The chasm between belief and knowledge, the sacred and profane, has rarely been bridged with such ease: just three steps connect the stone block in the crypt of Zurich’s Water Church, where the city’s patron saints Felix and Regula were beheaded, with the shiny apparatus installed by Christian Waldvogel on the first floor of the Helmhaus for his exhibition unknown. Die Ordnungen der Zufälligkeit (Unknown. The Orders of Randomness). Though unintended, the contrast between the mysticism of the legendary martyrdoms and Waldvogel’s scientific approach contained a hidden connection: they both point beyond appearance to processes that usually escape experience.
Waldvogel imposed a clear dramaturgy in the exhibition space, but it was easy to miss the first work in the foyer, a square black light box. Its baroque title, Über den anschaulichen Inhalt der quantentheoretischen Kinematik und Mechanik./Le berceau du temps (Die Entstehung der Zeit) (On the Perceptual Content of Quantum Theoretical Kinematics and Mechanics./The Birth of Time, 2014), referenced the 1927 paper by physicist Werner Heisenberg that includes the first ever mention of the uncertainty principle. Waldvogel created a literal illustration of this: the one metre square object soon emerged as a lightbox in which myriads of letters overlapping to varying degrees could be seen (Heisenberg’s original text) as well as swirls that could have come from the Big Bang and the beginning of our universe.
This work marks a cut-off point in Waldvogel’s oeuvre, in the way he talks about his main concerns, the cosmos and the emergence of planet earth. Whereas earlier projects like Globus Cassus (2003–04), Top of the World (2005) and Galileo’s Missing Argument (2010) communicated mainly via arrangements of text and image, this exhibition did entirely without such an approach, leaving the environments to speak for themselves.
In the first room, one could not be sure if one had stumbled into an artist’s studio or an alchemist’s laboratory. A white shelf mounted on a wall held a row of the bulky coloured candles specially produced by the artist for his RPPM (2013, RPPM is short for ‘Random Planet Production Machine’). Two and a half metres tall, this rack-like construction stood in the middle of the space. A burning candle in the upper section secreted wax via a heated funnel, which dropped down onto a so-called random positioning machine – a metal rod rotating by random control at varying speeds around two axes. In spite, or perhaps because of, the unpredictable dripping of the wax and the random rotations of the rod, a sphere formed at its centre – the epitome of perfection, born out of the ‘order of randomness’.
From here, a glass door led through to a biotech lab: for his test set-up Antecedents (2014), Waldvogel filled the main hall of the Helmhaus with 4000 litres of nutrient fluid, almost entirely covering the floor. Visitors could only enter via a glass corridor along one wall. The fluid contained cyanobacteria added by the artist before the opening that were now busily reproducing, mimicking the origin of life: 2.5 million years ago, colonies of these same blue algae were responsible for enriching the Earth’s atmosphere with oxygen sufficient for the development of higher life forms. Here, they conjured up a captivating emerald carpet in the clinically aseptic space. Like the RPPM, this environment, too, obeyed Waldvogel’s principle of perfection borne out of chaos.
In the third room, Planetarium (2013) paid tribute to this principle in allegorical terms. An armillary sphere made of aluminium rings and steel bands, in which the wax balls from the RPPM figured as the planets of a fictional solar system, filled the high-ceilinged space. But within this scientific allegory, the rock in the crypt of the adjoining church could be read as a scattered descendent of Waldvogel’s heavenly bodies; yet another ‘order of randomness’.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell