in Features | 03 MAR 04
Featured in
Issue 81

In the Line of Fire

Jeppe Hein

in Features | 03 MAR 04

Interactive is a worrying word. It's often lumped together with other vague and dubious concepts such as 'multi-media' or, even worse, 'web' art and its insistence that you should actually participate is presumptuous - often the last thing you want to do in a gallery is join in. Almost all of Danish artist Jeppe Hein's sculptures and installations could be called interactive, but they do so in such a cunningly passive-aggressive manner that they draw you in unawares.

Take for instance 360º Presence (2002), a seemingly unassuming sculpture that was the cause of quite a commotion, as well as considerable physical damage, during its six-week run in a Berlin gallery. A plain steel sphere about a foot in diameter, it sits quietly on the gallery floor until you enter the room, when it begins to roll across the space. Gathering momentum, it starts to hurtle around uncontrollably until colliding with something (a wall, a door, someone's legs), pausing for a moment and then trundling off in another direction. Although it did succeed in destroying practically everything below shin height in Johann König's brand new gallery, its destructive tendencies are more accidental than malevolent, like those of a hyperactive toddler or an overexcited puppy. As this is an 'interactive' sculpture, however, whose odyssey of destruction was initiated by your arrival, you are to a large extent responsible; the reluctant minder of an unruly creature. It is hard to maintain a critical detachment towards an object that threatens to bruise your kneecaps and blames you for it too; and even harder to consider the intention of the artist when it seems to have a quite independent intention of its own. The object is animated with a mobile spirit that seems to usurp the artist's will and remove him from the equation, leaving nothing in the way of the one-on-one relationship with the spectator that it insists on.

Many of Hein's works rely on the unexpected mobility of an inanimate object for their disarming effect. 360º Presence is no exception; it is controlled by a sophisticated system of sensors that detect external movement and instigate its own internal motion. But unlike Olafur Eliasson (an influence Hein is quick to acknowledge), who leaves the mechanics of his man-made spectacles visible, Hein ensures that the mechanisms controlling his works are always hidden. Their motion seems as simple and obvious as that of a mobile blown by the wind, though here the activating force is a human presence. The works can be subtle, as in Let Me Show You the World (2000), a tiny hole in a wall which invites you to peer into it; when you do so, a soft breeze flutters your eyelashes, like a whispered secret. Or they can be beautifully childish, like Space in Action / Action in Space (2002), a fountain consisting of a circular wall of water, one section of which shuts off abruptly when you approach, inviting you to enter the 'room' inside (once you enter, the water wall shoots back up and you seem trapped, until you notice that the mechanism works the other way round as well). Or bombastic, like Bear the Consequences (2003), where your entrance into the gallery is greeted with flames bursting from the opposite wall, that get bigger and hotter the closer you get. As compelling as a circus fire-breather, it is an awesome sight laced with enough danger to make the hairs on your arm stand on end. In both cases the gadgetry, whether a simple rotary fan suspended at eye level, blowing cool air through the hole, or the complicated machinery needed to produce a billowing flame that anticipates your presence, is concealed behind a fake wall. The end result is mysterious, seductive and seems to speak to you directly with a disarming frankness.

Many of the most effective visual gags and simple spectacles have their roots in the circus or the fun house, and Hein takes his cue from both. The difference is that his audience don't know what they've got coming to them. His works appear modest, using clear forms such as the sphere; they can be unassuming to the point of near invisibility, like the small hole in the otherwise empty wall, or else they are totally disguised. You would be hard pressed, for example, to identify the work by Hein in a room full of On Kawara date paintings at the MMK in Frankfurt. That is, until you sit on the bench in the middle of the room and it takes off beneath you (Moving Bench #2, 2002). A simple clownish trick, it shatters any contemplative calm the Kawaras may have inspired. Knowing what is going to happen, it is tempting to wait for the next unsuspecting participant.

Hein brought a similarly mischievous spirit into Nicolai Wallner's Copenhagen gallery for his first solo show there. The gallery itself was completely empty, but if you stayed around long enough, you might have realized that one of the walls was moving, silently creeping forwards until the room was just two metres wide (Changing Space, 2003). A look in the back office would show you a gorgeous globe lit up in coloured neon, but when you entered the room it went out and was left looking grey and uninspiring (No Presence, 2003). Of course, once you left, it lit up again. Here, like Elmgreen & Dragset, Hein refuses to give us anything extraneous to look at, using the structures of the 'white cube' itself as his raw material and mocking our passive acceptance of their neutral presence. He animates them, literally, with a cheeky kinetic spirit, making the walls creep up on you while the sculptures show off when your back is turned: 'He's behind you!' This is institutional critique, pantomime style.

Hein's light-hearted interventions may startle with their intimacy, or tease with a hint of danger; they may throw into doubt the fixed nature of the institutional architecture we take for granted, but they do not threaten to topple these edifices or burn down the gallery (although it might be interesting to see the burning flame piece installed in the room full of On Kawaras). Instead, they build on the accepted patterns of our behaviour, playing with the unspoken boundaries that dictate the proper distance between artwork and audience and challenging the quick run-in, run-out approach of many a gallery-goer. As tired as it may sound, Hein does seek to reactivate the viewing experience, jolting the spectator out of complacent assumptions by enabling the art object to answer back, so to speak, or even to initiate the conversation, so that the appropriate response is the cartoon double take. Reversing the theme of Toy Story (1995), where the toys only come to life when the humans aren't watching, here the artworks are animated by and reliant on the audience's absolute attention. Passivity is not an option for Hein's audience, as the work demands a response. As he says: 'I want to show that the work isn't anything on its own, it's only what the public informs it with.'

A series of works using highly polished steel spheres are like the polite, well-groomed cousins of Hein's 360º Presence. Like Robert Morris' Mirrored Cubes (1965), they are almost invisible, disappearing beneath their own reflective surfaces, but whereas Morris' cubes dissect the space into geometric fragments of floor and wall, these distorting mirror balls melt the walls, floor and ceiling into one continuous surface, rounding off the corners of the white cube. The environment is further destabilized by the balls' constant motion as they roll around ponderously, presenting ever new views while you, the spectator, are reflected always centre frame within the seamless gallery space.

A group of seven such spheres entitled Continuity Reflecting Space (2003), shown in the foyer of La Caixa in Barcelona, mirrors its audience not only literally but also metaphorically. When the museum opens, the balls cling together tentatively in the centre of the foyer, but throughout the course of the day they begin to wander off on their own, bumbling between bookshop and information desk in a comic analogy of the museum visitors' own indecision. Although undeniably attractive, the significance of these shiny objects lies more in their provoking a re-evaluation of the complex web of connections that occurs within the museum space: not only between spectator and artwork but also between one artwork and another (each sphere contains the reflection of magnificent works by Lucio Fontana and Sol LeWitt that also hang in the foyer), or even one spectator and another. Encouraged by the endearing anthropomorphism of the inanimate object made mobile, we may talk to strangers in the gallery, ask questions, make friends. Perhaps rather than calling them 'interactive', it would be more accurate to refer to these as genuinely 'social sculptures', even if a piece such as Sving (2003) - a porch swing that swings not just back and forth but all the way round in endless, frantically fast revolutions - would make any physical engagement with it a breakneck endeavour. Hein's works are charming and, if demanding, are entertaining in return. They recharge the social aspect of the art experience, reminding us that all art is, in fact, interactive and asks for a direct engagement that may be intimidating or even embarrassing, but is very often worth it. So go on, join in.