Pace Gallery, New York, USA
‘Carsten is very mathematical,’ remarked the Japanese legend Ryuichi Sakamoto, one of Carsten Nicolai’s musical collaborators, when I interviewed him a few years ago. He meant it as a compliment. Nicolai’s work is, indeed, mathematical. His music, much of it released under the alias Alva Noto, reveals a systematic approach, a conceptual rigor. But his work also has a strong emotional undercurrent, with a laser-like focus that can be almost blinding in its intensity.
His exhibition ‘Moiré’ explores the so-called moiré effect – the visual interference patterns created when two patterns are overlaid on top of each other. The exhibition is a sea of black lines; it all seems stark and severe at first, but if you look closely, the lines soften and become mesmerizing. Spend another few minutes staring at the rigid black and white structures, and they become kaleidoscopic, curved, sensual. A thick companion volume, Moiré Index (2010), takes the show a step further, displaying countless variations of moiré patterns varying by different mathematical parameters. (The tome is the sequel to Grid Index – a book of grid systems and geometric patterns that Nicolai published in 2009.)
Musicians have been fascinated with moiré patterns for decades. The Minimalist composer Steve Reich’s 1965 tape-loop piece ‘It’s Gonna Rain’ could be thought of as a moiré pattern inscribed in audio. In the piece, two identical loops, played on two identical tape recorders, slowly slip out of sync due to a slight variation in motor speed – generating an intriguingly complex result. The work was an early influence on Brian Eno, whose concept of ‘generative music’ – music that ‘grows’ itself from small, simple inputs – was deeply inspired by Reich’s early ‘phasing’ pieces.
While Nicolai is not a generative musician per se, his deep interest in moiré patterns, as a visual artist, follows the same logic as his music. In the digital era, moiré patterns share a common language in both sound and vision. When we talk about reducing moiré effects in an image – they’re generally considered a cool optical effect at best, and an unwanted artifact at worst – we may talk about reducing ‘noise,’ using filters, or anti-aliasing. These are the same terms used in audio, and digital signal processing.
Nicolai’s visual work is so well integrated with his work in sound that while there’s no music to be heard here – unless the hum of an air compressor counts – you can see music in everything. One wall displays a series of painstaking, hand-drawn moiré patterns – a fine black mesh of lines, arranged in undulating shapes that resemble sections of sine waves. In Moiré rota (2010), two rotating columns edged with super-bright white LED lights spin rapidly, creating glittering trails of moirés in the air by principles of visual superimposition. In Moiré schatten (Moiré shadows, 2010) – ‘schatten’ means ‘shadows’ in German – a sharply lit array of black strings is spun in front of a box that is filled with air, so that the strings and their shadows generate complex whorls that vary dramatically depending on slight gusts of air, and your own point of view.
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