Spring is here. I know this because the art venue Cisternerne is open again after its winter hibernation. Now enough warmth and light have returned for the pale, still-chilly Copenhageners and brave tourists to endure a trip down into the pitch-dark, ever-dripping former water reservoir without losing their courage along the way. I’m looking forward to revisiting the venue, not least because the person responsible for this year’s exhibition, Weaving the Light, is South Korean artist Kimsooja.
Kimsooja has several significant works in her impressive portfolio. In all her works, whether sculptural pieces based on clothing and fabrics – such as her ‘Bottari’ sculptures with their clear political undertones – or ethereal (and more existential) immersive installations, Kimsooja always maintains a site-specific architectural, sculptural, and performative anchoring in the given place. This also holds true of her exhibition at Cisternerne, which begins just after visitors have made their descent, leaving behind the bright spring daylight of the Søndermarken park.
The artist’s approach remains the same throughout the exhibition. Directing bright spotlights at transparent, light-refracting plastic canvases stretched on rectangular frames that might be described as screens, she creates spectral rainbow paintings in kaleidoscopic patterns that move as visitors walk past. The screens subtly divide the huge pillared concrete halls into three sections. The opening part is open and bright (even if the space remains very dark); the next is narrow and labyrinthine, while the final section is symmetrical and maintains tight control of the audience’s patterns of movement and how the work is viewed. It all sounds good on paper. However, right from the outset I struggle to maintain my enthusiasm and interest.
The show is called Weaving the Light, and I assume that the outline of a loom inspired the shape and size of the screens, which are nearly identical, measuring approximately two to three metres on each side. This is certainly the only explanation I can find for their format. The screens hang between the columns in the room, but do not seem to relate directly to their surroundings. The light falling on them is, of course, artificial, so the whole thing could really hang anywhere. The staff has encouraged me to look at the screens from both sides, yet they clearly have a front and back. While there is also a kaleidoscope effect to be observed on the reverse side, the spectral rainbow paintings are speckled with grey half the time.
My eyes see no interweaving going on here, neither of the light, which is broken into its individual colour constituents, nor of the screens in terms of forming an overall installation. Well, I suppose they could be said to create a bit of symmetry and to form hallways. But, quite honestly, the whole thing seems a bit haphazardly installed. Had the light-refracting film been installed with greater assertiveness – by reaching all the way from floor to ceiling, from pillar to pillar, for example – it might have given the illusion of great portals having miraculously manifested here, challenging the bravest of believers to plunge through them as a testament of blind faith. In their current screen-like format, the spectral rainbow paintings look rather more like awkward room dividers from the 1980s, decorated in neon colours.
And the fact is that Cisternerne is already divided by its stalactite-covered columns and walls. This is a major challenge for all artists who exhibit here: to dominate and utilise the space instead of relying on the impressive setting to constitute a work of art in itself.
On previous occasions, Kimsooja has demonstrated that she is perfectly able to successfully transform spaces that are already beautiful in their own right. One example would be To Breathe – A Mirror Woman (2006) at the Palacio de Cristal in Madrid, where the entire botanical glass palace was covered with a similar kind of light-refracting film (albeit with more of a pastel hue) reminiscent of mother-of-pearl. Inside, the glass palace was filled with the sound of breathing. Down here in Cisternerne, the acoustics and reverberations are quite exceptional, and yet Kimsooja has left the soundtrack entirely up to the visitors. Of course, the soundscape and noise levels created by visitors are not the artist’s responsibilities, but people are certainly not rendered speechless in fascinated open-mouthed astonishment at the many monotonous rainbow paintings. Rather, they are volubly concerned with finding their way in the dark, especially in the exhibition’s second and third sections where you need to follow paths in order to avoid falling into the water, which here covers the floor entirely. Emitting echoes and echoes of echoes, people ponder and plumb the depth of the water and where the next corner of the labyrinth might be. It’s all very amusing, but is that Kimsooja’s work?
Finally, Echo leads our flock of water-fearing nymphs to the third section, where the footpaths converge in a square platform. We look at the many screens encircling the platform. I am reminded of the old playground in the nearby zoo, where as I child I discovered which animal I matched in speed by running on a track equipped with flashing lights and electronic codes. It was fun, even if I quickly got fed up with only being as fast as a small jumping frog. My association probably arises out of the fact that I know the area well. But that is precisely part of the problem: what is left in Kimsooja’s work when the fascinating stalactite cave is already familiar, and you know the basic fact that light can be refracted in the colours of the rainbow?