Imagine: you walk into a white room. One you can only enter wearing some of those sexy, plastic blue shoe protectors. An oversized flatscreen beams bright flickering light at the opposite wall. You sit down in front of the screen. The brightness is of an almost suffocating magnitude – there is so much light your eyes can’t cope. Instead of seeing light you start to see patterns: squares, circles, lines and colours – blues, reds, yellows – and blacks. Within minutes the whole room is filled with geometric shapes. Images flash in front of you and move through the room. They intensify. It feels like you’re on drugs, but you aren’t. You’re definitely still alive, too. It is Monday afternoon and you’re in Amsterdam – for all you know, you’re exploring space.
Matthijs Munnik‘s installation Citadels: Lightscape V (2012), which can evoke the above reactions, is one of the works included in a new exhibition at NASA, Amsterdam. Contrary to what one may assume with such an abbreviation, the name of the host is not referring to the National Aeronautics team. This NASA refers to the cultural hub: New Art Space Amsterdam.
Titled The Dark Universe, the exhibition is co-organized with Sonic Acts, an organisation occupied with new developments and cross-overs between of music, science and art. The show’s aim is to, artistically as well as scientifically, explore the large part of the universe (roughly 96 percent) that still remains unknown. Made by a selection of visual and sonic artists and scientists, the exhibition includes vision distorting light installations and discombobulating soundscapes – all to help us imagine what it would feel, look or sound like to travel through these dark voids. But the exhibition offers more.
Spread out over two floors of an old hospital building in Amsterdam West, the artists partaking in the show use different mediums, mostly new media, to challenge and change our perception of space, and to open doors to new theories and ideas about the possibilities of our undiscovered surroundings. The human mind serves as a source of knowledge and imagination, and by crossing the boundaries between art and science it is possible to combine scientific facts with visions, prophecies and wild ideas. Space, as it turns out, is interpreted broadly and does not only refer to dark matter found light-years away. It also alludes to our immediate surroundings and to the space inside our minds.
Munnik’s work questions almost crudely what our visual reality entails. In his white room it becomes apparent that, by merely changing the intensity in which our eyes make contact with light, we can experience extreme visual distortions that have no presence in the physical world. This disturbing fact says just as much about the physical reality as of our perception of it. What is this reality we live in and want to explore, and how much of what we see is determined by the – clearly limited – capacities of our senses and brain?
Ivana Franke‘s work in the bordering room is related to Munnik’s. Seeing with Eyes Closed, (2011), seduces visitors to meditatively sit in front of a wall covered in flickering LED lights. Although the visual outcome is completely different and far less intense, the overall effect – of changing the viewer’s perception by making them see the otherwise invisible – is, by and large, the same.
The opposite, being unable to discern something you know actually does exists, is obviously the conundrum that keeps the guys at the other, slightly bigger NASA awake. Black Rain (2009) by artist duo Semiconductor alludes to this by showing video footage from the Heliospheric Imager – a satellite which collected imagery of millions of particles orbiting the earth. The slow, black and white film with incredible sound effects, reaffirms that the vastness of what is out there is mind-blowing. It’s only a minuscule part we do actually know.
Walking through the exhibition feels like walking through an abstract, visual impression of what is being studied by the world’s physicists and astronomers. But what this show does more importantly, is that it makes us aware, by offering experiences that expand our minds, of what happens in our internal microcosms.
In the building’s basement, for example, where bright lights are swapped for more ill-lit surroundings, Yolanda Uriz Elizalde‘s installation Kulunka (2012) invites whoever dares to enter the pitch-black room, to lie down on a bed. The structure reminds mostly of a Tibetan mattress – thin, hard and uncomfortable for the untrained soul. While lying down, vibrations are sent through the foundations, and thus felt from head to toe. Simultaneously, sonic oscillations are transmitted through water in a small see-through tank and, with the use of a soft, almost unnoticeable light, projected onto the ceiling. The water forms a pattern of waves that appears like an upside-down ocean on a calm summer night. And although the accompanying sound effects can bring to mind phantasies of a space odyssee you could be horizontally embarking on, this work is not so much about space as it is about mind’s ability to envision, and to explore the blurring boundaries between the imagined and the real.
The Dark Universe touches on two of human kind’s biggest journeys – to demystify the universe and dissect the human brain. It’s through physics and science that we will gain understanding, but we need projects like this to enjoy the ride.
The Dark Universe is organised in collaboration between Sonic Acts and NASA as part of the Sonic Acts festival, which takes place from 21 – 24 February at different venues in Amsterdam.