Size pertains to the object, but scale is what pertains to art, the American artist Robert Smithson wrote some decades ago. Scale, not size, makes it possible to perceive a crack in the wall as the Grand Canyon, or the organisation of the room as the solar system. Scale depends on one's capacity to be conscious of the actualities of perception.1 Face to face – literally – with Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset's work on the fire curtain in Berlin's Komische Oper, Smithson's words take on new relevance.
A giant eye, peeping at us, the opera audience, through an equally gigantic hole in the wall, momentarily shatters our sense of proportion – that is, the very sense of the room we have just entered. Architecture is, on the one hand, all about the proportions of "good form". But it is also all about the proportions that silently indicate the social function of a room so as to direct our perception and our activities. Proportion in an opera hall is primarily a question of administering a certain distance – the distance that will produce the fictional event on stage for us as if it was a puppet-play in a toy box. The confinement of the audience in a luxurious womb-like setting functions as the frame which produces this fiction.
Yet now, if only for a short moment, the tables are turned: With the all too close gaze of the eye, it is the audience that, like Gulliver in the land of the giants, will seem like puppets in a fragile box. It is our actions that take on the character of fiction (the giants, of course, had a hard time believing Gulliver's version of reality). And then it suddenly becomes clear that the walls that surround us, however solid, however cemented in tradition, are essentially stage props that are there to "set the stage" for the lives we feel that we have to live. Such spatial displacements, such interventions in the social and institutional realities that are supported by architecture, are the specialities of Elmgreen and Dragset. Their work is all about getting a clearer sense of both the possibilities and the impossibilities of the rooms we take for granted. For at times it takes no more than a small change – a shift of angle, a change of direction, an arrested sense of purpose – to have your perception altered in ways both terrifying and exhilarating.
To give a few examples: A gallery painted with ever new coats of white paint as if in continual preparation for an exhibition that never takes place. Another gallery, tilted and partially buried in the ground outside a museum. A diving board extending from inside the museum out through a window facing the sea. For all their dramatic impact, such works differentiate themselves from the more typical works of fiction in one crucial sense. Fiction in the opera, for instance, presupposes a willing suspension of disbelief. Yet to indicate the fictional aspects of reality itself implies a momentary breakdown of the unwitting suspension of disbelief that keeps the everyday together in one piece. However, Elmgreen and Dragset never formulate the shape or direction of some new reality that should replace the one they have momentarily dismantled. All they do is to provide an occasion for possible individual or collective re-definitions of the perception of reality.
At times, such occasions can be produced simply by pointing out what is already there. The Komische Oper in Berlin is itself a perfect example of the fragile, fragmentary and fugitive aspects of architecture. You enter what you think is a functionalist building only to happen upon a strange neo-baroque mirage on the inside, without warnings or transitions of any kind. In fact, the disjunction between inside and outside is so radical, it is almost as if it is only the sustained collective attachment to the pleasures of musical fiction that gives the building any authority at all. For a moment the giant's gaze makes us see our participation in this collective, and perhaps ask: Who are we, the opera-lovers?
1 Robert Smithson, The Writings of Robert Smithson (ed. Nancy Holt), New York, 1979, p. 112.