Where The Sun Sets Blue
– Grasping the Intangible World
by Magdalena Kröner
Felicitas Rohden’s artistic work revolves around scientific methods of discovery and representation and the visualization of abstract processes and phenomena that mostly elude human perception. Her materials are the formulas and patterns provided by mathematics, physics, and quantum theory as a means of understanding the world.
Rohden has previously worked with MIT physicists on quantum computing, spoken with a Ghent University mathematician on the Poincaré conjecture, and maintains an ongoing dialogue with scientists at University of Antwerp – Department of Mathematics. These encounters are shaped by a desire to ask questions beyond the limits of each participant’s own discipline and a longing to expand the perspectives and vocabulary of science and art.
Her latest collaboration resulted in “Where the Sun Sets Blue,” for which she spent a year exchanging emails with Sukjin Han, Commander of NASA’s most recent Mars test mission. This developed into an illuminating, moving dialogue that provides a glimpse into the world of scientists working at the limits of human experience and perception.
Rohden’s fascination with the Mars mission culminated in the “Where the Sun Sets Blue” project, composed of an exhibition and immersive website. For the exhibition, Felicitas Rohden has created a space replete with ambivalences and phenotypes of surprising and unknown physiology, elements that feel as unfamiliar as what we may one day find on Mars: white balls in back grit, evoking spheres or sliced fruit. Alongside lattices, grids, and organic, breathing blobs. Stones of unknown provenance.
Rohden combines sculptural works with classic letterpress printing and web design. The three elements combine into a dense space of experience and an immersive overall experience for the viewer. The sculptural ensemble—in its distinctive mix of real and virtual, technoid and organic—unfurls the interplay between abstract models and their process of sculptural formation. She combines digitally created forms with the handmade: the immersive website and the book. Felicitas Rohden’s concept reconciles these apparent contradictions and draws them together into a coherent vision.
“I have always been interested in the book as a medium,” she says, “because it makes a huge amount of knowledge readily available in a very compact form. In my works, books are often the centerpiece for whole series of installations. A book is often a compendium that contains an entire set of information that is then portioned up into installations within the space. I like the compactness and convenience of the book form, it can be easily sent to and shared with others... there’s something very democratic about the book.”
Rohden’s delight in experimentation also manifests in the digital space of the eponymous website, which accompanies viewers on a short sojourn to Mars—or rather to what we believe we know about this distant planet, as the Mars experiment is ultimately also a fiction that projects a probable reality.
The topographical map of Mars we encounter in Rohden’s installations and on the website describes a territory we are unfamiliar with, that belongs to no one, and that no human has ever visited. All cartographical systems are human-made fictions that seek to emulate the models provided to us by reality—but each of these attempts must always remain deeply ambivalent, as any reality the map seeks to portray is ultimately first created by the map. As precise as any map attempts to be, it always remains a mediator between simulation and reality.
Like any form of art, it will never be able to collapse the two into a unit; it will never bring them into alignment. Deleuze and Guattari have described this dilemma via the figure of the rhizome: “What distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real. The map does not reproduce an unconscious closed in upon itself ... it is itself a part of the rhizome. The map is open and connectable in all of its dimensions; it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification. It can be torn, reversed, adapted to any kind of mounting (...)”
Felicitas Rohden’s artistic project begins in this in-between-space of fiction and reality and in this gap in meaning between the signifier and the signified, transferring this inherent ambivalence into a tactile, organic formal language.
Rohden translates the topographical elements of the Mars map into a three-dimensional object made of laser-etched and varnished wood that vaguely recalls a room divider, with stones of mysterious provenance fixed into its gridded structure. The composition, nature, surface, and weight of these “stones” remain unclear.
The form of the room divider was by no means arbitrarily chosen: it is the only body in which surface and volume are entirely equal. Shaped like an opened-out oloid, the room divider seems to have frozen still while moving in a rolling motion across the floor. Opposite hangs a semi-transparent, breathing object, seemingly technoid and organic at one and the same time.
