Zilvinas Kempinas

TUBE Dornbirn 2016

In Tube, the chief work of the Lithuanian artist Zilvinas Kempinas, first shown at the 2009 Venice Biennale and since then seldom displayed, Kempinas generates maximal sensory impressions with minimal means. Horizontally stretched video tapes convey the perspective of a tunnel, walking through which evokes new, fascinating levels of perception in the visitor.

Immersion Machine Tube

Roland Wetzel

It is extraordinary, dynamic spaces of at least thirty metres in length that make an installation of Tube possible at all. Zilvinas Kempinas conceived this work and realized it for the first time during his residency at the Atelier Alexander Calder in Saché (2008). One year later, in 2009, Tube, the official entry of Lithuania at the Venice Art Biennale, was installed in one of the city’s largest church interiors, the columned, three-aisled Scuola Grande della Misericordia (2009). Next, the work was erected in the smooth, cast-in-situ concrete exhibition rooms of the Galerie Leme in Sao Paulo (2010). Now, in 2016, Tube has been set up in the converted but still rough former assembly hall of Kunstraum Dornbirn, whose unpretentious yet spacious industrial charm seems positively to call out for large-scale installations. At each place of its presentation the filigree work generates a charge, an “electrification” of the surrounding space, acting out its multifaceted presence.

What sets the Kunstraum Dornbirn apart from any other exhibition space is its capacity to transport the variety of light and atmosphere in the interior thanks to the large windows on the two long sides and the clerestory windows running round all four façades. In interplay with Kempinas’s Tube, this results in an incredibly multifarious perceptual aggregate. You are put in mind of Monet’s series of haystacks or his cycle of façade images of the Rouen Cathedral, but unlike those Impressionist series, which depict the atmospheric in a painterly manner, here physical involvement reaches another dimension: you become part of the installation, which at every moment responds dynamically to movement, shadows, light and air. This phenomenon of “embodiment” has always fascinated me in Kempinas’s works. It is particularly pronounced in Tube, because you cannot adopt an outside perspective to the work, but become part of the action in every constellation.

Minimal Art has often been invoked in connection with Kempinas’s videotape installations. This has its point, because there too the architecture and the human scale, as also the viewers, become “receptive actors” in installations. The reference also has its point with regard to the use of “art-worthy” industrial materials, although videotapes in the required quality of those from 1960 are hardly still available.

This videotape, which is distinguished by its basic tubular, expansive form, has unique material proprieties. As probably the only industrial material that could do so, it successfully defies gravity for a distance of thirty metres. The tape seems to float and draws a precise horizontal line through the space, which, when multiplied, becomes a basic geometric form, a cylinder, a shimmering, moving Body.

This multi-part, filigree three-dimensional drawing, with its precise, repeating intervals of black lines and interstices, causes a retinal effect reminiscent of Op Art. Tube moreover, like other videotape spatial installations, unfolds a kinetic effect, subtly responsive to the movements of its surroundings. If you walk through Tube, the videotape figures the silhouette of your body. The view outwards through the tight, indissoluble grid abstracts the surrounding space and simultaneously makes it part of the installation by dematerializing the architecture.

Tube is a magnificent immersion machine. It fuses space and its parameters, the atmospheric, the body of the viewer and his organs of perception, into a single polyvalent apparatus.

Thus it is not possible to make a reasonably adequate reproduction of the installation and its complex dynamics in photographs or film. It is a creation of pure presence, which can be fully experienced only in the here and now.

A cool sensibility is one of the salient characteristics of Tube. With its diameter of 2 metres by 10 centimetres, you can inscribe Le Corbusier’s first version of his “Modulor” in Tube. The identificatory potential of the floating effect also contributes to a further integration of the viewer into the art work in that the uplifting feeling of flying material overlaps with his Body.

The work thus possesses many properties that point to human being in general and its specific capacities of perception and their interaction. This activating potential can also be brought into connection with the stage-like quality of the installation. It is surely no accident that in his Lithuanian years Kempinas conceived award-winning stage sets for theatre performances. Stage sets that dynamize space and accentuate the gestures and actions of the actors in a hyper-real Environment.

Kempinas’s works and installations are of a cool rigour, but at the same time are moving and emotional. They are often implicitly about energies or vibrations and their potential for transformation. Air, sometimes moved by fans, gravity, light, space and videotapes constitute the unusual materials of his palette. “Pure” presence, a phenomenological disposition of perception and participation in a performative space, are the simple essences that are needed for the viewing of his work. They are not directed exclusively to the sense of sight, but also open synaesthetic potentialities that challenge the capacity of our senses for transgression. In this they take part in a general trend in art, architecture and design that addresses the body and its perceptual apparatus across the board. This power of Kempinas’s installations to generate an energetic or, in Walter Benjamin’s expression, “auratic” atmosphere gives the viewer access to full participation in the works.

