Unlikely as it might seem, The Divine Comedy at Harvard's Graduate School of Design in some ways does resemble Dante's travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. To see the whole show one has to literally walk around the neighborhood and risk getting lost on the way. But the good news is that the journey is well worth it.
While Dante's epic poem is an allegory about the soul's journey towards God, the Divine Comedy, on view at Harvard's Graduate School of Design (GSD), is a journey set up to explore the themes of Mind (Olafur Eliasson), History (Ai Weiwei) and Cosmos (Tomás Saraceno). Conceptually expansive as that may sound, Harvard has enough space to give each artist their own sites around its campus. As an exhibition that seeks to explore spatiality and the convergence of art, design, and activism today, the scale and the quality of the work here make it one of the most engaging exhibitions here in ages. Also the inclusion of Ai Weiwei in particular gives it a sense of urgency because, as is well known, he is currently being imprisoned by the Chinese authorities for remaining a vocal critic of the Chinese state, including by making works such as the one included in this show.
There was nobody around on Monday morning when I stepped into the dark, cavernous Gund Hall at the GSD. The students had all gone to class and I was standing alone in a room packed with almost 40 Olafur Eliasson sculptures. It is a large installation made up of many discreet works, but reads like a walk through a mad scientist's workshop. Only upon close inspection does it become clear that each sculpture has its own unique purpose. Watching the kinetic pieces as they pulsed and twirled, two main themes emerged: the revealing of geometry behind the solar system and demonstrations of the phenomenology of light, darkness and absence. Like the studentless hallway, nobody is depicted in Eliasson's work and the darkness in the space felt like the darkness inside a mind filled with ideas.
The inclusion of several untitled models of the solar system (also called orreries) were interesting in that instead of little models of planets there were eight tiny volcanic rocks (no Pluto). To further illustrate the relative positions and motions of the planets in the solar system there was a light bulb in place of the sun, illuminating the "planets." Of course this is a position only God could have—or perhaps a satellite. But it's exactly this tension between the micro and the macro that pulls viewers into his works and allows them to make their own journey.
Whereas Eliasson aims for the internal, Weiwei aims directly at the external, social world. His forceful yet poetic "Untitled" is a large outdoor installation of thousands of children's backpacks arranged in the shape of 10-ft high cubes. These backpacks memorialize the 5,335 schoolchildren who died when cheaply made school buildings collapsed on top of them in the 2008 earthquake in China's Sichuan Province. This multipart monument is located in front of the Science building and inside is a sound piece titled Remembrance which is a simple reading of each of the children's names one at a time.
Of course by addressing, however obliquely, the corruption and cronyism that lead to the deaths of all these children) Weiwei plays the role of social critic. Whereas in the US artists such as Fred Wilson and Hans Haake have made careers out of institutional criticism, in China such art is seen as a political attack on the government and as such is punishable by law. Unfortunately for the Chinese government we are in an era when many industries and institutions are facing intense scrutiny. And whether they like it or not it is the morally correct thing to point out how corruption led to the deaths of children. But Weiwei is not just any artist. His work is smart and to the point. The materials are simple but the ideas are big.
The elegance and power of "Untitled" recalls the silence and authority of Maya Lin's Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C.. It also happens to be yet another reexamination of the cube as visited by numerous artists including Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman, Dan Graham and Janine Antoni to name a few. But in Weiwei's iteration the cube isn't merely a convenient structure on which to hang his idea. The grid arrangement of the backpacks evokes the dead in the way Joseph Beuys stacked layers of felt or in the way Christian Boltanski displayed enormous piles of clothing in order to portray the absence of the people taken away by the Nazis. The dehumanized grid of the cube only serves to reinforce the collective psychic trauma felt by the quake survivors and the families of the lost children.
Down the street on top of the Carpenter Center for the Arts is Tomás Saraceno's "Cloud City," which can be seen from a block away. It is a large inflated polyhedron that has a smaller polyhedron inside of it. But to really see "Cloud City" up close you must walk up a long ramp to get close to it—the object looks more like a huge diamond with some sort of mysterious nucleus inside of it. Like his other inflatable objects, Saraceno uses a variety of devices to record data about the surrounding area and to draw attention to alternative habitats. Such structures may well be the future living spaces for humans on Mars or in space. His background as an architect gives him the ability to smartly engage in dialogs with buildings and their complex, underlying structures.
At first glance "Cloud City" reminded me of the sort of experimental structures designed by the British avant-garde design & architecture group Archigram. But as they say, "everything old is new again" and despite a superficial stylistic comparison, Saraceno's habitats function in a completely different way. His work is a meeting place of sorts–where science, art and architecture can collide safely in the controlled space of a gallery. His meanings are not the passive observation of phenomena as are Eliasson's but rather the active measurement of phenomena such as air, wind, and light. As an artist he acts out multiple roles in the same way Buckminster Fuller did–engineer, architect, designer, inventor–whatever it takes to work through an idea. Art, after all, does not always need to be a finished product. "Cloud City" is an ongoing experiment.
Like Weiwei's "Untitled," Saraceno's work really brings the surrounding buildings to life by creating a dynamic contrast in scale, color, shape and materials. It is a dream-like intervention in the vein of Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, Dennis Oppenheim or more exactly Jonathan Borofsky who, in the 1980's created Ruby, a large red crystalline structure sited high off the ground in various places, supposedly in reference to a dream he had. In a similar way, Saraceno's intervention challenges assumptions about the building itself and its function.
After walking around to the various locations of the Divine Comedy, it is clear that the show succeeds in making the point that well-designed art can be transcendent and can lead they way to a more sturdy version of post-conceptualism. Whereas the prevailing trend in art has been to devalue materials and make them completely subservient and submissive to ideas, the Divine Comedy says otherwise. In fact this grouping of geometrical forms and objects that use light and large lenses (Eliasson) all show an awareness of the world that is clear and rational. Shows like this make the case that art is not just an inside joke and that materials can indeed be invested with meaning.