PRINT December 2014

Daniel Baumann

Emanuel Rossetti, Vomitory, 2014, carpet, wood, staples, screws. Installation view. Photo: Gunnar Meier.

IT SHOULDN'T HAVE WORKED: just some red carpeting on the floors and walls, speakers, five small bells, an image pasted on an otherwise empty wall, and sound. These were the sparse ingredients of Swiss artist Emanuel Rossetti’s first institutional solo show, “Delay Dust.” What might have been yet another display of smartly handled, minimal punctuations with limited meaning instead introduced a set of experiences ranging from the stunningly immersive to the unsentimentally disillusioning to—in the case of the unexpected gesture of independence just outside the carefully curated space—the utterly surprising.

“Delay Dust” was both a synaesthetic tour de force and an exercise in thwarting illusion. Entering the Kunsthalle Bern, you were instantly confronted with a deep and vibrating musical drone, a sound that, as you discovered later, tightly linked together the institution’s seven spaces. Once you bought your ticket, you walked into the entrance hall, where the intense audio monotone was coupled with an equally invasive monochromatic visual attack: Usually, the kunsthalle’s entrance provides access to four exhibition spaces, but for his show, Rossetti covered floor, walls, and all doorways except one with red carpet—a vast expanse of generic color. Whether by natural inclination or bold manipulation, you turned right, into the only open passageway, and entered a second red room. Impeding any sense of spatial continuity, here the floor was subtly elevated by just under five inches, with five electronically operated bells arranged on the carpet. They would randomly ring every twenty-five minutes or so. The ephemeral, almost comical sequence of chimes starkly contrasted with the disturbing reverberations of the drone. From this second room, you continued to the next exhibition space, this one entirely empty, and then to the main exhibition hall. Except for a loudspeaker, the hall was empty as well—yet it was filled with the intensely echoing drone. Finally, you walked through the last space to reach the entrance hall again, accomplishing—not unlike the persistent sound piece throughout—a loop. “Delay Dust” continued downstairs with the same emptiness filled by sound, to “end” with the only image in the entire exhibition: a print pasted onto the wall, which showed the digitally rendered shape of a doughnut-like form floating on a blue background—itself a constant motif in Rossetti’s earlier work.

The Kunsthalle Bern has, of course, a long institutional history of immersive, self-reflexive, and critical installations. Throughout the past quarter century, other artists have similarly transformed the galleries in simple if striking ways: In 1989, Sol LeWitt used the entire stretch of its walls as a continuous support for his hypnotic wall drawings, to trouble the viewer’s perception of each perspectival space. In 1992, Michael Asher moved all of the building’s radiators (along with additional connective plumbing) into the entrance hall, where he displayed them, fully functioning, as both heaters and sculptures. In 1994, Heimo Zobernig installed a white wall, about seven feet high, in front of the existing walls. In 1997, David Hammons changed, through window filters, the natural light to blue, displayed a few objects of no apparent value, and played recordings of music by legends including Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Muddy Waters. The building was turned into an atmosphere as politically loaded as it was sensorially enchanting. And in 2001, Maria Eichhorn explored the financial and organizational foundations of the institution itself, using her budget to help repair leaky skylights, the reception area, and cracks in the facade, with some of the renovations executed during opening hours. All these interventions consciously renounced the usual exhibition lineup of selected works, turning the building into a work and the installation into a tool. The majority of these installations were met with public outcry and controversy over their status as art. None of this art could ever be sold; instead, experiences were made—to be assumed, refused, or digested.

Rossetti brought a similar approach of embracing a given space while at the same time keeping it at a certain distance, combining affirmation with disillusionment. “Delay Dust” offered an all-encompassing experience while laying bare the artifice behind it. Nothing was completely hidden: not the structure of the rooms, the staples holding the carpet, the little electronics controlling the bells, or the cables connecting the speakers. The visitor was completely immersed because of, not despite, this exposed mise-en-scène. Even the final image pasted on the wall operated in this way: Though you couldn’t know exactly what it showed or what it signified, you could draw various conclusions. The floating doughnut echoed the looping structure of the drone soundscape and the path of our visit: Both were built as endless circles.

Yet what really catapulted the exhibition beyond any romantic self-sufficiency was the ultimate sabotage you encountered on leaving the kunsthalle: a small, easy-to-miss vitrine outside, displaying a typewritten text dated August 12, 2014, titled Sick Building, contributed by the Greek artist Georgia Sagri. The text’s narrator begins with a complicated story of love affairs and betrayals of friendship, then abruptly contrasts these personal miseries with recent episodes of violence around the world (fighting in Gaza; the police shootings in Ferguson, Missouri) and tragic events (comedian Robin Williams’s suicide), and finally ponders why, after visiting the Futurism exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York this summer, the author disliked the Futurists’ work even more. The statement ends: AND IF THERE IS SOMETHING FOR ME TO LEARN FROM HISTORY [IT] IS THAT: AT LEAST IF I REPEAT HISTORY TO PICK PARTS OF IT THAT LEAD TO SOMETHING LESS HORRIFIC AND UGLY THAN WHAT IT IS [sic] ALREADY GOING ON.

Never before had an artist transformed the Kunsthalle Bern into a totalizing work of art, only to suddenly break free of its spell and walk away from it all, as if to indicate that there was something more important out there (well, there is). “Delay Dust” achieved the strong impact of the kunsthalle’s historic interventions; it, too, imaginatively revamped the space of the institution and the parameters of aesthetic experience. But by including Sagri’s text, Rossetti’s installation introduced a surprising sense of independence even from itself, a willingness to forsake form that struck me as truly fresh and appropriate for our times.

Daniel Baumann is Director of Kunsthalle Zürich.