View of “Carsten Nicolai,” 2018. Photo: Julija Stankeviciene.

View of “Carsten Nicolai,” 2018. Photo: Julija Stankeviciene.

Carsten Nicolai

Berlinische Galerie

Among sound-art aficionados, Carsten Nicolai enjoys princely status. Operating under his own name as well as under the pseudonym Alva Noto, Nicolai has collaborated with such luminaries as Ryoji Ikeda and Einstürzende Neubauten front man Blixa Bargeld. In an unlikely coup for an experimental musician, Nicolai, in collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto, composed the score for the 2015 Hollywood film The Revenant. He also makes visual art, much of which reflects his interest in science. His works are often ambitiously scaled; for a (alpha) pulse, 2014, he projected synchronized light frequencies onto the International Commerce Centre skyscraper in Hong Kong at night during that year’s Art Basel. Installations such as moiré glas (Moiré Glass), 2010, which is made up of rotatable vertical panes of glass, are meant to challenge viewers’ notions of perception.

Nicolai’s latest installation, tele, 2018, seemed to be going in a similar direction. The sole work in his exhibition at Berlinische Galerie, it consisted of two hexagonal mirrors positioned at opposite ends of a long, darkened hall. Out of the center of each, from a projector installed behind, shot two thin yellow laser lines that divided the space. Walking beneath the rays projected some eight feet above the ground, viewers looking up could study little flecks of illuminated dust that danced within the light like crystalline gold.

The work, according to the artist, is meant to elicit an “art feedback system.” One laser beam activates the other, so that although each projected line maintains a visual semblance of autonomy, the two are actually linked in a state of interdependent correspondence—just as in telepathy; hence the title. In a video interview accompanying the exhibition, Nicolai compares this process to that of entanglement in physics, when particles are part of the same quantum state even at a great distance. “When particular particles . . . connect—even if they are not located on the same spot but share the same origin—they thereby engage in a sort of telepathic relationship.”

Elsewhere in the interview, Nicolai declares that, in contrast to a scientist, he as an artist feels free and emboldened by the fact that he is not required to submit to any regimen of proof in the creation of his works. Perhaps he’s overstating the case. Other than as a sort of vague illustration of a scientific phenomenon, tele doesn’t sustain much enduring impact. Perhaps this has to do with the ultimate lack of aesthetic affect. Nicolai stays true to a rigid geometric Minimalism that precludes any human feeling, which is perhaps the point. The problem is that the work is also largely devoid of any compelling argument concerning the ontological status of the art object, or of art in general. What we’re left with is a weak attempt at a crowd-pleaser. While Nicolai has always ranked among the more interesting inhabitants of the audio/visual borderland, in this latest work the effect felt gimmicky.

Travis Jeppesen