In his essay ‘Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan Peninsula’, first published in Artforum in 1969, American artist Robert Smithson described a series of nine ‘mirror displacements’ he made while on a road trip in Mexico.
These temporary sculptures, each consisting of twelve square mirrors placed in diverse locations in various configurations, reflected the surrounding landscape, ‘displacing’ and shattering its forms into ever-shifting refractions. ‘The mirror itself is not subject to duration, because it is an ongoing abstraction that is always available and timeless’, Smithson wrote. ‘The reflections, on the other hand, are fleeting instances that evade measure. Space is the remains, or corpse, of time, it has dimensions’.
The interplay of space, illusion and time identified by Smithson in his celebrated essay resonates with the recent work of Jeppe Hein. The Danish-born, Berlin-based contemporary artist draws on the legacies of Minimalism and conceptual art in a range of installations and sculptures that playfully investigate space, duration and perception. Like Smithson and his contemporaries, including Donald Judd and Robert Morris, Hein implicates the viewer and surrounding space within his works. Many of his installations bear a formal resemblance to those of his 1960s predecessors; their influence is evident, for example, in Hein’s repeated use of reflective surfaces and elemental geometric forms, such as circles, spheres and cubes. They operate on a similar conceptual basis, directly engaging with the viewer to break down boundaries between art and ‘real life’; asserting that art is dependent on the context and conditions in which they are experienced and perceived.
Hein’s most recent installation, Semicircular space, 2016, is the latest in an ongoing series of works by contemporary artists commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria. It is also the latest instalment in Hein’s ongoing series of spectacular mirrored labyrinths. An imposing yet open structure, Semicircular space is comprised of evenly spaced freestanding uprights made of highly polished stainless steel that together form three sweeping arcs. The reflective surfaces and even spacing of each component creates a dynamic relationship between the viewer and the surrounding environment, resulting in a disorienting maze-like space where the physical environment and the mirrored space are presented in an alternating rhythm. As visitors enter and walk through the installation it engages them in an active and playful interaction of actual and perceived space. The work brings the architectural interior of NGV International’s Federation Court into play, from the concertina-like walls of Roy Grounds’s original 1968 design and Mario Bellini’s late 1990s industrial embellishments to the stained-glass ceiling designed by Leonard French in the adjacent Great Hall. The result is a rhythmic kaleidoscopic effect that fractures and collapses time and space, the real and the virtual, and reflects the viewer back on themselves.
Hein was born in Copenhagen in 1974 and since graduating from the Royal Danish Academy of Arts in 1997 and the Städel Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Frankfurt am Main in 1999, has produced an extensive body of work that places emphasis on the viewer’s experience. His spatial and perceptual explorations have taken various forms and employed a diverse range of materials and media, including smoke, fire, neon, light, water, steel, photography and watercolour. His works have been informed by Op art, kinetic art, conceptual art and Minimalism in the 1960s as well as the work of certain artists associated with the Californian Light and Space movement, such as Robert Irwin, James Turrell and John McCraken. The spatial and architectural pavilions of New York artist Dan Graham, with whom Hein has collaborated on two occasions, are another influential point of reference, as are the sensory spatial installations of Berlin-based contemporary artist Olafur Eliasson, with whom Hein once worked as an assistant.
Hein’s use of mirrors connects to a similarly diverse lineage across the history of twentieth-century art, from Morris and Smithson’s minimalist experiments, the conceptual investigations of Art & Language and the optical-kinetic works of Julio Le Parc and other artists associated with the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel in the 1960s, to the infinity rooms of Yayoi Kusama, the geometric mirrored installations of Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian and mirror paintings by artists as diverse as Michelangelo Pistoletto and Gerhard Richter.
Although consciously informed by all of these references, Hein’s works rarely feel burdened by history and are instead characterised by a lightness of touch and sense of playfulness.
Play and social interaction are recurring features of Hein’s practice which connect it to a rich vein of recent contemporary art associated with relational aesthetics. The principles of this participatory form of art are evident across his oeuvre in a diverse range of works, including the ongoing Modified social benches project, 2005–, in which Hein whimsically transforms functional park benches into poetic sculptural forms; Invisible moving wall, 2001, an apparently ‘normal’ white gallery wall that playfully confounded gallery-goers by moving almost imperceptibly around an exhibition space; and numerous neon text-based works, such as PLEASE, 2008, that directly addresses the audience to ‘Please enjoy relax steal dance touch flirt smoke wonder feel muse eat sing listen talk ask touch neon look communicate touch each other use camera flash’ in a joyful affront to the usual codes of behaviour expected by museums and galleries.
The humour that plays an important role in many of Hein’s works, however, is always tempered by a more serious underpinning. He says:
Many of my works are sensually appealing to people, creating joyful and playful situations, relaxing moments or opportunities for interaction with others that often make them laugh … Though I like it when my works amuse people, my main intention is not to entertain people and my works are based on serious principles.
Playful and thought-provoking in equal measure, Semicircular space distorts our experiences and perceptions of reality, and allows new and unexpected perspectives to emerge. Encouraging us to consider different ways of seeing the world and reflect on our position within it, it does what Hein believes the best art can do, and that is, to ‘sharpen the senses, heighten awareness and perception of space, and establish a dialogue between people and their surroundings’.