MIND’S EYE

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Il­lu­sions abound in a new Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria ex­hi­bi­tion fea­tur­ing Ja­panese de­sign stu­dio Nendo and Dutch artist MC Escher.

Il­lu­sion, sur­prise and mind-bend­ing won­der abound in a new Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria ex­hi­bi­tion fea­tur­ing in­ge­nious Ja­panese de­sign stu­dio Nendo and 20th-cen­tury Dutch artist MC Escher. By Cushla Chauhan.

It’s a cool, blus­tery day in the Hague in the Nether­lands, where au­tumn leaves twirl down pretty streets. But in­side the Mu­seum Escher in Het Paleis, a for­mer Dutch royal palace now home a per­ma­nent col­lec­tion of works by Dutch graphic artist MC Escher, it’s warm and cosy, the ideal set­ting in which to lose my­self in art. Right now, I’m star­ing in­tently at a wood­cut by the fa­mous print­maker. My eyes are un­pick­ing its de­tail, my brain un­rav­el­ling its nar­ra­tive, then sud­denly – ping! – it’s that ‘ah-ha’ mo­ment of clar­ity when the im­age re­veals its sur­prise. Such is the na­ture of Escher’s vis­ual enig­mas. Still Life and Street (1937), which has held me en­tranced, jux­ta­poses two scenes that in the real world don’t log­i­cally con­nect, yet it takes a while to un­ravel the ruse.

As the master of il­lu­sion him­self once said: “We adore chaos be­cause we love to pro­duce or­der.”

Al­most half a cen­tury af­ter his pass­ing in 1972, Escher is still cap­ti­vat­ing au­di­ences with his op­ti­cal il­lu­sions and sur­real imag­in­ings, and this sum­mer the first ma­jor sur­vey of his work will be shown in Aus­tralia, a ret­ro­spec­tive of more than 150 of his most iconic prints and draw­ings span­ning 1916 to 1969.

Escher x Nendo: Be­tween Two Worlds opens this month at Mel­bourne’s Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria (NGV), not only a show­case of Escher’s work but also a col­lab­o­ra­tion with award-win­ning Ja­panese de­signer Oki Sato, founder of Tokyo-based de­sign firm Nendo, which has con­ceived vast im­mer­sive spa­ces within the NGV gal­leries and a se­ries of ob­jects to fea­ture within those spa­ces.

An odd pair­ing at face value – two creators or­bit­ing dif­fer­ent epochs, coun­tries, cul­tures and me­dia – for the NGV, the dif­fer­ences and sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween Nendo and Escher pro­vide the sort of mad spark to which it is drawn, part of its bold strat­egy of find­ing cre­ative ways to bring art and de­sign into di­a­logue.

“We ap­proached Nendo about whether they’d be in­ter­ested in re­spond­ing to Escher’s work and cre­at­ing an im­mer­sive ex­hi­bi­tion ex­pe­ri­ence,” ex­plains Cathy Leahy, NGV se­nior cu­ra­tor, prints and draw­ings. “They have ar­ranged the ex­hi­bi­tion the­mat­i­cally rather than chrono­log­i­cally, so the works are grouped around some key themes that Escher re­turned to, and have de­vised a dif­fer­ent treat­ment for each of those spa­ces in re­sponse to that par­tic­u­lar cat­e­gory.”

The en­dur­ing pop­u­lar­ity of Escher’s wood­cuts, linocuts, draw­ings and sketches, many of which have be­come some of the most iconic images of the 20th cen­tury, has seen re­cent global ex­hi­bi­tions of his work draw record crowds. His math­e­mat­i­cally in­spired works re­veal an on­go­ing fas­ci­na­tion with im­pos­si­ble architectural con­struc­tions, twisted per­spec­tives that defy the laws of space and themes such as in­fin­ity, tes­sel­la­tions, re­flec­tion, meta­mor­pho­sis and sym­me­try.

While in the 60s and 70s hip­pie coun­ter­cul­ture con­nected with what they saw as the ‘trippy’ vibe of Escher’s art, and pla­gia­rised his work for record cov­ers and posters (much to his cha­grin), to­day his images can still be found tacked against class­room walls, tat­tooed onto the skin of com­mit­ted fans and, with their oth­er­worldly qual­ity, even in­spir­ing scenes in vir­tual re­al­ity games.

