Galerie Barbara Wien, Berlin, Germany
Swedish artist Nina Canell engages in a kind of stoner science, her easygoing experiment-based practice yielding whimsy, poetry and humour. Canell’s interest in cause and effect, and her fondness for abject materials and casual apparatus—plastic buckets, plastic bags and plastic funnels; cassette players, cables, and electric fans—lead to artfully informal assemblages of objects that often beget real results, slight as they may be. For ‘Walking on No-Top Hill’, the New York-based artist has turned Barbara Wien Galerie into a kind of spare, high-school science fair. A fair, it should be noted, in which the top prize does not reward scientific breakthroughs but rather giddy, lo-fi demonstrations of the way the physical world—and the sweet awesomeness of its daily electrical phenomena—works.
In Sleep Machine (all works 2008), a small plastic bag, slightly ripped and of a vivid verdant hue, is affixed to the wall somewhere near your knees. What keeps it there is a handily wrought device: about two feet away is a small electric fan tied to the top of a broom handle, itself stuck into a plastic funnel sitting sturdily on the floor. The thread of green—in the bag, the funnel, and a plastic tip on the broom handle—ties the whole assemblage together, and the fluttering of the bag, pressing its bright face against the smooth white wall, is a nice touch too. While the work’s methodology is quickly understood, its inexplicable poetry—the work works in both senses—is not; Canell shows us her bag of tricks but we remain mystified.
If, in Sleep Machine, Canell readily reveals her hand, in Triangular Interlude she is a little more poker-faced. The sound piece comprises two bulky black cassette players, hung back-to-back from the ceiling. The arrangement has an attractive symmetry, but its odd charge comes from its fuzzy recording of Canell’s attempts to tape the sound of a triangle. Instructively, this was done in the most straightforward manner possible: she recorded herself riding a bike in the aforementioned shape. If this experiment feels cloyingly sincere, it is offset by its more mysterious neighbour, Mutual Leap (After Nollét), another hanging work but crafted from a round of femur bones and string. Mutual Leap pays tribute to Jean-Antoine Nollét, a French clergyman and physicist who, in the 18th century, made one of the first electrometers (his fellow monks acted as very patient, and often shocked, guinea pigs).
Nothing blurs the boundary of object and casual scientific performance, a border that Canell seems to favor, more than the exhibition’s pièce de résistance, Anatomy of Dirt in Quiet Water. An experiment less contained than sprawled over the gallery floor, its snakelike cables connect lights, amplifiers, hydrophones and pipes, all of which work together to exchange and transform energy. A motor causes vibrations picked up by a mic, while also triggering a light and a basin of seemingly still black water, the movement of which is also amplified. While Canell’s interest often lies in making visible what is invisible, her intention extends to sound and making heard what normally passes unheard. This is not a unique aim in art, which often portends to make the inexplicable, well, explicable, but in Canell’s light, dexterous hands and able ear, her exploratory sculptures come across as vivifying, instructive, and—for empirical knowledge that’s been around forever—something new.
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