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Art

Imagine there is a heaven…

A chat with... Björn Dahlem. Dahlem's exhibition, Die Theorie des Himmels III – Focus Imaginarius, explores the fertile gaps in the rational terms of reason. He explains his role as creator and where religion fits in for him.

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Photo by Roman März, courtesy of Galerie Guido W. Baudach, Berlin

In 1755, Immanuel Kant’s Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels (Universal Natural History and Theory of Heaven) put forward the first attempt to explain the universe in the rational terms of Vernunft, a task now in the hands of scientists like Stephen Hawking, with his Brief History of Time. Where does that leave art?

Informed by science, Dahlem’s work explores its fertile gaps. Die Theorie des Himmels III – Focus Imaginarius pokes fun at Kant and proposes more imaginative solutions: handmade planetaria are assembled from geometrical figures, overlaid with religious icons and pieced together from everyday objects.

It’s very unusual to see an art show that uses religious iconography – and doesn’t criticize it.

Yeah, some people were scared off by that. But other people were attracted. There’s a new discussion about religion, among people I would never have expected to be interested.

I’m not what you’d call a critical artist. I don’t believe in critique. It’s the engine oil of the system. And in art, it’s become a kind of fashion – to be a Gutmensch, like a superhuman – the ‘human’ humans, who are super-kind and pretentiously touched. But critique isn’t changing anything. It just makes you feel good. A biennale can be a lot like a big climate conference.

How would you describe the work you are doing? Visionary?

I hope so! I don’t know if it’s visionary, but I hope it’s ‘fantastic’, in the original sense of fantasy. Imagination and creation – that’s what I’m interested in. Not social make-up to wear on special occasions.

Does the rational, Kant’s Vernunft, have no place in your work?

Vernunft is the Holy Spirit secularized. There’s a tradition of images that circulate permanently. An idea has been forgotten, then it appears again. New scientific ideas often follow very old ideas – like string theory in astrophysics, which is connected to the Greek idea of the music of the spheres. Science to me is like a landscape. I’m taking images of that landscape and transferring them into sculpture.

So are you religious?

I used not to be for 18 years or so. And now I’ve become religious again, which is pretty strange. I was religious as a kid, but it was a private thing. But I think that as a kid you’re very open. And I think people are overcritical of religion. It’s human nature. There are millions of things wrong with churches, but imagine if people were as critical of democracy. It’s hard to be honest and good. And people fail. Everybody fails.

For me, the only way out is to live in a kind of inner exile… because otherwise society would make me sick. There would be no reason for me to love my life and other people and to feel the joy of living. I’d end up a nihilist.

You seem very interested in geometry…

I’m interested in the geometry of nature… certain proportions and forms that are repeated in nature. And the structure of crystals and planetary orbits. I’m also interested in Gothic geometry; it was a great period of European technical development and totally new, unlike the Renaissance, which was a rediscovery. If you compare the architecture of Gothic vaulted ceilings to the large-scale images of the universe that we can only now produce, the structure of superclusters looks remarkably similar.

How do these heavenly bodies fit with the domestic objects you use – vases, plates, light bulbs?

It’s material I’m collecting. And I’m working like a child, so I put it together and form sculptures from it. I don’t like complex materials because you lose individual handwriting. A lot of artists take drawings to engineers who make the pieces for them, which is somehow imitating industrial production. And I’m not very interested in this, because I’m not a designer. I’m an artist.

Through January 15