Transit of Venus 2023

Commissioned by the Institute for Contemporary Art San José, The Transit of Venus is an installation meant to feel as if the viewer is in a video game with no instructions or controller to navigate their path. It is a game where there is no winning or losing. Rather, the exhibition creates a space that allows the viewer to be on an unsettling threshold between worlds in anticipation of a resolution that never arrives.

The exhibition highlights a video projection based on the transit of Venus, which happens when Venus passes in front of the bright face of the sun. These transits are among the rarest of observable astronomical events, repeating every 243 years. In the video projection, the yellow sun-like glowing frame is crossed by a red horizontal band of abstract digitally generated animations of a solo dancer. A second video loops on a wall monitor shows the artist walking a tightrope across the frame. Five grid-like paintings span three of the gallery’s walls and are hung in a descending arc resembling the graphics from early 8-bit video games.

Transit of Venus, video projection, 6 min. loop. 2023
Tightrope Walker

Since the emergence of COVID, over the past few years we have experienced being cut off from everyday life, being cut off from the kinds of interactions that we used to have and finding ourselves in our homes and surroundings that have become the familiar-made-strange.

We feel a growing sense of unease and dissatisfaction with the way we work, with what we are being told by the media and with our broken political system. Disillusioned by technology and its utopian promise, we feel caught in a current of history, unable to swim free.

As society waits for a breaking point to come, we find ourselves between the already and the not-yet, in a space where this anticipation is made visceral.

Perhaps this is the condition of our contemporary age. Or perhaps we are experiencing an eternal return slowly coming around like the cycles of Venus. In this strange space, this queer game, we seem to have been here before.

In this piece, we are like a tightrope walker, our avatar in this game, balancing between the earth and sky, past and future—between finitude and the infinite.

Tightrope Walker, Paul Klee, 1923
Tightrope Walker

Seiltänzer, 1923; Tightrope Walker (Rope Dancer); Paul Klee

This project was, in part, inspired by a small print by Paul Klee Seiltänzer, Tightrope Walker, 1923. One of my favorite artists, the Swiss-German Klee was a leading figure of the Bauhaus movement.

Klee once said: “The contrast between man’s ideological capacity to move at random through material and metaphysical spaces and his physical limitations are the origin of all human tragedy.”

Of particular interest to me was Klee’s use of the grid. He often used the grid to create abstract compositions with a sense of balance and structure that offset the often fantastic or whimsical themes of his works. He also used the grid to create optical illusions by using an array of overlapping shapes, colors, and patterns to produce an effect of movement when viewed from a distance. Using this technique, he was able to explore complex abstract relationships between color and form in innovative ways. In my creative process I looked at early 8-bit video game art as the visual descendant of Klee’s playful use of color and form in his grid experiments. Here, the video game board or screen affords interactions and meaning from basic formal elements. In The Transit of Venus installation, I develop this idea of the visual field as game space as the overall organizing structure of the gallery.

Alongside his formal experimentation, Klee’s work was also investigating themes central to the artists of the German Expressionist movement–themes that explored the human condition. This movement was heavily focused on the individual, and many Expressionist works sought to use their practice to express their innermost thoughts and feelings, rather than to imitate or copy reality. Within my installation we travel the path of the Venus paintings in a descending arc as they wrap around the gallery walls. Two video pieces interrupt this arc to reveal a tightrope walker—our avatar/player in this game. It is the significance of the figure of the tightrope walker within this game-like visual field that is being explored in this project.

Several expressionist painters such as Max Ernst, Ludwig Kirchner, Max Beckmann, and Franz Marc used the idea of a tightrope walker in their work as a metaphor for the precariousness of modern life and the fragility of human existence in the heavily industrialized and rapidly changing world of the early 20th century.

In my research process for creating this piece, I was interested in how artists and intellectuals of this early Modern period were well aware of the philosophy of Frederic Nietzsche and his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1885), that projects the image of a Superman in the parable of the tightrope walker. Nietzsche’s tightrope walker points to a transcendence where “midway in the path, the superman arises.” One who “rejects all conventional human practices and values and invents his own value, which in relation to the existing values, will be new ones.” (The Tightrope Walker: An Expressionist Image by Janice McCullagh, The Art Bulletin; Vol. 66, No. 4 (Dec., 1984), pp. 633-644.)

Just as Nietzsche was preoccupied by the sense of anxiety that accompanied rapid industrialization and urbanization, I believe we are undergoing a similar transformation as we move into our technological age and are experiencing a similar disorientation and search for meaning.

But my intention in developing this project here at ICASJ was not to leave the viewer with a sense of nihilism. To do this, a reframing of the picture is necessary.

I want to reconsider the translation of the title of Klee’s little print. Its title Seiltänzer or Tightrope Walker can also be translated as Rope Dancer.

There is an important shift in how we think about the action that is signified by the figure of the Seiltänzer. I find in the philosophy of Hannah Arendt a voice of renewal through which I am able to bring forward the idea of the Rope Dancer. Arendt believed that the pursuit of truth and justice were essential to creating a meaningful life and argued that individuals should strive to be active participants in their own lives. She emphasized the importance of political engagement in order to achieve a just society. Her idea of the individual was participatory, collective and life affirming.

I am moved by Arendt’s conception of Natality, “the principle of beginnings.” She believed that “each human is a beginning, an inbreaking of the new. It is this beginning that means that we are marked not only by mortality but also Natality. We are thus able to begin, to initiate what has not yet been.” And I offer this as the inspiration to take with us from the Venus installation.

Natality, the source of action, is “ontologically rooted.” “Each person qua being human is new and so capable of newness.”

The Rope Dancer figure in the Transit of Venus is a celebration of this newness, this birth, always becoming—always ready to come forth.

When I began to conceptualize this piece in 2022, I wanted to comment on the strange political and medical “game-like” space we all occupied during the COVID pandemic–a space of shared isolation; and how for me at least, issues of grief and loss were mingled in with all of my other feelings.

I wanted to think about self-care and how one copes with such trauma. Creating this piece began as a meditation on love – the transience of love – and the cycles of life. I chose the idea of the transit of Venus (a rare cosmic dance) as a symbol of love and care brought forth–anew–in these moments of our precarious lives as a wellspring from which to draw strength to actively engage in the creation of a meaningful world. This is the simple message of this artwork.

Rudy Lemcke

Venus Flux
Venus Flux

Venus Flux (for prepared piano), 2023