in Features | 11 NOV 04
Featured in
Issue 87

Bjorn Dahlem

Last year the Hubble Space Telescope took a long, hard, deep look at what appears to be a nearly empty spot inthe night sky near the constellation Fornax

in Features | 11 NOV 04

This research, for a project called Ultra Deep Field, produced images of galaxies that existed around 400 million years after the Big Bang – the oldest and most remote objects ever recorded. In an attempt to make the technique used for this mind-boggling cosmic exploration easier to grasp, the friendly NASA website explains: ‘looking into the Ultra Deep Field is like peering through an eight-foot-long soda straw.’
At Björn Dahlem’s recent exhibition ‘Uto-pia Planitia II’ at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin visitors were confronted with this eye-crossing impossibility. Dahlem’s Utopia Planitia – Hubble 2 (2004) housed a long black straw suspended in the middle of a rectangular construction of crudely screwed-together lengths of pine, shrouded by bead curtains (a nod in the direction of String Theory), surrounded by bottled camomile tea (which could easily have been mistaken for urine samples) and set against a background of fluorescent lights.
Dahlem’s sculpture and installations are full of references to fascinating and bewildering cosmic trivia, space exploration and theories about the make-up and origins of the universe, such as the magical and majestic M Theory. His work often looks as if it has leapt straight from the idiosyncratic drawing board of a space-obsessed draughtsman or amateur inventor. But none of his model works is true to scale or functional in any way, or even illustrative of his favourite sources of inspiration – cosmology, astronomy and their cultural reflection in film. It would be hard, for instance, to imagine scientists in the future trying to unravel his works, as has been done with Leonardo da Vinci’s technical drawings: his dodgy-looking Raumschiff I (Spaceship I, 1998) is not intended ever to fly. Rather, Dahlem assimilates information, anecdotes, trivia and observations from the scientific world as if his practice were a black hole that sucks everything in and where the laws of physics seem not to apply.
Dahlem sees his works as ‘thought models’. They all involve flights of fancy that approach art as if it were a parallel universe inhabited by artists, whom he sees as free-spirited maverick creators whose works involve a voyage into the unknown, an inquiry into dark matter and the mysterious. It’s all about trying to play out in artistic terms the desire to travel into the beyond. And Dahlem likes the idea of taking his viewers’ imaginations along for the ride. The ‘Utopia Planitia II’ exhibition – the title comes from a geological feature on the planet Mars – was organized in four sections: Melancholy, Consolation, Joy and Death. ‘Melancholy’ was Mars Sanatorium Olympus Mons (2004), a polystyrene panelled corridor and chamber that was part temple and part spaceship, containing a reliquary – a rusty zinc bath into which the artist poured a quantity of his own collected tears. As for ‘Consolation’, the Hubble work offered the opportunity to go somewhere else entirely. ‘Joy’ was an expansive, playful constellation of lights like heavenly bodies, called Coma Cluster Heidegger (2004). This work paid irreverent respect to Martin Heidegger, who insisted on the central importance of enlightenment through art, but it also acknowledged, through the inclusion of a traditional Black Forest cuckoo clock, the philosopher’s darker side, in terms of his political leanings. ‘Death’, finally, was a wall with two black shrouded doorways, entitled Exit De Sitter (2004), a reference to the mathematician and astronomer Willem De Sitter. Here, as in many other works, such as Schwarzes Loch (Black Hole, 1998) – a giant sea anemone trapping all manner of things, including a tent and a rubber boot, in its wooden spikes – Dahlem confronts the modest earthly limitations of three-dimensional space with abstract sculptural incursions that test its boundaries.
Dahlem often tries to challenge the earthward-bound potential energy of sculpture by elevating it or by making it dangle through a space or go through the roof. He also involves the fourth dimension, time, in many of his installations by working fast and intuitively, and improvising many of their details in situ in the short periods often allotted for the installation of exhibitions. Using, albeit in an unorthodox way, simple standard materials such as lengths of pine (which Georg Herold and Thomas Hirschhorn have also put to sculptural use) and various kinds of light fitting (including East German designs from an era when atomic models were meant to indicate a brighter future), Dahlem’s work sees a link between amateur science and art, in the way both have their basis in speculation about how things are.