are emissions of heat which are normally invisible but which are now given a physicality and presence. “I can’t see you but I know you’re there”, says Peter Falk-as-himself to Bruno Ganz’s angel, Damiel in Wim Wenders’ classic film, Wings of Desire. In Nikolai, like the immaterial Damiel wants to reach across the divide between the visible and the invisible. The difficulty in getting your head around the “physical-but-invisible” is one of the most profound problems of science. Newton discovered more invisible things than even he was comfortable with. The very normality of these invisible forces is a reminder of how strange a world it is in which we live, and, for those who want to seek metaphors, how much of our own personal lives is also made invisible by familiarity.

Nikolai also includes a series of photographs of clouds as part of a multimedia body of work with the video future past perfect pt. 4 (wolken) . The photographs in particular have a destabilising character. They are as much “realist” work as could be hoped for, but in being so, they become an expression of Baudrillardian “hyper-reality” wherein something is so realistic and detailed it becomes a distortion. The cloudscapes become seascapes or fabric patterns as you look at them. The more detail you take in, the less you feel you recognise.
“Nothing could look more like an installation than these speakers, and nothing could sound like minimalistic digital composition than the buzzing particles”

Carsten Nicolai wismut (dust) w8, 2013 pigment print on handmade paper 38 x 55.4 cm
Carsten Nicolai, wismut (dust) w8, 2013

Upstairs at IBID Projects is particle noise , a group of speakers and monitors and a Geiger counter which locates and broadcasts background radiation. This work in particular had a much more engaging conceptual weight than a lot of the invisible work at the Hayward. If there’s a negative criticism of the show, it’s that all the technical gadgetry feels a little too heavy-handed and “retro”, like basement of a local nutty professor, but it could just as easily be argued that that dialogue is a subject of the work, the conscious otherness of science. Also, not only does the work attempt to make the invisible visible, or at least audible, the structure and visible armature feels a bit like auto-critique. Nothing could look more like an installation than these speakers, and nothing could sound like minimalistic digital composition than the buzzing particles. and so art becomes most visible when it takes as its subject the most fundamental aspects of nature.

Carsten Nicolai: Observatory runs until 19 April at IBID Projects, 35 Hoxton Square, London N1 6NN