Tube inscribes itself in a central group of Kempinas’s works that are characterized by the virtuoso use of videotape in all its specific and unique material qualities. In 1994 – that is, still in his Lithuanian days – Kempinas first used 35 mm film tape for the performative installation After Nature, in which he explored the special properties of celluloid and simultaneously reflected on this modern data carrier’s potential of accumulated information. In 2002, the year he took his Master’s at Hunter College in New York, he began a renewed and systemic study of this fascinating and versatile material. In Fifth Wall Kempinas set its virtually non-existent material thickness in the centre of a spatial installation by introducing a “fifth” vertical layer of space, so arranged in accordance with a point of the observer’s perspective that, seen from this standpoint, the film tapes spanned from ceiling to floor almost disappear. Nautilus (2002) and Still (2003) stressed the graphic properties of film material to draw space and in space. O (Between Fans) (2003), Flying Tape (2004) and numerous other variants examined the unique capacity of this ultra-light, fluid material to enter into a dance-like, filmy interaction with the movements of air and to depict their playful dynamics. Columns (2006) tested the possibility of tracing an elemental geometric form with film tape, emphasizing equally transparency and materiality. Parallels (2007) and Slash (2012) highlighted the material’s dialogic capacity with viewers, with architecture, with the dynamics of light and shadow, and its responsiveness to the currents and vibrations of air. White Noise (2007) and Fountain (2011) emphasized film tape’s kinetic potential to react to air and light by using fans to extend its movement into the expressive dimension.

The seemingly “simple” videotape thus reveals a surprising wealth of creative possibilities that positively urge its use as a sculptural material. We owe the exploitation of this potential to Kempinas’s love of experimentation and gifts of observation and Innovation.

In an untypical yet still significant way, Moon Sketch (2005), one of Kempinas’s earlier works, already tells of the search for possibilities to generate elementary visual experiences. It consists of a cardboard box whose inner side was blackened with charcoal and then rolled into a tube; a slide frame that invites you to look through it; a simple wire for fastening the tube; and a wall before which the rolled tube is hung at a minimal distance and which perhaps is painted with white dispersion paint. This wall constitutes the actual object of perception: our eye and the linked perceived images in the primary visual cortex see the image of the moon in the pale ray of light, framed by a circle of light and the dark shadow of imaginary outer space. To foresee such entrancing phenomena is a particular quality of Kempinas’s work. I remember how, during the setting up of his solo exhibition at the Museum Tinguely in 2013, Kempinas walked along the walls to evaluate with the naked eye where the “perfect moon” might be found – a “ritual” act which, for the uninitiated, was in need of explanation. What distinguishes this and all his other work is the choice of unpretentious everyday materials, chosen for a special effect that you would not expect to arise from their “natural” properties.

To investigate the extraordinary capacity of Kempinas’s installations for embodiment would be a rewarding study. For this purpose a range of theories and publications offer themselves, which afford interpretations of the previously mentioned general trend to the corporeality of the perception of art (“You don’t have a body, you are a body”). First and foremost should be mentioned Henri Bergson’s fundamental work Matter and Memory (Matière et mémoire, 1896), in which Bergson analyses temporality and the relation between mind and body by means of the functions of memory. He thus founded a philosophical and art theoretical stance that contrasts “analytical divisionism” with multi-sensory holism. If today we can speak from the standpoint of more extensive knowledge that subjectivizes our perceptual apparatus for (art) experience, it is thanks to him and his successors throughout the twentieth century to the present, including Martin Heidegger (Sein und Zeit, 1927), John Dewey (Art as Experience, 1934), Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Phénoménologie de la perception, 1945), Gaston Bachelard (Poétique de l’espace, 1957) and Henri Lefebvre (La production de l’espace, 1974).Concepts such as relational aesthetics, presence, performativity, immediacy and immersion, various manifestations of energy and space-time experiences locate the human body and its sensory capabilities as tertium comparationis, a point of comparison, for a contemporary art experience that makes possible a contact as from within.

 

Roland Wetzel

Translated by Jonathan Uhlaner

Interview with Zilvinas Kempinas

Thomas:

Very few people can say of themselves that they have a life goal. You made your decision to become an artist very early in life, long before you could attend school or university. What brought about this inclination?