Leahy says his time­less ap­peal isn’t sur­pris­ing. “The in­ge­nious na­ture of his images in­trigues peo­ple. When you look at them they’re metic­u­lously pro­duced, so there’s this crafts­man­ship and fin­ish, and they’re quite in­ven­tive and of­ten quite play­ful … there’s a whim­si­cal, hu­mor­ous el­e­ment. But then when you look more closely at some of his com­po­si­tions you think: ‘There’s some­thing else go­ing on here, some­thing that doesn’t quite add up.’ So I think it’s that el­e­ment of a kind of re­al­ity that’s not quite the re­al­ity.”

Back in the Hague, Benno Tem­pel, di­rec­tor of the Ge­meen­te­mu­seum Den Haag, which dis­plays highlights of its Escher col­lec­tion at the Escher Mu­seum, posits that the graphic artist taps some­thing quite pri­mal in the hu­man psy­che. “I think his art ad­dresses some­thing very ba­sic in hu­man be­ings. The de­cep­tion of the eye and the magic of the op­ti­cal il­lu­sions he cre­ates some­how trig­gers in mankind a fas­ci­na­tion with the im­pos­si­ble.”

Born in 1898 in the Nether­lands, the son of a civil engi­neer, Escher showed in­ter­est in art at an early age. As a young man he pur­sued ar­chi­tec­ture but, en­cour­aged by his teacher, switched to graphic arts. Fol­low­ing his stud­ies, he jour­neyed to Italy, a coun­try he fell in love with, and like a pi­o­neer­ing Rough Guide back­packer, he would ven­ture to re­mote vil­lages, sketch­ing the land­scape and rel­ish­ing the ex­tremes of per­spec­tive of­fered by moun­tain­ous ter­rain be­fore trans­form­ing his draw­ings into prints.

Escher con­tin­ued to travel ex­ten­sively through­out Europe dur­ing his ca­reer, ex­press­ing his love of the nat­u­ral world and his abil­ity to see it through the prism of math­e­mat­ics. Is­lamic art too, proved im­pact­ful, giv­ing rise to tes­sel­la­tions such as Reg­u­lar Di­vi­sion of the Plane No. 105, (right); while Ja­panese wood­block prints, were also thought to have in­flu­enced com­po­si­tions such as Sky and Wa­ter I (1938).

Al­though dur­ing his life­time Escher was largely dis­missed by the art world, which con­sid­ered his re­al­ity-warp­ing images too or­nate, he was revered by math­e­ma­ti­cians and physi­cians, who used his draw­ings to il­lus­trate com­plex con­cepts. He found dis­taste­ful the main­stream pop­u­lar­ity he achieved in the 60s, which claimed his images as part of ‘psy­che­delic art’, so much so that he fa­mously turned down Rolling Stone Mick Jag­ger af­ter he asked Escher to de­sign an al­bum cover for Let It Bleed.

Tem­pel laughs when he says Escher “was not im­pressed at all by this long-haired guy who was so fa­mous”. But also as­serts that he hit on some­thing that res­onated with the anti-es­tab­lish­ment cul­ture of the 60s. “In his prints he does some­thing that is part of what hip­pies also ex­pe­ri­ence. They were tak­ing all these drugs that led to trips and we know from var­i­ous de­scrip­tions that there are dif­fer­ent phases in these trips and ex­pe­ri­ences to do with form and colour, and a few of those things also re­late to the de­signs that Escher and other artists use. This doesn’t, of course, mean Escher used drugs him­self, but I think he tuned into some­thing hid­den in all hu­mans.”

The de­gree to which Escher felt de­tached from the beat­nik gen­er­a­tion, he’d likely have felt con­nected to Nendo. Though eras apart, the

affini­ties be­tween the de­signer and artist’s sen­si­bil­i­ties make them com­ple­men­tary col­lab­o­ra­tors. As Sato points out: “We both like to cre­ate things that are a bit tricky that start from a log­i­cal point of view or in­spi­ra­tion, and then adapt these ideas into some­thing that can be com­mu­ni­cated to a larger au­di­ence.”

There’s also their shared metic­u­lous ap­proach to de­sign, play­ful­ness, el­e­ment of shock or sur­prise and, in the case of Nendo, a min­i­mal­ism that favours monochrome on par with Escher’s sub­dued colour pal­ette.

