Berlin artist Nik Nowak’s Echo ηχώ exhibition, up until June 30 at the Berlinische Galerie in Kreuzberg, is a harmoniously orchestrated installation that intelligently melds themes of identity and replication in a transient digital age through juxtaposed ancient classical and heavily engineered technological media and concepts. The show was aptly granted the 2014 GASAG award — a prestigious art prize issued annually by the Berlinische Gallerie that celebrates the intersection of art, science and technology.
Upon entering the space’s grand rectangular corridor, the installation is immediately interactive. The viewer is greeted by two ‘Roomba’-esque WWII replica tank drones that perceive movement and roll toward it. One of the drones is equipped with a microphone that records viewers’ sounds within a short radius and plays them back through an internal speaker, and the other transmits both these sounds and the mechanical whirring of the robots’ movements themselves through two magnanimous stacks of speakers at opposing ends of the hall. The curator was giving a tour in German so I only caught bits and pieces but I’m pretty sure I heard something about their brains being constructed from hacked Xbox parts.
The unsettling autonomy of these two little robots results in a rather funny bilateral interaction to observe between the viewer and the work. People would gather around the tanks to get a closer look but upon realizing that they are the ones being watched and perceived and mimicked would then react accordingly and perhaps startle and/or back away. A detail that I appreciated was the simultaneous practicality and conceptual consistency of the additional pillars that Nowak had to erect in one doorway of the space: the way the drones perceive matter and blockades is what keeps them contained in the room, so in one passage way to another section in the museum Nowak had to build extra pillars to fill in the negative space and keep the tanks confined. The curator knocked on the surfaces of the columns to illustrate this point; another smart instance of mimicry in the installation, temporary hollow wooden pillars that are visually identical to the permanent concrete ones in the space.
I also particularly appreciate this view from the upper level of the gallery, it’s reminiscent of the Parthenon or some Greek amphitheater where all is seen and heard, unbeknownst to the objects of the perceiving subject overhead. The theme of surveillance and questionably consensual perception continues.
On the wall to the left there is a wonderfully out of place Renaissance painting featuring a bewildered nude with her fingers jammed in her ears (potentially my favorite part of the exhibit).
We learn later that this is a Chinese copy of the original painting depicting the myth of Echo by Alexandre Cabanel. Echo was a nymph that got under Hera’s feathers (presumably having something to do with her floozy husband) so Hera jealously punished Echo with the affliction of only being able to repeat what was last spoken to her. Again picking up bytes from the curator, I heard something about how Nowak wanted initially to borrow the original painting from the Met but it was way too expensive so he decided to have the replica made instead. But I actually much prefer what that extra step does for the piece. Not only does the content refer to the show’s theme of echoed mimesis, but the painting itself is a mimic of the original. Cute.
In the rear of the space, behind the second set of subwoofers and tweeters, there is a white hexagonal “anti-echo chamber.” The small interior is lined with pyramidal soundproofing foam and gently illuminated with backlighting. The idea is that after perambulating the exhibit the viewer can then enter this pure space and experience the absence of the dull mechanical din from the rest of the installation. The room is without a ceiling however, and so doesn’t totally eliminate sound at least to my perception, but it does achieve a sense of further-than-actual distance from the rest of the work. And perhaps this is what Nowak intended, who can say. Imbedded in the foam on one wall is a marble slab, classically inscribed with the word ‘DELETHE’ (my second favorite bit).
Nowak cleverly combines ‘delete,’ a term that evokes digital connotations like the ‘delete’ key on a computer keyboard, with ‘Lethe,’ one of the five rivers of Hades in Greek mythology that is associated with forgetfulness. Λήθη is a cool Ancient Greek word that means ‘concealment’ or ‘oblivion,’ and relates interestingly to the word for truth, ἀλήθεια, together with the privative alpha translating literally as ‘un-concealment’ or ‘un-oblivion.’ A very Platonic way of looking at ‘truth.’ Not sure how everyone else feels about these sorts of juxtaposed era-culture amalgamations, but anything that relates Ancient Greek concepts to modern day anxieties makes me swoon, guys.
I kind of just assumed this was one of those Felix González-Torres ‘take-one-of-things-from-the-heap-of-things-on-the-ground’ sorts of situations and took one of the codes for myself, hope that was the case…or perhaps the action was an example of my American lack of discretion and self-censorship together with my anxiety to hold fast to data and artifacts of things past so as to not forget. At any rate, the overall masterful craftsmanship, conceptual coherence, and attention to detail in this show combined with its timeless/timely fundamentally human subject matter really make for an experience that persists the viewers’ imagination in a lasting manner (if the viewer is me, anyway). Touché, Nowak. (Or rather, Gute Arbeit).
Marina Claire is Ohio Edit‘s Arts Columnist and International Correspondent. She is a student of Philosophy and Fine Arts at the New School in Manhattan and is studying abroad at Universität der Künste in Berlin.