Article by Alena Sokhan in Berlin // Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015
Something strange happens in Christoph Keller‘s current exhibition at Esther Schipper Gallery. Occupying the border zone between art and science, the exhibition, titled Grey Magic is a revival of parapsychological experiments and fringe science from the turn of the century, and an inquiry into representation. The complex mechanisms of the sculptural and print works leads into a deep exploration of the materiality of images and the workings of the imagination. This exhibition takes its inspiration from German author and philosopher Salomo Friedländer (1871-1946), who also wrote under the pseudonym Mynona (the reverse of the word ‘anonymous’ in German). Friedländer was deeply engaged into Eccentric Perception and Aether Theory, what is now termed pseudoscience.
Friedländer wrote Grey Magic, a book that the show takes its name from. One series of ten prints combine spiral drawings with short notes that summarize the chapters of the book. These summaries take the form of scenographic notes, as if for a film. “8.2. Magic trick with sugar spoon, Sucram’s autosuggestive disappearance,” reads one note, “8.3. Excursus and controversial discussion about magic of reason + ethics,” reads another. Keller explains that he wanted the viewer to imagine this book, fill the notes in and construct a personal, mental movie of what the book could have been.
The largest work, that cuts through and at the same time unites the gallery space, is ‘Magic Mirror Curtain,’ a long, snaking wall of 130 narrow panels that are suspended from the ceiling and rotate slowly. One side of each panel is reflective, the other side of the panels composes a large pendulum drawing. The panels never align long enough to form a whole image: the work is endlessly fractured though at the same time as the work extends beyond itself, assembling a moving image that incorporates the entire room, the other works and the viewer, all reflected in the panels, with the spiral drawing on the other side. This work derives from Friedländer’s theory of eccentric perception, in which he believes that as a viewer you become one with the object that you see, or even more so, that the universe is not the object of our perception but the organ of it.
How did Friedländer come up with such a bizarre, bordering on ridiculous, theory and honestly believe it would pass as plausible science? Keller explains that Friedländer was living in a time when science underwent massive paradigm shifts: “like the discovery of radioactivity, field theory, Einstein’s proposals, and so on,” Keller says, “and there was an expectation that there would be more to come.” Friedländer’s ideas were outlandish, but by being outlandish they actually conformed to the reality of the time.
The exhibition is a portal to that historical period. The show requires some sort of conceptual acrobatics, the more I understand of it the more enjoyable it is, though the harder it becomes to keep track of what exactly is going on. The first difficulty lies in understanding the relationship between the object and the image in Keller’s works, and his particular relationship to history, science and art. One simple way to approach the exhibition is to think of it as a representation of certain parascientific convictions from the early 20th century. In that case, ‘Mental Radio’ is a ‘representation’ of a sensorial experiment, except it is also a sensorial experiment, requiring the viewer to fill out a questionnaire, then lie down for 10-15 minutes under a bright lamp wearing goggles, and headphones playing white noise. Afterwards the viewer is asked to draw or write what he or she saw. Why recreate this experiment? The actual results would have little value for scientific research now, though would be a legitimate experiment done in the mid-20th century.
This work produces an interesting reflection on the difference between science and art. As Keller explains, science looks for a truth that is universal and immutable, which is very different from the truth that is found in art. “The art object is not true in a scientific way,” says Keller, “but it is true in its own way.” Art contains truths that are multiple and divergent, and a theory that no longer possesses ‘value’ for science can still hold value as art.
However, it is important to remember that Keller is not simply interested in sensationalizing absurd theories in a scientific freak show. His fascination lies in exploring the different, creative ways in which people understood their perceptions. “Am I taking Friedländer seriously?” Keller repeats my question, “I think I always do when I am working with fringe science, I try to understand what they are saying and how I could relate to it in some way. There is no prejudice in my work. I don’t necessarily believe the theories are ‘legitimate’ science but I take them as seriously as I would take mainstream science – I just don’t compare them.”
The works in the show all generate or stimulate images that are much more vivid and animated than what is simply represented by the objects. The ‘Mental Radio’ experiment is a recreation of a telepathic/sensorial experiment, an early predecessor to the Ganzfeld experiments. But more than simply a representation of this experiment, the ‘Mental Radio’ as an art object – the assemblage of the bed, the lamp, the headphones and soundtrack of white noise – effectively induces the viewer to see patterns, colors, shapes, objects.
Likewise, ‘Title Tool for an Imaginary Cinema’ is a sign board for a non-existent movie theater, along with an assortment of letters that can be rearranged to announce movies that could be playing. It is more than simply a cinema marquee though, it also stimulates an image of the film that the title refers to. In the age of virtual reality and digital communications technologies, the nature of reality has once again changed in a dramatic way. Keller explains, “there is no more reality or objects that you can simply go and investigate, everything becomes an emanation of its media appearance.” Images have a reality and a presence, but who or what shapes them? What animates them and gives them life? “I reverse the view of the object, that pretends to be the origin of the image, to a situation where the origin of the image becomes much more questionable.” Keller explains succinctly, “The image comes from inside of you but also not from inside of you, since the images you have are also shaped by cultural consciousness, and media, and so on, which then evokes the question: where do images come from, and where are they?”
In this show scientific truths and historical periods can renounce their stasis and immutability. “This is what a gallery or museum space can offer – a space where ideas and histories can live and be meaningful,” Keller tells me. The exhibition is for watching, creating animate and unique images in each viewer. “The gallery offers a space where things can be observed, the exhibition is sort of like an observatory for the world.”
“Grey Magic” – CHRISTOPH KELLER
Exhibition: Jun. 27 – Sep. 05, 2015
Schöneberger Ufer 65 (click here for map)
Alena Sokhan is working on her Masters in Media and Communications at the European Graduate School. Her research interests lie in the topics of Queer Theory, Critical Theory, Film and New Media Art, and Economics.