Zilvinas:

My mother says that I made up my mind when I was two years old. It doesn’t make much sense, of course, and I don’t know where this fixation came from but, as far as I can remember myself, I knew I am going to do art. I guess it must be just a manifestation of my stubborn nature.

Thomas:

Basic studies in classical painting were followed by post-graduate training in the field of new media. Parallel to this you sometimes worked, very successfully, as a set designer. Is there a personal line of development that you have consistently pursued to reach in the end your unique use of materials and form of expression?

Zilvinas:

I am driven towards experimentation; I am keen to discover something that I feel is still not visualized. I started from painting and academic drawing, graduated from Vilnius Art Academy and received my MFA at Hunter College CUNY… But then after all these 10 years of academic studies nothing made me happier than seeing magnetic tape dancing to a fan for the first time. Sure it was a long way, but it was the only way to recognize the potential of such material and make these pieces.

Thomas:

Your art has been associated with various movements in recent art history. Frequently mentioned are minimal art, pop art, op art, kinetic art, surrealism and abstract art. What significance do these art philosophical and art historical developments actually have for your work?

Zilvinas:

Yes, indeed, there are rudiments of those movements visible in my work and I am sure they shaped my thinking, just as much as they shaped minds of viewers who go to see artworks today. We learn, develop and move forward; we use past achievements as a vehicle towards the future, that’s how it goes.

Thomas:

In interviews you have adopted a critical to hostile view of almost every attempt to compare you to other artistic figures or to find analogies to your work in movements in art history. What is at the bottom of this attitude?

Zilvinas:

Actually, I don’t mind being compared to somebody as long as I don’t have to discuss it. I just don’t think there is much accuracy in such comparisons.

Thomas:

You have spoken of “preferring to take a neutral position in relation to interpretations in art”. Are you thus deliberately disengaging yourself, or do you simply not see yourself as standing in a tradition or being influenced by a past movement?

Zilvinas:

I am very much influenced by everything I have ever learned about, of course, in one way or another – either trying to perfect something I value, or the opposite – bouncing off ideas that I find funny or wrong.

But all these concerns are within formal constructs of art-making. Ultimately I want my work to be visually and emotionally engaging, and it is a true challenge, since we live in a digital age of massive flows of visual information, and everybody is numbed by visuals of brutality and all kinds of tragic events we learn about every day from our little monitors.

Thomas:

You very rigorously pursue the idea of an art that is completely detached from the personality and intent of the artist, exists only for and of itself, and should have an impact. What influences, ideas and developments have led you to this conviction?

Zilvinas:

I see artwork as a system of elements, just like a machine or a living organism. It has to work as a system and it should have a life of its own. The ideas of Marcel Duchamp, John Cage and the use of chance are essential for my practice, of course.

Thomas:

You find little inspiration for your own work in art history and the works of other artists. What inspires you?

Zilvinas:

Practical work itself is the best source for inspiration. If you work long enough, at some point things become clear and it propels you to go farther. I am triggered by my own unfinished ideas, which I want to explore under new circumstances. Occasionally architectural spaces have a very positive affect on me. Kunstraum Dornbirn is certainly one of such spaces.

Inspiration always comes from a direction you are not looking at, and it’s always different, so there is no way to generalize how and why it happens.

Thomas:

With few exceptions, you create three-dimensional installations and sculptures. With minimalist gestures, you develop complex perception-machines, alter and form spaces. You call your works “visual instruments”, with which the viewer can play. What do you mean by the term “visual instruments”?

Zilvinas:

I am interested in the visual properties of the artwork and how it affects us on a subconscious level.

On the one hand my pieces are abstract objects/environments, which don’t represent anything other than themselves, on the other hand, they are assembled from materials such as electric fans, VHS tapes, which are functional objects in the real world. This combination of the abstract and specific is like an instrument designed to trigger one’s imagination.

Thomas:

The uniqueness of your works and their aesthetics can be traced not least to the use of unusual materials. This particularly applies to the use of VHS tape. What led you to this choice of material and the perfecting of its use?

Zilvinas:

I realized that VHS tape has unique qualities and could be used as a sculptural material in ways that no other materials have been used before. It’s ultra-light, ultra-thin, “endless”, has a deep black reflective surface, is flexible and has great kinetic qualities. It works as an abstract line in space, but it is also a recognizable mass-produced data carrier of recent decades, designed to collect moments of time, our memories, which is going to become obsolete, drifting away and turning into a history (memory) itself.

Thomas:

In talking about your work you regularly refer to the simplicity and minimalism of forms, materials and colours. You have even gone so far as to maintain that anyone could carry out the production process of your works. How simple or complex is the production process of your work from start to realization?

Zilvinas:

Technically they are not complicated to reproduce, since there is no special technology used and all the necessary skills could be developed. However, getting to the point where the piece has its final shape takes time. It varies from several months to several years. I still have few works “in progress”, which most likely will stay like that indefinitely. These kinds of works eventually materialize in new shapes, carrying similar ideas. So, to go back to your questions, I guess it’s both simple and complex at the same time; simple, because there are very few elements and materials involved, and complex, because there are some delicate properties employed and the balance of proportions is fragile. Also there are considerable other nuances in play, for example, a context.

Thomas:

In the case of TUBE, you confine yourself to fundamental geometrical forms, the colours black and white, and the materials woods, aluminium nails and magnetic tape. And in fact no deliberately placed complication disturbs perception, no hidden ambiguity provokes a confrontation, and yet your works have an overwhelming and complex presence. How does the fascinated, multi-layered astonishment experienced by everyone who views your work arise out of this clarity, simplicity and reduction?

Zilvinas:

I prefer not to create technological boundaries, so people can relate faster to the elements, which are somewhat familiar, not intimidating with complexity.

Even if I expect to achieve certain mechanical/formal objectives during the process, when I see the piece actually working, it’s a good thrill for me. I know a few things about my works (obviously because I make them), but not everything. So I keep on studying.

Thomas:

TUBE emerges in space, and above all through space. How important for TUBE is the architecture and the surrounding space?

Zilvinas:

TUBE is not a site-specific piece in the full sense of the word, since it can be “transferred” from place to place. However, it does rely on an architectural space a lot, because the architectural space here becomes an integral part of the piece. It is very hard to find perfect architecture for it. Not only does the space have to have certain proportions – length, width and height – it must be symmetrical, preferably have interesting natural light, but it also must have a strong character of its own, history, and have presence rather than just be a shelter for my piece. It is important, because as a viewer you are walking in two different spaces at the same time – inside the artwork and inside the architecture hosting the artwork. And you are aware of both spaces simultaneously.

Thomas:

TUBE not only astounds viewers, but throws them into a state of visual confusion. To what extent can perplexing perception be called one of your artistic strategies?

Zilvinas:

Well, I like to use it occasionally, but it has to derive from basic elements, otherwise it wouldn’t work.

Thomas:

The astounding effect and quality of your work also lies in it constantly appearing differently, constantly changing. This applies to works such as TUBE as well as to the kinetic objects. How important is movement and change in your work?

Zilvinas:

It is important, because it brings life into the work, animates it, making it a part of everything else that surrounds us.

Thomas:

By this movement you achieve a certain sustainability / durability of the reception of your works. How far does time thereby become part of the work and a co-determining factor of perception?

Zilvinas:

Time has an almost physical dimension in some of my works – it’s a part as a concept, but also as actual time required for experiencing the piece in person.

Thomas:

In an interview you said: “Art can add nothing to our empirical knowledge of the world”. What then from your point of view can art do?

Zilvinas:

Art is a mind-opener. It has powers to challenge us, to shake our settled views, to expand our senses beyond the visible physical boundaries of the material world as we know it. Some see it as a pursuit of truth, some take it as illusion of the truth. But what if truth is just sad and horrible? Perhaps art just helps us deal with this existential horror of uncertainty, providing an alternative to a so-called “truth”. Just like dreams keep us sane, art can be an outlet for our fears, our hopes and desires. It certainly connects people, rescuing them from their loneliness even if for a few moments; it can be shared, and it is an exceptionally human activity, so hopefully it makes us more empathetic and humane.

 

Exhibition pictures of TUBE Dornbirn 2016

Photos Zilvinas Kempinas
Ausstellungsansicht, Perspektive
Ausstellungsansicht, Detail
Ausstellungsansicht, Perspektive
Ausstellungsansicht, Perspektive
Ausstellungsansicht, Detail

Education

Art Booklet for children, students, teenagers and adults.
Zilvinas Kempinas
TUBE Dornbirn 2016

Zilvinas Kempinas

TUBE, Dornbirn 2016
Zilvinas Kempinas
TUBE Dornbirn 2016

Editor Kunstraum Dornbirn, Thomas Häusle
Texts Roland Wetzel, Gerald Matt,
interview with Thomas Häusle
Installationviews and details
German/ English, 123 pages, Hardcover
Verlag für Moderne Kunst, 2016