Wavespace Helga Griffiths LightSound Festival Copenhagen

Text by Dirk Manzke, Professor for City and Landscape Planning, Technical University of Osnabrück, Member of the Board of the Kunstverein Osnabrück

Translation by Andrew Griffiths

Place as Art Space
At first, you just sense the presence of the sea. Feel it. Listen in silence. From tension and inner joy. The sea. Long since leaving the city centre of Copenhagen, the houses seemed to disappear into the landscape. The gently rolling inland hills are sculpted by the perfect roads. The leafless trees are driven by the wind, laden with snow. Finally, a small town appears, not so much built on the shore of the sea, which suddenly appears, more drifted into the bay. Gilleleje. Arrival. At first you smell the sea. At first I sense the place.

Here, north of Copenhagen, on the stormy coasts of Gilleleje in February, at the most northerly spurs of Europe and yet internationally connected and communicated, here the artist Helga Griffiths from Ober-Ramstadt has dared to create an installation in the icy cold, focussing on climate change, an affecting installation. A former locomotive shed with cropped tracks, whose existence seemed to be a long decline until the present rediscovery, is the frosty locality for a message, which links the sea to life on the mainland. But the Danish capital Copenhagen is also being drawn together with its surrounding area. Part of the concept of the LightSound Festival 2010, organized by the Copenhagen International Theatre, was to choose spaces that represent new approaches to localities with potential subsequent use. In the town of Gilleleje, a locomotive shed was promoted to an art space, where the northern edge of Europe is portrayed as a region where the existential assertiveness of human coastal settlement is demonstrated.

Transformation as Impression
In a dark room, whose contours defy perception and suggest infinities of cosmic distance, a jerking, floating wave of light flows through the space, transforming the vacant building. The black surroundings of the installation remain indistinct, so that the wave seems simultaneously to float, to fly, to glide, to flow. Only after his eyes have got used to the darkness, can the observer appreciate how the artist has utilized the building space by occupying a central, confrontational position for her installation. Just during this short period of initial perception, that brief transitional moment between reality and artistry, just then, one is filled with a feeling of the mysterious and yet familiar, of the untameable, yet so approachable sea.

Meanwhile, the installation, which is entitled "wavespace", transforms itself into a crystalline latticework, emitting rhythmical, broken, flashing, dripping and flowing light signals. Minuscule LED lamps emit a contrapunctal light echo of diverse rhythms, connected by restful and restless intervals of light sequences. This installation wants interaction, it demands study, concentrated listening, receptive ability and patience. Its many-layered complexity requires intense communication and tests one's readiness to confront the extraordinary, with attendant impact on one's own behaviour.

Helga Griffiths is becoming a familiar figure among those internationally active artists, who use complex installations to confront complex contemporary questions. In her earlier works "Identity Analysis" and "something in the air", she already began to formulate her interest in a conceptual correlation of art and science, of artistic intervention and scientific reflection. She uses rational means to seek access, thoughtful access, to the emotions. Transformation is the method that she employs to achieve emotional response.

Distance world: Nature
It is the struggle for subjective perception that creates and underpins art. It is a way of thinking, both sentient and perceptive, that in some aspects of contemporary art tries repeatedly to trigger epiphanies of new experience and confrontation with the familiar. Following the thinking of Max Frisch, who wrote that our drive to accumulate technology comes from wanting to experience more than nature provides, the current development of technology and media seems to be standing on its head. Only when we - probably fairly soon - succeed in abandoning ourselves to all that technological performance, as thoroughly and autonomously as possible, do we experience nature more intensively. Only then, do we become aware of our distance. Only then, do we begin to look for what we are, at last, missing.

Helga Griffiths uses a wide pallette of technical means and media to discover ways of making our remoteness from nature tangible. She employs technical and medial intelligence to demonstrate them in their self-evident existence and, at the same time, to entice out of them their potential for poetry. For her, these instruments conjure up the contemporary images and situations in which we rediscover ourselves. She is motivated by her realization that technological actuality underpins modernity in this society of ours, which is shaped by rational thought. That can all be found in her Gilleleje project. Her subject is the conscious experience of fragmented nature, ultimately of landscape. In "wavespace", the sea is the natural element that endows her work with meaning.

Helped by her readiness to risk unplanned outcomes, Helga Griffiths undertakes the transformation of disciplined, medially ordered information into art. Through her willingness to risk technical dependencies, which might even threaten her projects, she reflects our natural tendency to imagine whole societies in their devotion to technology. In wavespace, every light sequence, every moment of programmed immediacy is the result of this boldness. Many dramatic and, at the same time, poetic elements exist in the superimposition of development and presence. All of this brings about the transformation of the sea, wind and weather, but also of society itself. Her art is a distance world with respect to nature, by simultaneously making nature an integral part of it.

Association: the Sea
At the same time, Helga Griffiths gives clear, carefully placed hints. Ripple and swell, storm and rain can be experienced. Every sound that issues from her installation is generated by musical instruments, from which tonal associations are elicited, e.g. of storms. We learn that a code seems to be located inside each of us, which is able to evoke the transformation of a drop of water from a technical medium to a sensual experience. We learn that each of us harbours an unbroken ability to regress to basic natural experiences. In this way, we also experience our own sensuality. We learn about the ability to divine storm and sunrise, wind and calm, from sound and light impressions. Out of, of all things, the technical means employed by the artist, emerge true poetic impressions. Wavespace is therefore a reference to the independence of nature, as experienced in the historical storms that have threatened Gilleleje in the past. The project is a three-dimensional feel-film, to assume the indefinite in our future. As empirical experiences are woven into the project, so we learn the story of the sea, as a historical narrative. Thus are we reminded again through the senses, how all the weathers of the sea reveal themselves as a fundamental source of our equally helpless, fragile organic life.

