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Machine Dreams: Erwin Redl at the Halsey Institute in Charleston

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Ascension (circle 24), 2015; kinetic installation with 24 suspended glass tubes, ping-pong balls,programmed fans and programmed white LEDs; number of glass tubes, configuration, and dimensions variable

Erwin Redl’s Ascension (circle 24) is a fountain of Ping Pong balls. In his recent show “Rational Exuberance,” a circle of 24 glass tubes hung from the ceiling of the gallery, and each tube contained a ball dramatically lit with LED lights. A fan at the bottom of each tube caused the balls to rise and clink against the glass. When they fell, we heard the low sound of a timpani. The movement and the sounds set up a regular rhythm like breathing (watch another piece in the series here). Sometimes they rose in unison. Sometimes one by one. Sometimes they rise a little bit, then go halfway up the tube, then ¾ up, and finally reach the top. But they never quite match up. One ball is usually a little behind, while others might rise in perfect lockstep.

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It’s those small idiosyncrasies that complicate the work and draw in the viewer. Visitors young and old were clearly mesmerized. I watched a young girl try to mimic the movement of the balls with her body, crouching down when they fell and standing up when they rose. Another visitor said it reminded him of the lottery, referring to the numbered balls that we see on televised drawings.

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Installation view of Ascension (circle 24) in the foreground, and Redl’s CNC Palimpsest Prints in the background

Redl feels that his work is not just about seeing, but about experience, about slowing down and finding a sense of calm. Redl grew up in the Austrian countryside, amid the Alps, and was fascinated by the changing light and slow-moving clouds that he observed there. It’s perhaps surprising that such natural forces would give rise to an obsession with technology, for Redl has become known for using computers to design artificial light effects and environments. He adopted the technology of LED lights in the mid-1990s and went on to design large-scale grid-based curtains of light in the Matrix series. A 2013 residency at the Toledo Museum of Art led to an installation of floating glass spheres titled Floating, in Silence. Each half full of red liquid, the glass spheres moved slightly with the air current. The effect inspired Redl to replicate the movement of wind by using tiny fans, and this was the impetus behind the Ping Pong ball work.

Across from Ascension was a series of prints, big enough to stretch between the floor and the ceiling. The glittery inks of the CNC Palimpsest Prints attract the eyes to what look like blueprints or some sort of mechanical diagram. Lines multiply, and shapes stand out—a circle here, an arc there, a grid of repeated small nested circles The lines and shapes in the prints are not intentional, but evidence of the function of a CNC (computer numeric control) machine, a computer-controlled router used to cut materials. Redl used the bed of the machine as a printing matrix, simply inking it, laying a sheet of paper over the marks that had built up on the bed from the cutting of objects, and pressing the paper to preserve the marks as a palimpsest of the machine’s work.

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CNC Palimpsest Prints, 2014, monoprints hand-burnished on Fabriano archival paper with oil-based ink, 5 by 10 feet

Practically speaking, a palimpsest is a surface that has been used or drawn on repeatedly but never fully erased, so that it carries traces of previous use, like the kids’ toy that allows you to erase whatever has been drawn or written on its waxy pad by lifting a thin plastic film. Despite this appearance of a clean surface, the marks left by the pressure of the stylus build up on the pad below and create a permanent chaotic record of all the doodles. Freud referred to this toy as a “mystic writing pad” in an analogy to the conscious and unconscious mind: the conscious is like the top plastic sheet, while its impressions are left forever in the unconscious below. In postmodern theory, Derrida reflected on this aspect of Freud’s work and argued that writing supplements perception by allowing us to experience the world through filters of trace marks, of writings and memories that shape our experience. The postmodern lesson of intertextuality teaches us that no experience is direct or unmediated.

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Redl’s palimpsest prints do not rely on us understanding the theoretical history of the term, but they demonstrate traces of the history of his own practice. The grids of dots could be the sides of the cubes used in the installation that takes up the larger half of the gallery. Here the space has been walled off and blacked out for Cubes (3 x 16), 2009, an installation of cubes of blinking LED lights on three platforms. Entering from the side, the visitor’s eyes adjust to the darkness and then see lined up on a diagonal axis through the gallery the three basic shapes of a circle, a square, and a long rectangle. Each platform holds 16 small cubes, thus the subtitle (3 x 16), and each painted aluminum cube is gridded with LED lights. When the lights blink on, the cubes seem to float in space and offer a light show whose pattern offers a puzzle to the viewer. Sometimes the lights blink off, though, calling attention to the cubes as objects—as sculptures. Clearly Redl is referencing Minimalist cubes as well as Minimalist-era uses of light, such as the work of Dan Flavin or the California-based Light and Space movement, but the arrangements are just as reminiscent of the complicated illusions of M.C. Escher.

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Cubes (3 x 16), 2009, light installation with animated white LEDs and fiber-optics, dimensions variable

Light-based work has seen a resurgence in the past decade. Writing for ArtNews, Hilarie Sheets includes Redl as part of the recent trend (“Waves of Light”). He was also included in the 2005 Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, show “Ecstasy: In and About Altered States,” which examined the impact of light on our perception, among other phenomena. But the trend has also taken a more populist turn in public art and in art festivals, such as Flux Night in Atlanta, InLight in Richmond, and Luna Fête in New Orleans. Redl’s lights will illuminate the city of Spartanburg, South Carolina, for National Night Out on October 4.

“Erwin Redl: Rational Exuberance” was on view May 20-July 9 at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in Charleston.

Rebecca Lee Reynolds is an assistant professor in the department of fine arts at the University of New Orleans, where she teaches art history.