Habitually accompanied by signs in the museums that instruct you to ‘Please do not touch’, reinforce that after all art in museums is to be looked at, and not to be touched, in order to be appreciated or understood. Rebelling against such customs of the art world, and presenting an exhibition which goes above and beyond just ‘observing’ art, Presence at the Groninger Museum pushes visitors to make the artwork while the artwork makes them.
The artwork intentionally encourages visitors to touch, push, lie down, roll, draw and write – it is all an integral and deliberate part of the exhibition. A new and interactive work of art by innovator and Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde, Presence was specially developed for the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands, and presents a surreal, neon infested dream landscape.
This is Roosegaarde’s first major solo project for a museum. His oeuvre till date has consisted of installations specific to outdoor public sites, monumental in scale and incorporating natural elements such as water, air and light – evident in Dune, Waterlicht and Smog Free Tower, among others. With Presence, unlike his previous works, Roosegaarde delves into museum-specific work, requiring a radical change in his usual mindset of approaching an installation, to conform within a museum’s four walls.
This perspective to a museum experience is unexpected and unpredictable – an experiment in becoming aware, as a proposed physical activity, as opposed to merely looking at and thinking about the artwork. Presence doesn’t necessarily offer solutions or induce deep questions, it majorly rouses people’s imagination and creativity, stimulated and combined with their engagement.
I hope this exhibition will elicit people’s hidden capital and show them, as well as make them feel that they are present, not through a screen, but with their whole bodies, in the here and now. Presence is an undownloadable experience. – Daan Roosegaarde
In fact, this meant that the museum had to adjust to Roosegaarde’s tactics as well. The Groninger Museum in compliance removed all equipment that keeps visitors at a distance, refraining them from touching or spoiling the artwork - pedestals, strings, fences, glass covers, and invisible security systems with sensors and lines on the floor. Instead it welcomes visitors at the art space to indulge in the exhibition, to feel, see and become the artwork.
Presence covers an entire floor, its form and colour changing continually, steered by the visitor’s interaction. The exhibition makes the visitors feel like giants in one space, while transitioning into ants in the next, andconstantly ensures that people experience different things. Some features are fixed and solid, while others are fluid – all of it is an invitation to either intervene and become the art, or to simply observe and marvel. Visitors enter as mere spectators first, and then become makers of the art, and fascinatingly, transition into the very elements of the installation.
With Presence, Roosegaarde brings together (bio)technology, science, design and art, a spectacle which he describes as ‘techno-poetry’.
Presence takes visitors on a dream like peregrination, following various routes interspersed in different atmospheres within the museum space, an inquiry into display forms in which the protagonists are not only sight, but also immersion, touch and movement. Aided by a Roosegaarde-ish visual and sensory vocabulary of light, dark, big, small, hard, soft, square and round, the exhibition has characteristics of his geometrically abstract and minimalistic work language.
Light and light-sensitive elements are one of the most visually arresting and talked about facets of the exhibition, inducing dream-like sequential experiences in visitors. A few specific areas persuade associations with renowned pieces of art as well, such as the gridded pattern with gigantic rectangular blocks in the first room, which is motivated by Mondrian paintings and the grimness of the Dutch landscape. Similar to the lights emitted by a photocopier machine, blue light constantly scans the space and people. As this light is blocked by visitors, it leaves traces and prints on the light sensitive floor.
Spherical objects take up another space in the museum, and behave as a freestyle planetarium where visitors build their own personal solar systems. Imperceptibly, this space performs as a pointillist (technique of painting in which small, distinct dots of colour are applied in patterns to form an image) vista, as these objects around people become smaller, looser and more malleable. This neon vista spreads out like a galaxy fashioned out of luminous star dust, invoking more intrigue and interaction from onlookers, encouraging them to plunge in a transformation from singular to joint experiments.
Another striking and cognitive installation is rendered with lolas – tiny, transparent and glowing jellyfish, tracing and mimicking their crusades under the deep sea. As one enters this space, lolas lie dormant, visible purely due to the mysterious light emitted by the floor it lies on. As soon these organisms are touched, they come to life, leaving behind a luminous trail. These jellyfish start to move and as they do, the previously empty canvas of the floor lights up mystically, swiftly exposing a whimsical tangle of green, luminescent lines, bathing the space in a transient, neon light. These phosphorescent lines either resemble cave drawings, graffiti, free scribbles by children or abstract writings of the artist Cy Twombly.
Loosely based on minimalism by light artist James Turrell, the next room is experienced as quite a demanding challenge by the visitors – a vacant, white cube. The only participants in this performance are the visitors and the room, with the space capturing pictures on the people, as opposed to the contrary.
The installation encourages wonderful, impulsive action, not held back by any rules, and a conscious prospect at making their ‘presence’ felt at the exhibition. It affects an individual’s cognition, prompting and poking at their very demeanour, led by on the spot decisions – would you first observe or take the plunge, would you prefer to be in control or just spontaneously react to your surroundings, would you be creative or reflective?
The exhibition is, henceforth, in constant fluctuation, as the visitor’s engagement is its most crucial variable. People are physically and symbolically encouraged to experience what Presence stands for – people’s role and impact on the world. As philosopher Marshall McLuhan articulates, ‘There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew.’
Presence by Daan Roosegaarde is on till January 12, 2020, at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands.