Rafael Lozano Hemmer’s newest exhibition is all about human connection
I entered Arsenal Contemporary Art on a sunny September day looking for a refreshing escape from reality during this pandemic, and that is exactly what I got.
Arsenal’s imposing building swallows you whole and spits you out after giving you a new experience. At least, that has happened to me every time I’ve visited, and this time was no exception.
When I entered the gallery space, there was no room for small thoughts, small artwork, or small expectations. It was the perfect setup for an exhibition of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s work.
Blinded by the sunlight that illuminates the main hall of the gallery, my transition to the temporary exhibition was abrupt and numbing, in a good way. The entire right wing of the giant building is dark and furnished with Lozano-Hemmer’s artifacts, inventions, creations, innovations, tricks and treats to the senses. In other words: Art (with a capital ‘A’).
I made sure to take a picture next to the title of the exhibition: Cercanía. Through this souvenir, I can later savour the delicacy of that specific word in Spanish. The word literally translates to ‘proximity’ or ‘closeness’ but cercanía is much more than that, and denotes a sense of human connection beyond physical presence that is untranslatable. It is intimacy, vulnerability and honesty. And that is what the exhibition is all about.
Cercanía has been very judiciously adapted and created around COVID-19 protocols. Even though every piece is meant to be experienced while adhering to the two-metre social distancing rule, I felt connected to everyone that has passed through it and those who will pass later.
I walked to the main room where different rays, projections, screens, and spotlights created light and played with the senses. One of them had sensors that followed and projected my steps and shadows, combining them with those of other visitors. Another took a picture of my face and overlapped it with the faces of others creating new identities, connections and funny faces.
Another one captured my heartbeat through a camera — I didn’t even need to touch a thing — and placed me in a virtual space where I could communicate with other heartbeats around the world.
The piece in the corner translated data from people murdered by guns in North America into an inverted noose that vibrated every ten seconds. I wished it wouldn’t move at all.
The installation in the other room ephemerally recreated my portrait on water mist in the most magical way. I did it at least five times until I noticed people waiting in line behind me. My misty portrait stayed for others to see, so, actually, it is not that ephemeral.
The big work blinded me, in a way that was different from how the sun does. There were movement sensors that detected me approaching the two giant screens filled with random letters. As soon as I walked, they followed me. I lay on the ground facing this “tableau vivant” and let letters arrange, move and fill the space before me, under me, next to me and above me, until I saw sentences form and disappear in the same way they had come. I stayed until I got dizzy.
My favourite piece, Field Atmosphonia, welcomed me to lay on the ground again and look up at over 2000 speakers (2304 to be exact) suspended from the high ceilings of the Arsenal. I didn’t care that the ground was cold because I heard the ensemble of arranged individual sounds coming from each one and it was mesmerizing. The experience was visual, audible, presential, intuitive, interactive, confronting and vulnerable. I wouldn’t expect less from Lozano-Hemmer.
I left the space while the speakers behind me resonated with the sounds of waterfalls, birds, children laughing and a breeze rustling through trees. As I walked away and increased the distance between me and Cercanía, I thought about the ways in which we can be close while being apart.
Due to government safety measures, Cercanía has been suspended until further notice. Learn more about Cercanía and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s work at https://cercania.ca/
Photos courtesy of Jean-Charles Labarre.