Arts

The Construction of Weightlessness

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Austrian artist Eva Schlegel portrays intangible ideas like weight and lightness with the help of concrete elements like lead and iron as well as trick materials like rotor-blade installations and mirrors

In the novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera tosses us a question—‘What shall we choose? Weight or lightness?’ The burden of heaviness, he says, can crush us, pin us to the ground, yet simultaneously the heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. The absence of a burden causes persons to be ‘lighter’ than air, soaring to new heights, taking leave of the earth and their earthly being, becoming half real, their movements as free as they are insignificant. He concludes, ‘The lightness/weight opposition is the most ambiguous of all.’ A exhibition by Austrian artist Eva Schlegel at Gallery Ske might serve to provide intriguing new insights.

The bulk of her work, over the past 26 years, covers a wide range of media including lead, glass, photography, text, found objects and unusual steel, mirror and rotor blade installations. A recurrent theme through most of her art is the attempt to portray intangible ideas—including weightlessness. One of the rooms in the gallery, for example, is filled with giant, pristine white weather balloons that float up against the ceiling, unattached to a sonde (which sends meteorological data to earth). Yet, the room is ‘filled’ only with air. Viewers are obstructed by nothingness, by empty space carved into spheres. A camera is installed above the door that captures people entering the room, and it projects the images onto the floor. The circular-shaped image ‘crashes’ against the wall and ‘shatters’ into sharp, glass-like pieces. One is almost afraid they might be real enough to prick and burst the balloons.

Elsewhere, a room is sharply divided by iron trestles holding mirror shelves—the carefully cut and framed mirrors, agents of light and reflection, create an illusion of infinite depth. These ‘expansive columns of light’, as Schlegel calls them, offer a labyrinthine experience of the space, an eternal hall of mirrors, similar to a painting by a Surrealist artist that is an endless replication of itself. The notion of immateriality continues with her series of hazy large-scale photographs of women—blurred to such an extent that almost no defining features remain on their faces. In complete opposition to the idea of portraiture (especially those of women), these pictures show mere blocks of colour; the people in them are wrapped in misty elusiveness, existing forever beyond our grasp.

The most characteristic part of Schlegel’s work, however, concerns her exploration of weight and lightness. In her attempt to portray this duality, she chooses material that expresses and carries connotations of a certain heaviness. Hanging on the walls are black and white photographs of people falling through the air, and what lends them poignancy is that they’ve been transferred onto lead—that heaviest, dullest of materials. A series of small, exquisite heliogravures (photographic engravings on copper plates that are pressed onto etching paper) show vast skies, a view of the earth from space, and strange clouds shaped like flying saucers. The dark and heavy material contrasts with the moments of weightlessness portrayed within them.

The star of the show, however, is an unusual installation comprising a row of whirring, moving rotor blades, onto which are projected images of people free falling through the air. Here, in one swift move, Schlegel captures not just a personal analogy of fearlessness, but also a larger, grander dream of mankind’s wish to defy gravity. The experience is magical, similar to being, like the people in the projection, neither here nor there, on land or in air. The images themselves seem to float, suspended in the room, since the blades, in their speed, become invisible. They cannot be seen, yet at the same time they allow the film to be projected onto their surface. Perhaps, what Kundera did not realise in his haste to have us choose between weight and lightness is that there exists, as these artworks show, a delicate mid-point, a joyous interregnum between the falling and floating, the lightness and heaviness, which is the space we occupy. 

Eva Schlegel’s exhibition is showing at Gallery Ske, Bangalore till 17 March