Presence, the exhibition by Daan Roosegaarde, is a call to action to save the planet

At the Groninger Museum, the Dutch artist has opened an exhibition that activates with the presence and interaction of the public. Beginning with the concept of ecological footprint, five installations reveal the impact of human beings on the planet.

Eight hundred square metres of “dream landscape”, where it is the visitors that create the works of art. With these words, Daan Roosegaarde – Dutch artist, architect and inventive genius based in Rotterdam – introduces “Presence”, his first large-scale exhibition that opened on 22 June in Groningen, 150 km north of Amsterdam. “The greatest challenge was to dominate the technology in such a way as to bring out the poetry”, he explained. Therefore there are no dimmers, cables, screens or projections. No special effects or spectacular installations. The only source of wonder is a slender beam of light in the darkness. Innovative materials and principles of physics are the only ingredients of the installations, the result of close collaboration between the designer and engineers.

The exhibition is the result of three years of work, which saw the Rotterdam studio involved in design, research, testing and prototypes, and presents a concept that is radically new from a number of points of view. The first revolution with respect to a traditional exhibition layout is that without visitors, the exhibition does not work. It is activated by the presence of people. By moving within the five rooms and, above all, by having an open, curious and active attitude, the visitors become the authors of the works.

The first revolution with respect to a traditional exhibition layout is that without visitors, the exhibition does not work.

“Presence” has another no-less important social meaning. The exhibition, curated by Mark Wilson and Sue-an van der Zijpp, is inspired by the concept of the ecological foot print and climate change. Each room shows the impact that every one of us has on the world that surrounds us, the mark that each of us leaves behind. “This exhibition”, explains Roosegaarde “is a call to action”. The aim is to reveal in a tangible and absorbing way the impact of the presence of human beings on the planet. During the exhibition, visitors are repeatedly invited to leave a trace, but also to reflect on these traces.
There is total freedom. The only sign is to be found at the beginning of the exhibition, and it was designed by the Dutch firm: it shows an open palm, indicating “Please touch”. Accompanied by a short introductory text, it is the only indication for the visit that follows. Even the signs marking the emergency exits have been eliminated. They were too bright for the entirely photo-sensitive rooms.
From the first room, where a beam of light scans people, visitors pass to a kind of camera obscura, where people are observed and photographed by the work, and not - as is usually the case - the reverse. The fun begins in the third room. The floor is covered with thousands of extremely light micro-spheres made of a biodegradable polymer coated in a photoluminescent substance and held in place by fans set on the walls. Is it an alien landscape or a playground? In both cases, its form depends on us. The fourth room is invaded with giant photoluminescent globes that react on contact and show our handprints, but the last room is the real play area. Around thirty luminous balls - kicked, pushed and accompanied - create a beautiful light landscape on a completely photosensitive floor.

“There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew”. The famous phrase by Marshall McLuhan, used by Roosegaarde on various occasions in his conferences, concludes and sums up the essence of the exhibition.
It is the first time that the artist – known for his audacious projects in public urban space, such as the smog-eating tower (Smog Free Tower in Beijing), a luminous cycle path (the Van Gogh Path in Nuenen, the birthplace of the painter), an installation made of 60 backlit buildings that are illuminated by the headlights of passing cars (Gates of Light, at the entrance to the town of Afsluitdijk) – takes on an internal space.
“Some rooms seem to have been designed for future life on another planet. It takes me back to the sixties and seventies, when groups such as Archigram, Superstudio and Smithson tried to imagine what shape the future would take. I hope that this exhibition recreates that desire”, explains Roosegaarde.

There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew. The famous phrase by Marshall McLuhan concludes and sums up the essence of the exhibition.

Such a tactile exhibition also creates a number of practical challenges, as everything needs to be continuously cleaned. “This reminds me of Gerrit Rietveld”, Roosegaarde continues, “When he designed his house in Utrecht, all yellow, red and blue, he realised that the yellow door handle to the kitchen quickly got dirty, and so he repainted it blue. But by doing so, he changed the entire composition. If one is practical, but in an extreme manner, then practicality becomes poetry. Once the exhibition is over, we can create new rooms based on what we have learned from the reaction of the visitors”.
Was it difficult to convince the museum to invest on such an unusual exhibition? He is quick to answer: “The Groninger Museum, due to is decentralised position with respect to Amsterdam, needs to make radical statements. It has a long history of bold exhibitions. The David Bowie exhibition, for example, was created here, to then move to the V&A in London. This is why they always allow particular freedom. This exhibition would never have been possible in any other museum”.

Exhibition title:
Daan Roosegaarde. Presence
Opening dates:
22 June 2019 – 12 January 2020
Mark Wilson, Sue-an van der Zijpp
Groninger Museum
Museumeiland 1, Groningen
Felix Kops

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