Art Basel 2015: Synchronicity And Resonance Characterize Audemars Piguet Installation With Robin Meier
“It’s a tent,” Audemars Piguet CEO François-Henry Bennahmias jokingly explained during Art Basel at the opening of Robin Meier’s installation “Synchronicity,” pointing to the large, soft structure barely discernible behind him in the dark room.
It did indeed look like a tent. A tent encompassing the most unusual type of art installation I had ever seen. Actually, it seemed to comprise half art installation, half scientific research.
Audemars Piguet has termed its first art commission installation “immersive,” and immersive describes the experience very well.
“Synchronicity” was curated by well-known art custodian Marc-Olivier Wahler, who explained that his premise in searching out the right commission to propose to Audemars Piguet’s art panel was “time.”
“Robin Meier was an obvious choice to me,” Wahler explained. “His link to time and the way that art works is obvious. Time is about something more than just providing the hour.”
“Synchronicity” by Swiss artist Robin Meier focuses on the principles of order in nature. It does so by exploring the natural phenomena of how fireflies found in remote parts of the world flash their bioluminescent light in unison. He has also added grasshoppers, which tend to chirp in unison. Synchronicity.
The “tent” is of an air-locked variety, a must so that the living creatures remain in the intended environment when visitors enter and leave. Positioned inside the Basel Volkshaus, which was cleared of any other furnishings in order to present the look of an abandoned greenhouse, from the outside the installation looked sterile.
Once inside, the noise and warm humid air of a rainforest environment let the visitor immediately know that there was lots of life contained within the tent. Audio and visual pulses – the latter produced by small LED lights – provided a rhythmic beat, at once reminding me of both a living heart and a mechanical one.
It was like stepping into another world. Exiting the tent and dark room, the bright daylight of the Basel street outside stunned me back to reality.
Chirping, metronome beats, water pumps, and other electronics harmonized with both the LED lights and the glow of hundreds of freely flying fireflies (it was important to watch where you stepped!), themselves flashing in unison.
Scientific laboratory footage and machinery completed the viewpoint that this installation could double as a research lab. Meier, however, told me that it was definitely more art than science.
“It’s not exactly scientific research because the conditions are not controlled,” the Swiss-Thai artist explained. “If you work in a lab, you have to pay a lot of attention to how the conditions are reproduced. You can’t do that in a space where people are walking in and out. I use the tools and methods of science, but I apply them in a different context.”
Meier reminded me that there might not be much scientific point in synchronizing fireflies with grasshoppers, or machines or sounds for that matter. But by combining all these separate elements, which might in and of themselves be part of a scientific experiment, a new context is created that differentiates it from pure science.
“This also makes it an experience for the visitor who is entering the environment,” Meier continued. “It’s probably not the kind of art piece you would hang on your wall, but as an experience it should provoke emotional response in the visitor, making him or her think. For me, it’s part intellectual and part emotional endeavor.”
Flashes of firefly
The synchronized flashes of fireflies have bewildered researchers for many years. Meier and his team collaborate with entomological laboratories in Japan, Thailand, France, and the U.K. to research this natural phenomenon, and now this installation creates the necessary conditions for the insects to show their highly coordinated stuff to an audience.
Meier has worked alongside the Papiliorama Foundation as well as a group of scientific collaborators specializing in genetic engineering, computer science, firefly breeding, grasshopper chorusing, bioacoustics, and cognitive science to guide his efforts in developing the commission.
In the course of his research, Meier has learned that by distributing light sources (represented by the LED lights seen in the installation) throughout the swarm, it is possible to influence the way in which the fireflies flash.
The LED lights in Meier’s installation blink in rhythm with ticking metronomes grouped in the middle of the tent. The metronomes likewise move in unison, synchronized by the vibrations they create that are transmitted through the floor. If you are very familiar with watchmaking, you may recognize this as a form of resonance.
The grasshoppers chirp in tandem with the metronomes and the fireflies flash. Together, these varied components of the installation function as a single organism in synchronous manner.
We say that a watch has a heart(beat) thanks to its beating regulating organ. This notion, too, fits very well with the continuous pulse of the LED lights, metronomes, and naturally the fireflies themselves, who are the star of Meier’s show.
“And what is nice in this commission is that Audemars Piguet hasn’t imposed upon the artistic content. I was totally free in what I wanted to do,” Meier said.
To learn about Audemars Piguet’s involvement in the world of art, please read Audemars Piguet Partners Art Basel Miami And The Locomotive Strandbeests By Theo Jansen.