Berlin-based artist Björn Dahlem creates imaginary models of the cosmos and illustrates abstract principles of astrophysics using discarded materials such as untreated lumber, industrial neon light tubes, dustbusters, or carpet remnants. At turns earnest and wryly humorous, these constructions subvert the viewer's expectations of precise scientific models and question the mythological and narrative qualities of scientific theories as they develop within popular culture.
Hammer Projects are curated by James Elaine.
Björn Dahlem was born in Munich in 1974 and currently lives in Berlin. He studied at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf from 1994 to 2000. Solo exhibitions include Coma Sculptor at Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York; Im Krypton at Galerie Maschenmode Guido W. Baudach, Berlin; and Club Horror Vacui at Luis Campaña, Cologne. Recent group exhibition venues include Blum & Poe, Los Angeles; Galerie Neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Kunstverein Hannover; Kunstverein Düsseldorf; and Kunstverein Hamburg.
Björn Dahlem: Solaris
By Andreas Schlaegel
Solaris, Björn Dahlem’s spectacular new installation at the Hammer Museum, owes its title to the fictional planet in the eponymous 1972 film by Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, based on a novel by Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem. The planet itself, under the close scrutiny of scientists trying to determine the reasons for inexplicable phenomena that suggest the presence of a nonhuman and completely alien intelligence, is the film’s unlikely protagonist. The scientists learn that it is capable of playing tricks on the human mind—reproducing reflections of their astronauts’ memories, fears, dreams, and wishes—and they are forced to travel to the inner realms of human nature and culture. It is as if Hollywood, the dream factory itself, has come to life on this primeval soup of a planet.
It is not only from the sphere of fiction that Björn Dahlem draws inspiration; his work is informed by the whole universe provided by the language of popular science, its imagery, models, and phrases. He translates these into idiosyncratic sculptural constructions and architectural installations, based on thorough and wide-ranging historical and scientific research. Although he employs well-established theoretical models of the microcosm and macrocosm, theories pale in confrontation with the stunning virtuosity of his cunning inventions, the bold elegance of the linear constructions he easily knocks up into the exhibition space, his use of frugal means and concise humor. Orchestrated from cheap, standardized, and overfamiliar DIY materials—wood battens, two-by-fours, Styrofoam, light bulbs, fluorescent tubes, and the occasional sausage or cucumber—his works point to a different world behind the physical models that they appear to illustrate. As precise as they are in rendering the abstract issues of complex scientific theories in three-dimensional sketches, these structures probe model, theory, and possibly even the concepts of science and scientific truth as such. In a similar vein, Lem spoke of science as a presumptuous way to obtain truth: “The contact, the target that is aimed for, is as nebulous and obscure as the Congregation of Saints or the coming of the Messiah. The exploration is similar to the methodological formulas of the existing liturgical system; the scientists’ humbling labor consists of waiting for fulfillment, for the annunciation, because between Solaris and earth there are and cannot be any bridges.”
Dahlem’s installation Solaris is a parallel universe to the novel as well as to contemporary popular science. Simultaneously precise and playful, his sculptures can’t be limited to any one specific reading; they contain more lyrical content than their titles suggest. In fact, their titles tend to lead the viewer to punch lines so obvious that they become questionable. This rebuke is part of a frivolous play in which the artist invites the viewer to participate, in the tradition of the Gedankenexperiment, an experiment conducted only in the mind.
The ensemble of a modified cat tree, an atomic lattice structure, a Styrofoam wall with window slits, a hybrid of an electric stool and an enlightenment apparatus, along with a double fluorescent tube railing, make up the environment of Dahlem’s Club Schrödinger’s Katze. The work refers to the subtly sadistic thought experiment suggested by Erwin Schrödinger, the Austrian physicist who devised the central equation of quantum mechanics. To sum up the problematic coexistence of the atomic and the everyday worlds, Schrödinger suggests imagining a cat in a sealed box with an elaborate quantum-mechanics-based cat-killing device that gives the cat a 50 percent chance of survival. After a while the cat in the box is either alive or dead, and we won’t know unless we open the box. Until then the cat will hover in a state of being both simultaneously—a ghost, oscillating between life and death. Consequently, in Dahlem’s peculiarly claustrophobic “club,” there is no cat, and everything has been set up to allow the viewer to experience firsthand the tragicomic implications of quantum mechanics, in which objects exist only as areas of possibility. Transferring this idea to the realm of human experience, all possibilities exist, on a poetic and emotional if rather absurd level, making one wonder what quanta of atoms feel and, finally, whether the universe cares what a human being feels.
The work of Björn Dahlem suggests that it cares a lot. His installations describe scientific approaches that have gone beyond the immediate to explore the unfathomable, thereby populating the universe with a fairy-tale cast ranging from quarks of different charms and flavors to enormous red giants, white dwarves, dying stars, black holes, and wormholes.
But there is more to this work than a metaphysical home-base tour de force or a DIY ghost train into the collective unconscious of science. As much as the topics of Dahlem’s works echo current scientific discourse, the complex geometry employed in his shifty Styrofoam architecture and proliferating lattice structures not only pokes fun at atomic models but also pays homage to the symbolic geometry of Renaissance art, such as the magic square in Albrecht Dürer’s famous engraving Melencolia. It may not appear so at first glance, but Dahlem’s work is rooted in the tradition of German romanticism, in its search for deeper truth in nature and its reflection. He does nothing less than expand the famous night skies of German nineteenth-century painter Caspar David Friedrich to include the present-day concept of the world and reflect the qualms of contemporary human beings. The awe-inspiring meta-structures of Dahlem’s sculptures, collages, and installations inject a rejuvenating blitz of contemporaneity into the nineteenth-century genre of the Seelenlandschaft, the landscape of the soul, which reflects the hidden depths and the true emotions of the innermost self, the core of humanity, thereby revealing the true cosmic order of the universe.
It was of course in a dream that Dahlem himself experienced a trip into his inner self. He was at a friend’s place when suddenly gravitation shifted into a strange diagonal. This movement produced a cosmic whirl resembling the space/time curvature of a black hole, which sucked him in to the depths of his very soul, which turned out to be an oddly shaped confined space with wall-to-wall tiling. On closer inspection he found that the tiles weren’t fixed permanently, but stuck to the wall like magnets on a refrigerator door. Curious, he exchanged two tiles, but before he could put them back in their original positions, he was sucked out of himself again and spat back into the normality of his friend’s place. Since then, he says, he has felt an increasing anxiety. After all, he meddled not only with his soul but also with the cosmic order. At the Hammer he is setting the record straight.
Andreas Schlaegel is an artist and writer living in Berlin.
Hammer Projects are made possible with support from The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, The Annenberg Foundation, the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, and members of the Hammer Circle.