Rohden adds wall objects whose military austerity is only superficial: viewed more closely, they appear to be topographical maps whose three-dimensional elements arch into the space. Rohden’s wall objects arise from the idea of carving open a three-dimensional object—such as the globe flattened out to represent the world map—then transferring it from this flatness back into three-dimensionality. In her sculptural work, Rohden consistently tackles questions of dimensionality: What is surface, what is substance? What is a grid, what is volume, and where do the two coincide?
In playing with model and reality, abstraction and concretization, a new form of experiencing the world emerges. Parallel to her activities in the exhibition space, Rohden’s immersive “Where the Sun Sets Blue” web project also translates this experience into the digital sphere.
The site is based on Rohden’s dialogue with Sukjin Han, the South Korean-born commander of NASA’s most recent HI-SEAS VI mission, prematurely terminated in 2018 due to a technical incident at the Mauna Loa volcano test site in Hawaii.
The conversations between Rohden and Han revolve both around the everyday and the existential: How does it feel to be a human on Mars? What does dried space food taste like? What role does music play? How does community develop in isolation? How does it feel to see and hear from inside a spacesuit? What is it like to feel no wind on your skin when you’re outside on the surface? What do you do when you find a piece of rock so sharp-edged you can only handle it with tools?
Touching, tasting, smelling, feeling, hearing, seeing, and synesthesia are inbuilt human experiences that will shape what we learn from the people who one day will see the blue sunset of Mars—and thus be able to narrate it.
Starting from an impressively sculpted Martian surface, the website makes it possible to interact with the spheres thus defined by sensory perception. Visitors can enter into the spheres’ interiors, read the dialogue between Han and Rohden, and see images from the Mars habitat.
Their conversations on life under extreme conditions focus less on scientific fact and rather on providing an insight into the complexity of human experience, while also touching upon the fragile, easily disrupted balance of the physical and the psychological. Han describes the flutter of paper-thin sheets in the night-time wind, the crash of balls on an improvised ping pong table, the taste of a dried strawberry, the feeling of shaving off a small sample of a crew member’s hair, the smell of your own sweat during a mandatory workout in the habitat. The human experience is unique. Fundamentally different from the perception of those robots currently populating Mars, simulations of it remain inadequate, and it is at the core of “When the Sun Sets Blue.”
The project engages with science and scientific methods per se while also being a game comprised of simulation and reality. Rohden’s work transforms various models of simulation into realities both tactile-physical and digital.
In her work, the artist visualizes moments in which the illogical suddenly appears within the rational and the logical. This is her starting point for considerations on various matters: What happens when we begin to question and change scientific agreement, scientific convention, or the established forms of representation such as those of a topographic map? And what happens when we to change their external appearance? Does the worldview contained within it thus change? How about the way we interact with the world? How can we visualize abstract ideas such as those from mathematical constructs—ideas that simulate a reality and (still) elude our perception and grasp?
“Understanding elements of reality that remain somewhat abstract, like quantum physics—this is something that fascinates me,” says Rohden. “There are certain phenomena we can’t apprehend through the senses, so we try to make them comprehensible through diagrams and formulas. I’m interested in moments where something changes in translation. Where do errors and fuzziness arise? What variations do we need before it even becomes possible to imagine an experiment?
A model simulates a perfect reality that does not exist. Felicitas Rohden is interested in blind spots and glitches within the simulation: her sculptural language replicates the analog within the digital, as it is here that it is possible for potential imperfections to be made visible. This can happen with mathematical formulas, for instance when a computer-rendered body representing a topological surface (like a sphere, cube, donut, or the shape of a cup) is translated into analog form and produced as sculpture. The influence of real physical elements and forces creates a completely new semantic and tactile level that is not visible in the computer model.
“The universe doesn't allow perfection,” stated Stephen Hawking towards the end of a life dedicated to researching the universe and the role of the human being within it. Felicitas Rohden’s “Where the Sun Sets Blue” is an attempt to reflect; a literally syn-aesthetic experimental apparatus for examining the paradox of humans’ will to knowledge and the internal laws of nature; a deliberation, conducted via art, on the limitlessness of human will and a meditation on the limits of what we are able to know.