Björn Dahlem, Sonnen (Suns), 2011, glass, wood, Styrofoam, steel, lemon, velvet ball, lacquer, shellac, 27 1/2 x 59 x 19 5/8".

Björn Dahlem, Sonnen (Suns), 2011, glass, wood, Styrofoam, steel, lemon, velvet ball, lacquer, shellac, 27 1/2 x 59 x 19 5/8".

Björn Dahlem

Björn Dahlem, Sonnen (Suns), 2011, glass, wood, Styrofoam, steel, lemon, velvet ball, lacquer, shellac, 27 1/2 x 59 x 19 5/8".

“Artistic research” has become a buzzword—as if art could imitate or incorporate methods of the natural and social sciences and the humanities. The scholarly, intellectually conscientious artist seems to be the new ideal, not least because it is easier to gain support for training and resources from academic establishments when artistic production is couched in terms of research. Yet many artists resist such labels and interpretations of their work. Björn Dahlem’s works, for instance, are undeniably involved with physics, astronomy, and philosophy, yet he nonetheless shuns the overly positivistic paradigm of the researching artist—without, however, falling into long-outdated stereotypes or backward ideologies.

Dahlem’s recent exhibition “Voyager” was something of a follow-up to his 2010 show “Die Theorie des Himmels I—Die Milchstraße” (Celestial Theory I —The Milky Way) at Kunst im Tunnel in Düsseldorf. There, the separate drawings and sculptures coalesced into a delicate Gesamtkunstwerk amid a fractured white crystalline landscape in which models of constellations and spheres, refractions, and branching diagrams of trees merged into an almost otherworldly panorama atop their pedestals. “Voyager” continued Dahlem’s investigation: The piece Sonnen (Suns) (all works 2011), for example, consists of a wall-mounted display case with six glass pedestals of various heights (some of them candleholders that have been cut to size), each bearing a ball representing a phase of the sun’s life cycle, from creation to death. To represent these phases, Dahlem used found objects such as a Styrofoam ball and a dried lemon, rejecting the conventions of scientific modeling and drawing an immediate connection between the banal objects of daily life and the larger cosmic significance of the solar system. It’s as if, through metamorphosis and alchemical conversion, the one transforms into the other and vice versa. In this way, Dahlem consciously refers to Romantic, essentialist ideas, but he does so without falling into a reactionary or esoteric stance that plays up a one-sided mystical connection between man and the cosmos. Dahlem seems rather to be interested in the intermingling and confounding of scientific positivism with other worldviews. On the one hand, his choice of materials disrupts such connections, while on the other, his intentionally beautiful staging confirms and supports it. The airy brightness of many works seems to imply a certain progressive stance, which should not be confused with faith in positivism.

Some works diverge from this almost cheerful lightness, and even in Sonnen the burned-out sun foreshadows the demise of our solar system. M-Konstellation, which shows the unusual and therefore fateful configuration of planets in a continuous row, is completely covered in india ink. Apokalyptische Kapsel (Apocalyptic Capsule), also drearily dark, strikes a rather pessimistic tone as well. Fascination and horror, beauty and danger are simultaneously on display, two sides of the same coin. The intentional openness to interpretation in Dahlem’s work points to the risk of limiting comprehension to either aesthetic experience or scientific categorization alone.

Daniela Stöppel

Translated from German by Anne Posten.