Light my fire, you fly.
On Dialogue I & II (2002) by Nikolaj Recke.
The projection is almost completely dark. Dark as the night in the rain forest of Malaysia to be precise, because that where the video is shot. Then suddenly a series of flashes of light in the lower part of the picture field interrupt the monochrome darkness. The flashes are followed by a series of fainter flashes. Then darkness again. And so the darkness and the flashes of light continue to create a somewhat awkward and inscrutable visual rhythm/pulse for the entire duration of the video.
The duration is only a couple of minutes for each of the videos. But what the spectator sees in Dialogue I & II is only a small portion of the many hours of footage that Nikolaj Recke got in the camera when he went to Malaysia to film the fireflies’ silent communication with each other through their use of light. The communication is mostly taking place between one female and thousands of males. The male fireflies sit in a tree on the riverbank and start to blink synchronously when the female passes by. Their flashes light up the entire tree creating the effect of a lighthouse in the middle of the rainforest (due to technical reasons unfortunately this lighthouse effect cannot be recorded on video). The scene is nothing less than a natural wonder. Beautiful and overwhelming in all its simplicity.
All the spectator sees in Dialogue II are the fireflies blinking to each other. In a world steeped in social, economic and cultural problems begging for critical artistic comments and engagement it might seem naive for a contemporary artist to focus on something as nonsensical as fireflies. But Recke’s aesthetic fascination with the fireflies’ communication also holds a political motivation. He has the somewhat romantic yet insistent hope that their communication can be an example to follow, an example of a pre-cultural, global form of communication which will lead to a deeper understanding between people, whether Palestinian or Israeli, Dane or immigrant. A such the video does not contain a specific point but opens up to an open communicative field of observation, reflection and dialogue. In an earlier work, Pacing in Circles (2000), Recke also enjoyed a similar freedom of not having to make a point. With “sand paper shoes” he walked around in a circle in the gallery leaving a circular trace in the concrete floor. The trace became like a fairy ring for the spectator to step into and reflect on whatever comes to mind. Just as Recke himself had done while making the work. Pacing in Circles was “a sculpture made of thinking” as he says. Thus with Pacing in Circles and Dialogue II it is difficult to say what came first, the art or the communication. Is art a condition for communicative relationships or is communication the inspiration for artistic creations? Just as a circle has no beginning or end for that matter the answer to these questions of is not of interest for Recke as he recognizes their fundamental interconnectedness.
Nikolaj Recke did not just want to record the communication as a piece of documentary. He wanted to ”talk” to the fireflies. Thus for Dialogue I he brought with him a lighter which he started to light it with a certain rhythm anticipating/inviting the fireflies to talk back, respond by flashing in the same rhythm. The result of this attempt to establish a communication between man, in the video represented by the artist, and nature is shown in Dialogue I. Sometimes the fireflies do respond while at other times they seem more interested in the fire of the females so to speak.
Dialogue I is a subtle illustration of how Nikolaj Recke as a historically conscious contemporary artist tries to reach beyond the formal, aesthetic dimensions of the artistic expression to a sensuous, emotional and organic nature, in this case represented by the nightly spectacles of the Malaysian rainforest. But art does not just reach nature by recording it on film and Recke knows this. As neither art nor nature are far from delimited and homogenous entities so is the relation between them equally complex. Or maybe fragile is a better word when looking at Dialogue I & II. The minimalistic, deadpan narrative of the videos shows how art and nature can never be completely united or mated to use an appropriate metaphor. That would be the end of art and probably also of nature. Instead Recke is engaged in the possibility of a communicative relation that is never completely established, but has to be negotiated again and again, from work to work, through a dialogue. The dialogue is comparable to the email and telephone correspondence Recke has with Robert Morris in the video Knowing You, Knowing Me (1997) or in this context an even more relevant reference might be the search for four-leaf clovers in his Clover fields (1999-2000). Recke is staging a relation that can create transient moments of synchronous correspondences between art and nature, but these moments only lead on to the most important point: the never-ending attempt to establish the relation. Always fresh and full of hope that maybe tonight someone will light the fire.
Dialogue I & II also connects with earlier works by Recke. In Homemade Light (2000), In the Moment of Realization (1997) and Friday on My Mind (1995) he experiments with different types of light such as the short glowing of primitive light bulb, the sparks from a grinding machine or a thousand mayflies. Here the immateriality of the light represents the intangible, yet intense index of a creation process, somewhere between a presence and an absence. Recke seems to be saying that this is where art is taking place. Not in the work, the object, as such, but in the becoming.
Also Walter de Maria’s seminal work The Lightning Field (1974-77) comes to mind. As one of the front figures of minimal and Land Art de Maria is a heavy inspiration/ continuous communication partner for Recke. In both Dialogue I & II and Lightning Field the work can be said to be created by ”others” than the artists, the fireflies, the lightings or on a more abstract level the spectator's experience of the phenomenons. This extraterrestrial dimension is something Recke emphasizes in all his works presenting them as open fields waiting to be filled up or should I say illuminated.
By Jacob Lillemose, 2002.