It is said that the space lander Philae bumped twice before it sunk its harpoons down into the comet’s surface and secured its foothold. That happened around a month ago. Shortly before this, Philae, supposedly the size of a washing machine, had detached itself from the spacecraft Rosetta, which had carried it for the last ten years. During the seven hours that elapsed from the time Philae left its mother and landed on the comet P67/Tjurjumov-Gerasimenko, live feeds allowed us to follow the excited scientists, astrophysicists, and engineers from the ESA’s control centres throughout Europe. This was the first time ever that a spacecraft landed on a comet – at least to the knowledge of us here on planet Earth.
The days that followed were full of announcements worthy of a sci-fi novel: “Philae may freeze to death”, “Philae has found organic matter”, and “Philae’s battery is dead!” And while the scientists tried to be heard over the throng of rather more popular-science-y accounts, we could enjoy a truly bizarre couple of days where hard-core astrophysics walked hand in hand with surreal, even corny media headlines proclaiming news from space. It was all rather weird in a wonderfully abstract way. How, for example, is it possible that a highly sophisticated piece of space technology, having travelled 6.4 billion kilometres, just suddenly finds that its battery died? There was also a transmission of an audio file of the comet’s song!
In this campy territory, where hard science and science fiction meet (or collide), we also find Lutz Bacher’s current exhibition, Into the Dimensional Corridor, which arrived at the outermost space of the National Gallery of Denmark, x-rummet, about a week prior to the events on the comet. Located at the end of the so-called Sculpture Street – which connects the modernist new wing and the historicist original museum building – the x-rummet is rather a lonely, outlying planet; a satellite orbiting the SMK. And in fact, Bacher may be the first x-rummet contributor to incorporate this sense of having an institution-within-an-institution in her exhibition. Similarly, this is the first time that the somewhat peculiar graphic marker of this venue – a lot of X’es adorning the stairs leading up to the room itself – can be regarded as a subtle continuation of the exhibition’s elements of science fiction and experimental physics.
Indeed, stepping into the “dimensional corridor” is quite an alienating experience at first, particularly because you feel, at least for a split-second, as if you are being watched – by Odo, Quark, Major Kira Nerys, and Thomas Eugene Paris from the TV series Star Trek. They have taken up positions around the room, but closer inspection reveals that they are in fact flat, upright cardboard cut-outs of the kind used in cinemas to advertise blockbuster films. Life-sized human figures have always had a special power and impact, regardless of the materials used in their creation. All sculptors know this. And this American, female artist – who has, ever since the 1970s, worked under the German-sounding, male pseudonym “Lutz Bacher” – has a rare gift for taming and reining in spaces to create that special, nonchalantly unstable, casual yet also tightly orchestrated atmosphere that many artists would gladly give a smallish spacecraft to master. Her distinctive flair is evident in e.g. the seemingly effortless way in which Bacher brings together such disparate entities as Star Trek pop culture and classical black-and-white portrait photographs – the latter hung in a straight line that encircles the entire space, showing a range of top-drawer scientists accompanied by brief, and to laypeople almost indecipherable, texts that describe their contributions to experimental physics or mathematics.
As was demonstrated by the events on the comet P67/Tjurjumov-Gerasimenko – however impenetrable they may appear – the realms of hard science and science fiction have a mutual friend. Her name is Abstraction. When advanced physics get difficult to understand, it gets translated into an abstract, colourful tale about a singing comet, and when you set out (in the early 1980s) to fictionalise a distant future you invent – in addition to pointy ears, bumpy foreheads, and very tight synthetic outfits – an entirely new language, Klingon, whose strange phonetics and ditto orthography serve to constructively alienate us from the future, thereby helping to make the abstract universe seem more plausible and real.
This is, of course, very interesting in relation to the visual arts, where abstraction is a much-loved family member and a classic discipline – and Bacher certainly considers this when she uses abstraction as a kind of Art Klingon, using it to connect two dimensions, science and science fiction, within a single exhibition. For it is quite obvious that here, the brightly coloured “frieze” – made of square and rectangular acrylic sheets propped up against all the walls – serves to frame the room while referring to classic modernism and to a mode of painterly abstraction safely familiar to us all.
We also, however, notice that several of the acrylic glass sheets are quite scratched, neither because the work is old – it is brand-new – nor because Bacher has deliberately prepared the surfaces; rather, they are scratched and even dusty the way that such things are when they have spent a long time sitting on the shelf in a storage facility or reclamation yard. Whooosh – out the window goes our smug, semi-automatic reading along the lines of Josef Albers-by-numbers painterly abstraction. Welcome to Lutz Bacher’s multi-dimensional corridor – where appropriations are covered in dust! But also filled with strong shadows (cast by visitors and by the cardboard figures) and floating, ethereally blue lights – conjured up by a range of video projectors dotted around the room, always in pairs, one on top of the other, like a kind of miniature robots, their projections pointing in different directions. At the same time the humming, whooshing noise made by the projectors’ vents create a sense of a space with a different frequency or a different atmosphere, perhaps a zero-gravity space – as close to suspending gravity as it is possible to get when you happen to be working within the category of sculpture on planet Earth.
Bacher may not be well known by the general public despite her 40-year career, but she is not so far below the radar that she escapes all attention: Beatrix Ruf recently curated an exhibition of Bacher’s work at Kunsthalle Zurich; Bacher is represented by the influential German gallery Daniel Buchholz, and she has long been associated with New York gallerists Pat Hearn and Colin de Land, who were every bit as influential in the 1990s and the early 2000s. At the same time it makes sense to consider Bacher in relation to another one of contemporary art’s queens from outer space: Isa Genzken. Boldness, clout, and flair (and, of course, a penchant for appropriation and reclaimed materials) are common denominators of these two artists. But whereas Genzken conjures up her animated short-circuits within the space of autonomous sculpture and with her distinctively flamboyant, Germanic-mental approaches, Bacher arrives at her unmanageable, utterly-dry-yet-super-fresh forms by way of an American, nerdy, rather more pragmatic process that takes its point of departure in a more installatory approach. For however subdued and low-tech the juxtaposition of these essentially quite tried-and-tested elements – acrylic glass, portraits, projectors, and cardboard cut-outs – may seem to visitors, it is the precise grasp, the unhesitating handle on everything that reveals and emphasises Lutz Bacher’s conceptual devil-may-care attitude. Pragmatic, but in fluent Klingon.