REVIEW: Carsten Nicolai at the Schirn

Carsten Nicolai
20 January-28 March
Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt (

Review by April Lamm

In the winter, thirst acts as my personal barometer. When I get thirsty, I know soon it will snow. Those at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, might be studying this phenomenon in a special room at the end of a long neon-lit hallway, division ‘personal abnormal perception’, subdivision ‘private weather forecasting’, topic ‘winter and the consumption of drink’. Those familiar with the promiscuous collaborations (art, music and science) of Carsten Nicolai will understand immediately what I am getting at.

In Nicolai’s exhibition at the Schirn, older works are put in the context of new in two chambers of reflection -- one light, one dark -- divided by an antechamber mingling the two. The white room called ‘reflex’ makes one feel like a white mouse in a laboratory witnessing the products of a man in deep thought in deep space. While the Wellenwanne, the Telefunken, and Milch works (all 2000) involve the realisation of making sound visible, Reflex (2004) is a cube askew which one can walk into to experience what could be called an ‘acoustic’ James Turrell.

One would think that thought might take place more fluidly in the light, but Nicolai’s exhibition proves otherwise. The darkness of the ‘anti’ chamber reveals mysteries wondrous and inane, less illustrative of the artist’s desire to show the unseen and more illustrative of the wide wild landscape of thought taking shape in the viewer’s mind alone. Void (2002) titles a series of sound traps in the form of sci-fi chrome-plated glass tubes placed on top of the hat racks at mission control. (Ground control to Major Tom.) The questions invoked—‘can sound be stored in a space? What can be perceived when the sealed tubes are opened?’—hark back to the witty seriousness of Duchamp’s Air de Paris (1919) or Robert Barry’s Inert Gas Series (1969). While the Nebelkammer [cloud chamber] (2002) is a machine making visible the invisible cosmic radiation penetrating our lives, the Portrait (2004) is a simple ‘painting’ composed of strips of magnetic tape which have recorded the ‘portrait’ of the sound of a room.

My friend the poet Fred Seidel once said, ‘Everyone talks about the silence of light / But no one talks about the sound’. Nicolai seems to be working on the research team trying to figure out why. . . why we stopped thinking about moonbeams. And though one might be overwhelmed by the nearly religious aesthetic of minimalism, Nicolai is a maverick whose patterns of interference, error, and coincidence might help us reach that planet on which we escape our wish for coherence in a cosmos where the lacework of a snowflake can never be predicted but will (mysteriously) always have the symmetry of six sides.


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