Measuring the universe, one head at a time

Roman Ondák, Measuring the Universe, 2007

Measuring the Universe by acclaimed Slovakian artist Roman Ondák is not an art piece one comes to admire but an event to which one comes wanting to be involved, to participate in the creation of an unfolding, living artwork.

The very first visitor who comes to see Measuring the Universe sees nothing — only a blank, white wall. At the entrance he or she is instructed to have their height measured with the visitor’s name and date of participation inscribed. The work grows with the active participation of each new visitor and the empty wall thus gradually transforms into a dark mass of marks congregating around the median height of the participants, with density dependant on the number of visitors and length of event. At the show’s end, the wall is repainted white and the work is gone.

Roman Ondák, Measuring the Universe, 2007

Measuring the Universe, prompts comparison with the instruction-based Fluxus movement (i.e. Yoko Ono’s ‘Cut Piece’) where visitors are invited to perform and co-produce the artwork and where the artist’s role is stripped down from the skilled craftsman to the idea maker. The execution and responsibility for the production lies entirely in the audience’s hands – if there are no visitors, if there is no participation, there is no work. The lack of the ‘author’s touch’ raises the intriguing question of authorship – WHO IS THE AUTHOR?

Tight interaction between the spectator and the artwork transforms the experiential relation between viewer and the art object. Tangible and direct, very much opposite to the traditional one-sided display to a passive audience, this type of involvement results in a greater feeling of ownership by the participants and gives them, as observed by RoseLee Goldberg, “access to the art world, […] its ritual and its distinct community.”

In Measuring the Universe, a quotidian ritual (measuring our children’s height) is reframed and relocated into the art context; intimate and private experience is transformed into communal gathering, generating intimacy between participants. The value of Ondák’s work stems from the experience it creates, not from the aesthetic sensation it provides; the engagement with the work is tactile and participatory, rather than retinal or intellectual.

Measuring the Universe does not result in a finished product, a static icon-object; once the process of making is completed, there is no work left – the wall returns to the blank slate and there is nothing left except for the memory of participation (and perhaps also, the quality of the artist’s idea). By ceasing to be permanent, Ondák’s work devalues and de-materialises the traditional notion of art created for the “shop window” of the gallery. Measuring the Universe lives in the moment, and is gone when the community that gathered around it ceases to exist or, perhaps, ceases to remember it.

Roman Ondák’s ‘Measuring the Universe’ was presented in Sydney in January 2014 as part of the 2014 Sydney Festival and in collaboration with Kaldor Public Art Projects.

[TEXT BY IRA FERRIS]

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