Cer­tainly Tem­pel, a cus­to­dian of Escher’s work in a sense, is ex­cited to see the out­come. “I think it’s go­ing to be a re­ally great in­stal­la­tion,” he en­thuses. “The risk with Escher is that an ex­hi­bi­tion can be­come too kitsch. In a lot I’ve seen peo­ple try to be ‘Escher-ish’ in the sur­rounds and space,” he says, cring­ing. “In this case, though, the con­join­ing of de­signer and artist makes sense in a very sur­pris­ing way. Both are in­ter­ested in op­ti­cal il­lu­sion and form­ing per­spec­tive and mak­ing some­thing that from a cer­tain point of view looks per­fectly log­i­cal, but when you get closer to it or change the an­gle from which you look at it, it changes. These two worlds com­ing to­gether, that’s very pow­er­ful.”

Walk­ing through the strik­ing mir­rored cor­ri­dors of Nendo’s Tokyo de­sign stu­dio, the an­tithe­sis of the 19th-cen­tury palace I’ve re­cently vis­ited in the Nether­lands, Sato leads me to a model of the in­stal­la­tion he’s cre­ated with his team for the NGV. For the 41-year-old min­i­mal­ist master (whose stu­dio about 300 projects on the go at once), the NGV invitation was ex­cit­ing but chal­leng­ing. “It’s a very strange project be­cause it’s not only our ex­hi­bi­tion, we’re not pre­sent­ing our ret­ro­spec­tive work, but it’s not like we’re de­sign­ing the ex­hi­bi­tion for Escher’s work alone ei­ther,” says the de­signer. “We have to present our point of view as well, so it has to be­come a col­lab­o­ra­tion, and the idea I had was that since we are show­ing Escher’s two-di­men­sional art­works, we would do some­thing in the three-di­men­sional world, which means large-scale ob­jects and in­te­rior de­signs.”

This ob­jec­tive led to Sato to em­ploy the mo­tif of a house to act as “a sort of main char­ac­ter to guide the vis­i­tors through all these dif­fer­ent con­cepts and dif­fer­ent sto­ries”. The very sim­ple shape of the house is used as an icon of the space it­self and, as well as ref­er­enc­ing Escher’s ma­nip­u­la­tion of pat­terns, is also a way of cre­at­ing in­ven­tive dis­plays for Escher’s work.

Sato points to the mod­els of the sep­a­rate en­vi­ron­ments Nendo has de­signed, which play with geom­e­try, space and per­cep­tion. It’s hoped the gal­leries will en­cour­age view­ers to par­tic­i­pate phys­i­cally in the ex­hi­bi­tion and en­gage in the art­work – walk­ing through con­structs, fac­ing puz­zling per­spec­tives as they en­ter rooms – in ef­fect, hav­ing a sense of “step­ping into an Escher work”.

“I need to re­spect ev­ery sin­gle art­work but I should not re­spect it too much, in a way. It’s about how much Nendo it should be how much Escher it should be – the bal­ance is very im­por­tant,” says Sato.

Within Nendo’s in­ven­tive land­scape, many of Escher’s most beloved works await dis­cov­ery, in­clud­ing: Up and down (1947), Drawing hands (1948), Rel­a­tiv­ity (1953), Wa­ter­fall (1961) and his fi­nal wood­cut, Snakes (1969), which is hon­oured in a ded­i­cated gallery space.

The NGV is con­fi­dent this new way of pre­sent­ing Escher breaks new ground and Leahy is im­pressed by how mind­ful and re­spect­ful Nendo has been of the Dutch artist’s work. “They’ve un­der­stood what some of the driv­ers are in Escher’s work, so rather than just be­ing a pas­tiche, they’ve taken that prin­ci­ple and come up with some­thing orig­i­nal them­selves. I think peo­ple are go­ing to be amazed.”

Escher x Nendo | Be­tween Two Worlds runs from De­cem­ber 2, 2018 to April 7, 2019 at the NGV. For more in­for­ma­tion, go to www.ngv.vic.gov.au.

In a white gallery space, Nendo’s im­mer­sive lay­out of black metal rods – each dis­play­ing an Escher art­work – is ded­i­cated to the themet of space and il­lu­sion. Above: Con­vex and Con­cave (1955). Be­low: Reg­u­lar Di­vi­sion of the Plane No. 105, Pe­ga­sus (1959).

Nendo’s zoom­ing house cor­ri­dor is a 20-me­tre path­way shaped like the cross-sec­tion of a house. With its en­trance mea­sur­ing more than three me­tres in height, and its end just 55 cen­time­tres high, vis­i­tors walk­ing through the house feel like it’s shrink­ing around them.

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