History as the basis for existential atmospheres
The time sequence of the installation adds up to to eighteen, precisely organized minutes, encompassing three storm passages derived from a century of historical, regional weather data. The ribbon breathes and lifts into the space, transforming itself into a breaker.

Mood sequences now radiate from the conceptual organisation. They create atmospheres. While the wave movement, which occupies the art space, emitting light signals, encourages associative thinking, those viewing it rediscover themselves as creatures of living existence, transposed into the atmospheres of a new nature. The spitting and roaring of the storms seems more familiar. All at once, we huddle into our overcoats, although we are safe, lingering on solid ground in a historic building. It is cold and stormy in February, here in Gilleleje. We sense glittering ice and heavy, drifting, icebergs. Shivering, I take refuge in my protecting overcoat. This freezing, this coldness, this experience of one's own corporeal nature, inside and outside, is an essential part of this installation. Rising winds and the imminent detonation of storms, even if they come at us from the past, always make us uneasy. And already, we yearn for release from this moment of menace and a glimpse of the calm, infinitely patient sea. The history of the sea is a history of life on the shore. It is also the history of fears and setbacks. Linear, organised history is interlaced with storms of existential uncertainty.

Interwoven dependency
This bond between location and art is emphasized by a sensor, which is placed in the sea and supplies additional data on the actual state of the fluctuating processes there. A signal is transmitted according to the wave motion, which has a direct effect on the installation. The variation in the light sequences is matched to the motion of the sea. Someone who visits the installation on different days will experience differently the droplets of light, triggered by the sensor. The installation is exposed to the sea. It absorbs the uncertainty. The art space becomes part of the wave movement, one with the sea. The safety of solid ground is connected and contrasted with the unpredictability of the sea. In a world of increasing medial networking, moments of nature and civilisation are now being linked to borderline experiences. They are conditional upon each other; they supplement, consummate each other. After a while, the visitor gains confidence in the installation wavespace. At some point, he accepts that the ceaselessly changing light and sound sequences are an image of nature, even a transformation of an untamed wilderness, comparable in a broad vision with the unleashing of the natural power of volcanoes and the fearful force of hurricanes. This factual background erupts between the poles of the glowing ocean of light and the flashing droplets. Gradually, and inexorably, the storms rumble nearer, seeming to lurk in wait for a time, until they rage mercilessly over the open water and on the coasts. The wave lights up, illuminating the space in burning spasms, as though it were trying to howl its way out of the room. The sound broadens from a nervous mood to a surging explosion. Together with the acoustic clangour, the light pulses become increasingly nervous and urgent. Soon, a storm will whip up the sea. Soon, the room shakes, as though it is about to sink into the sea. Now and then, however, sequences can be sensed that describe the people of the sea, the people at the sea. They seem to be standing at the water's edge, on the beaches, in the sand. Waiting. That is just an impression that triggers thoughts which are partly instinctive, partly wreathed in mystery. Breathing sounds can be heard, that penetrate deep inside oneself. One perceives groaning and pulsating passages, in which the sea seems to have arrived in one's own body.

Strategy of internalisation
It is not just that Helga Griffiths wants to relocate the sea into a vacant locomotive shed. She is interested above all in transporting the life cycle of water and the element water via the solid, liquid and gaseous states of landscape into the internal human landscape. As clearly as the scope is defined, engagement with the installation reveals the complexity of the concept confronting the willing observer. This constant, conscious preoccupation with the inconstancies of life amounts to a clear reference to the uncertainties of daily life. One of Helga Griffiths' issues is addressed by the juxtaposition of inconstant nature and transient civilisation. The fundamental substantial concept is implemented by the transformation into images and sounds. The artist acknowledges that she maintains the complexity of her quest by working with experts of diverse specialities. Simplistic answers do not satisfy her. It is not her ambition to serve up an event. Helga Griffiths pursues existential questions. Consequently, she is continually re-inventing her art.

Considering the water cycle, when the waters flow from the land into the sea, starting with drains, trickles, streams, finally rivers, then these are simultaneously our own veins and nerves, which together point the way towards the boundless sea within the infiniteness of the human body. That seems to make the sources of our life-giving heritage easier to understand.

A three-dimensional, space consuming, space determining image seems to wind through the room. Sliding along the floor, rising into the space like a wave, sinking again at the end, the ribbon of light advances through the space, giving it structure, dividing and celebrating it at the same time, giving it fluidity, complementing it by rupturing its architectural organisation, revealing its hidden flow, float, drift. Then, suddenly, I notice the cold draught in the space, feel the frost that does not wait beyond the high wooden doors.

The exactly ordered sources of illumination on the light wave are on the one hand shimmering, dissolving, assertive, slipping, finally flowing fixed points of movement and stillness, of life's diffuse drift, and then again of compact solidity, yielding again and again their own individual moment of existence, of presence. While, on the other hand, the light sources linger in darkness, seem to disappear for a space, are lacunae in the light of actuality. For a moment, some observers may think they are dreaming, only to awake a little later in a more robustly orchestrated reality. Yes, there is something possessive, obsessive about this installation. Those, who offer themselves up to the richness, will assimilate the perceptual spectrum as sequences of life experience. They will have invested time, to gain a more profound sense of time. Corporeal time. Life time.