Björn Dahlem’s "The Unknown"

Tyler Coburn

July 27, 2011
Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam
June 25–July 31, 2011

The past month brought another turn to the space race, as the closure of NASA’s cash-strapped, shuttle program made more room for Chinese, Indian, Russian, and even commercial enterprise. With twenty-nine private companies presently vying for Google’s $30 million, Lunar X prize, we are well on the verge of the next wave of invention—and an unprecedented scale of speculation.

Such a reinvigorated, cosmic drive may account for why Björn Dahlem’s current exhibition at Fons Welters feels decidedly out-of-step. Contrary to its titular claim, “The Unknown” puts Dahlem’s practice in the well-trodden line of polymaths like Johannes Müller, Immanuel Kant, Johannes Kepler, and even Aristotle, who, in their respective ways, proposed hybrid models of existence that drew from disciplines like science, mathematics, philosophy, religion, and psychology. Dahlem reprises this figure as an amateurish bricoleur, tinkering away with found objects, wood, and metal tubing on model-size sculptures that take their names from the astronomical lexicon, yet are neither strictly illustrative in form nor, as with a Leonardo, propositionally functional designs. Rather, these works endeavor to constellate the viewer by laying out immanent prompts that, in their material insubstantiality, stimulate extended contemplation.

The rock crystal-covered TV antenna in Hintergrundstrahlung (“Background radiation”) (2011) and the barometer in M (2010), for example, gently touch on natural phenomena that largely escape notice in a well-regulated white cube. In Himmelglobus (Das All) (2010), a celestial sphere evokes a holiday ornament, replete with a Christmas ball, light, and imitation tree perching atop a bottle of cocktail cherries. As with the raspberry juice in M, the bottle and bulb inscribe alternate temporalities onto the sphere, creating an interplay of preservation and emission that complicates its decorative look—and provides a mixological metaphor for the exhibition at large. Epizyklus (Mars) (2011) and Epizyklus (Venus) (2011) further expand Dahlem’s sculptural parameters by employing their glass vitrines, as mounting supports, for the epicycle-like wood paths presented within.

For his 2010 exhibition at Kunst im Tunnel, Düsseldorf, Dahlem cast many of these vitrines amidst white, fractal sets, which looked as if Caspar David Friedrich’s ice floe had assumed a momentary afterlife as a geodesic habitat before falling into ruin. “The Unknown,” however, forgoes the sets and so loses some critical appearance to its design-store charms, though such an addition would hardly save this underwhelming work from being, even contemplatively, underwhelming. Aestheticizing the cosmos may serve Dahlem’s interdisciplinary and hermeneutic agenda, but it also raises the possibility of an artistic cosmology less reliant upon scientific and mystical referents than the ingenuity and vision of its maker. The most unsettling question that could thus be asked, of this exhibition, is what Dahlem’s scant methods presuppose about the state of the cultural imaginary.

The Cosmos

Tyler Coburn is an artist, writer, and teacher based in New York.

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Galerie Fons Welters
July 27, 2011

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