Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Guided by Imagery: Kurt Hentschlager's "Hive"

Kurt Hentschlager, still from Hive, 2011. 3D animated audiovisual installation.
This fall the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust has organized a month-long, wide-ranging downtown Festival of Firsts. For their purposes, a "first" is a work of contemporary art in any medium—theater, film, public art—that has not yet been presented in the United States. It was my great pleasure recently to see as part of the current Festival a beautiful and provocative video installation at the Wood Street Galleries. 

The artist, Kurt Hentschlager, is a native of Austria, currently a Visiting Artist at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Although this is the first time Hive has been presented in America, Hentschlager has been showing internationally since 1983. His works have appeared at the Venice Biennale, in Amsterdam, Beijing, Seoul, and in London as part of the commissioned work for the 2012 Olympics.

Hive happens on two large, rectangular screens that meet to form an open angle of about 130º in the middle of a black box theatre. The space is so impenetrably dark that it would elude detection by a wing of enemy bombers, let alone those of us with aging vision, suddenly paralyzed with fear and fearful of moving lest we fall over space rubble, a floating astronaut, or even seating. But once I fell onto a bench and recovered myself, it wasn't hard to concentrate on the alluring Out There.

The projections are computer-generated and they continue without beginning or end. The pinkish images on both black screens are clusters—swarms, one would say—that sometimes grow dense and tangled and at other times disperse, dissolving into evaporating components. 

These clusters that aggregate and pull apart are formed of limber, flexible, faceless human figures. Each is softly shaped as if it were photographed at a great distance: details like digits and the shaded planes of the torso or back are missing. They could be flesh-tone stocking dolls of dancers. None of the individuals matter, though, because they move in large groups, responding to some instinctive, mass communication that causes them to swarm into tight or loose configurations, to fly and to form again, to be a tight knot or a dispersed cloud against their background of ambiguous space.

Despite possessing the information that the images were computer-generated, I could not resist the impulse to create human narrative from their randomness. Even less could I fail to draw conclusions from the comparisons I couldn't help but make between the activities on the two screens. My irresistible impulse to make stories was based on the sizes, shapes, positions, density, and movements of the clustered individuals. Because the shapes moved with waving and bending human limbs, I couldn't avoid attributing moral qualities to their actions on the screens, even knowing those actions were generated by computer, not by human will. I saw whatever happened on each screen as a response to or as a dialogue with the other. Logically, this is silliness. In my mind, as I watched the videos, it seemed inevitable.

Kurt Hentschlager, still from Hive, 2011. 3D animated audiovisual installation.
But the work is titled HiveWhat if the images had literally been of bees? Or multitudes of other identical, abstract shapes? Where would my ability—my wish—to attribute human intention, will, and morality end up?

Upon entering the black box theater, the viewer of Hive is offered 3D glasses. I watched through these for a while at the beginning of my experience. Very interesting and exciting, but I concluded that I preferred it without that enhancement. 3D vision brought individuals from the cluster and separated the swarm's density into layers. These effects seemed to me to add nothing, though, to the core issues of the event and in fact ultimately distracted with its beguiling novelty.

With Hive I could have spent could have spent hours in the dark, fully engaged. The mind has its own dimensions, and one moves effortlessly among planes of contemplation as these animated figures swarm. Where am I in the swarm? Am I comfortable there, or struggling to leap away? 

Who am I and what is my position as I watch? Who is the artist, the other person on this side of the screen, viewing with me in the dark? Are we distant divinities witnessing the random movements of a system ruled by a logic long since set in motion?

Here's hoping Hive wil be seen soon in more American settings. Once you find your way into the darkened room, you barely even have to wonder, "What's this about?" As easily as the images and sounds are computer generated, just so easily does your mind leap to make associations among the individuals, the massed and swirling society, and the black, blank universe. Hentschlager provides all the elements from which we create our own narratives of humankind—the worker bee, or the consciousness of the universe.
Kurt Hentschlager, still from Hive, 2011. 3D animated audiovisual installation.

The Festival of Firsts in Pittsburgh runs through October 26. Details can be found at the link, above. Hive is available for the duration of the Festival.

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