Walk through the doors of the Swiss Church and you will be met by a room with pillows scattered around on the floor and an investigative piece into the human psyche being displayed on the ceiling for your enjoyment. As I laid down and stared at Heavens, a video art piece created by artists Revital Cohen and Tuur van Balen, I felt strangely at peace. Watching a footage of carefully constructed images in a natural foetus position as I listened to the libretto resembling a manifesto of existentialist science in the background, I was left alone to gaze at a distant and large-scale observation of the interconnectedness of our very being.
Cohen and van Balen’s process of trying to make sense of human consciousness as the primal enigma of our survival resembled nothing similar to that of researching the said consciousness, however. “In the beginning was the word and the word was a virus.” Inspired by a scientific paper on the consciousness of the octopus which hypothesised that “the mass increase in biodiversity that occurred on Earth some 500 million years ago may have been due to extra-terrestrial DNA,” the artists decided to take this hypothesis as a suggestion of a similar investigation into the human psyche. The artistic piece leaves an octopus-shaped hole in the interpretation behind the original scientific paper and delves deep into the throes of existentialism. “The entire galaxy - perhaps the entire Universe - is one single connected biosphere.” The exhibition poses the question: “If everything is connected on an interplanetary scale, where do we go to escape?”
Taking a break from personal thoughts as they physically form tension on the space between my brows, and shattering the regularity of my understanding of life by choosing to be bombarded with such a question left me unable to gather my thoughts to thoroughly enjoy and understand the artwork that was being presented at first. As I was soothed from my long and speedy walk to the Swiss Church while looking up at bodies floating, swimming and dancing in water on the screen, I sensed just how detached I felt from not just my own body but the very concept of having a body as I observed these almost lifeless limbs move without rhythm and logic. Having been filmed in order to give the impression that you were looking up from the bottom of a clear tub, the lens reduced the bodies to represent only a mere vessel for the so-investigated consciousness, carrying a miniscule yet universally complex form of galaxy life within their borders. Preceded and followed by cosmic-looking splashes of light extended through minutes of footage and aided by narration in the background claiming “Consciousness is what we connect to, and our connection to it is imperfect which gives us the illusion of individuality,” the piece relays to the attendee an understanding of our cosmic connectedness not just to each other but to the galaxy as a whole which makes one feel lonelier than ever.
“Ego death” says Lucia Pietrouisti, curator for Heavens, “the dissolution of boundaries between self and non-self in collective dance.” As first heard in conversations regarding psychedelic drug use by many, Cohen and van Balen have successfully achieved creating the sensation of both irreparably detaching while also stitching together one’s person and everything else. The sensation of not feeling in your own brain yet feeling the edges of your physical being through the layers of your skin is introduced to you with a ritualistic manifestation of the question of interconnectedness as both the bearer and the result of consciousness, giving you the feeling that you’re looking at the past and the future as you gaze at the footage on the ceiling. The art piece displays the vastness and the intangibility of these connections through the unidentifiable images that are rushed through the video in order to instill a sense of travelling through the connecting lines between our being and the unknown. This takes us to a land far away from the aforementioned water scene, as the physical space being occupied by those floating bodies are almost ridiculed by the representation of our connections deemed so immense that the artists have forfeited the option to try and contain it to a scene or a frame. What good is it to make sense of your being if you’re connected to such an unknown source? As I let this display of the overbearing largeness of our being wash over me, I realised my sense of physical confinement melting away into the comfy pillows of the church and its boundaries being softened by my mere presence amongst other vessels of consciousness, those of me.
If everything is of everything, then the boundaries that are presented to us in the mediums of skin, bone and brain are nothing but imaginary lines drawn by ourselves in a panic of wanting to compartmentalise the existence of one big interconnected consciousness into more digestible pieces. The suggestion that all is one regardless of all the unique complexities brought about by personality, thoughts and past experiences is not an easy pill to swallow, yet the carefree tone of the libretto narration alerts you to the reality that this is just the way it is. Heaven by Cohen and van Balen stands to be one of the most carefree yet frighteningly chaotic investigations into the centuries old question of human existence.
Images: Serpentine Gallery