Zoom on Speed

Everything moves at Copenhagen Contemporary. But movement is, as we know, relative when we can’t stand still ourselves.

Ryoji Ikeda, data-verse 1/2/3, 2019-20. Commissioned by Audemars Piguet Contemporary. Photo: David Stjernholm.

When the Italian mathematician Galileo Galilei pointed the freshly invented telescope at the starry sky more than 400 years ago, the event marked the beginning of a completely new era for science. Here he discovered, among other things, that the earth moves in an orbit around the sun, meaning that our planet was not – as assumed by the Catholic Church – the stationary centre of the world. In 1633, Galileo was forced by the Inquisition to deny his theory, which he reluctantly did while at the same time muttering: “And yet it moves.”

At Copenhagen Contemporary, everything is in motion, too, albeit in a more down-to-earth way. Despite an artists list comprising eleven names (plus four research partners), there are currently only five works to be found in the venue. Several works will be realised later around the city, at the airport and at festivals, while the final one, a performance by Croatian artist Nora Turano, will not take place until December, just before the exhibition closes. Thus, it will never be possible to experience Yet, it moves! in its entirety; the exhibition is literally in a state of constant motion.

In the foyer of CC hangs a TV screen, five so-called lenticular prints, and a long wall text that together constitute American artist Ligia Bouton’s tribute to the astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt. On the screen is an animation based on photographs of hand-blown glass objects – a kind of portrait of the twenty-five stars whose precise position Leavitt’s research helped identify. The work is a homage (“a temporary monument,” as the wall text somewhat grandiosely puts it) to one of history’s many overlooked women. But its position here in the lobby, squeezed in between toilets, the gift shop and ticket sales, makes it seem like rather a modest tribute.

Conversely, Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda fills out the entire large hall at CC with three absurdly large screens. Called data-verse 1/2/3 (2019-20), the work samples open-source information from scientific databases at CERN, NASA, and the Human Genome Project to create its furious barrage of images. Some are immediately recognisable – X-ray images of skeletons, brain scans, surveillance images, and visualisations of solar storms, for example – while others are entirely abstract. Columns of numbers and graphs fill the screens at breakneck speed and disappear again without giving any hint as to the meaning of the many digital pieces of information. Accompanying texts tell me that the information falls into three parts: a microscopic universe of atoms, molecules and DNA; a human world of bodies, satellite information, and internet transactions; and a macro perspective of solar systems, galaxies, and stars.

In Ikeda’s work, all information is equal: equally impenetrable and astonishingly alike to the eye. It is the extreme quantities of this digital information – arriving in volumes that only an algorithm could comprehend – that Ikeda uses as material in his visual composition, set to a soundtrack comprising a symphony of digital beeps. The effect is dizzying in a slightly anxiety-provoking way, like looking up at the starry sky to grasp just how small we are, but without the beauty and calm of the night to soothe and ease the disturbing realisation.

Ikeda’s installation works well in its decision to leave the science behind all the information unexplained, choosing instead to create a different image of what digital information is. In so doing, Ryoji points to a classic, yet oft-forgotten relationship between art and science: many of the images we have of the world are not documentation or illustrations of unambiguous facts, but rather abstract models and visual interpretations. Images of how the world might fit together. Even astronomers are dreamers and stargazers.

Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Tongues of Verglas/Les Langues de Verglas, 2023. Photo: David Stjernholm.

Jakob Kudsk Steensen works on the same gigantic scale while adopting a completely different pace. In Tongues of Verglas/ Les Langues de Verglas (2023) we move slowly and searchingly inside a digital simulation of the Swiss Arolla Glacier. An achingly beautiful soundtrack interprets the creaking of the ice, the trickle of the water, and the cathedral-like echoes of the ice cave, while the computer simulation spins and changes perspective from the slow development and liquefaction of ice formations to the minimal life forms that exists there in the cold. As in Ikeda’s installation, we observers are often unsure of what we are actually seeing: we move through an ice tongue created by the flow of water through the glacier and into the ice ecosystem itself, then zoom out to see the glacier from above, like luminous digital points in a darkness that looks like a distant galaxy. And as in Ikeda’s work, I think that Kudsk Steensen’s beautiful simulation may be the closest we can get to experiencing a glacier on its own terms, infinitely far removed from mere illustration or photographic documentation.

From this point on, it feels as if Yet, it moves! begins to run out of steam somewhat. At the time of my visit, Helene Nymann’s video work on memory and what we want to pass on to the future was so badly marred by a group of builders drilling and hammering in the room next door that it was impossible to get anything out of it. And in a final, small room is a work by Finnish artist Jenna Sutela which I fail to understand. It looks like a kind of singing bowl filled with water and equipped with ear-shaped handles. Above the bowl hangs a microphone that apparently picks up the sound from the room and the bowl’s vibrations and sends it back through speakers in the walls in a kind of feedback loop. According to yet another long, knotty wall text, Sutela’s inspiration comes from the stellar explosions from which all water on earth originates, while the title Pond Brain (2023) refers to the British theorist Stafford Beer, who in the 1960s developed computer systems inspired by the human brain. Perhaps the work is about the brain’s plasticity, and how its interactions with its surroundings are like those of water and sound. Perhaps.

And here the exhibition ends for the time being. It feels a bit unresolved, unfinished, and strangely distorted in scale. For one thing, something about the disparity in size between the enormous installations created by Ikeda and Kudsk Steensen and the small works rattling around in the foyer and the last rooms feels extremely disharmonious. Furthermore, it feels as if we are constantly oscillating between extremes – zooming all the way into the smallest cells of the body and all the way out into the outermost galaxies of the universe – while the exhibition fails to anchor the experience on a human scale. It feels as if Yet, it moves! is so preoccupied with being in constant motion that it overlooks the fact that it is difficult to understand the extent of a given movement unless we ourselves are standing still.

Jenna Sutela, Pond Brain, 2023. Photo: David Stjernholm.