Upon entering the neo-Gothic building from the back entrance as directed, we traversed a narrow, poorly lit corridor to eventually make our way into the Armory’s expansive central hall.
Once inside, we wandered around a dark and hostile environment, where our movements were being recorded by infrared cameras and reflected onto the floor, as if captured by drones high up in the sky. Tracking our motions, the cameras created a visual record of our every turn and we soon understood that we had become targets to be watched and followed.
Next, we were instructed to step out of the building and walk around it to access the second part of the exhibition, the feeling of being observed not having quite left our minds. Re-entering the building, we were faced with large TV screens hanging from the wall and iPads laid out on long tables. All the devices were meant to be part of a surveillance laboratory or monitoring hub, in which visitors became their own voyeurs, able to consult cameras displayed inside the hall.
Co-curated by Tom Eccles and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, “Hansel & Gretel” is an immersive experience full of surprises. Focused on the omnipresent surveillance in public spaces today, the project was directly inspired by The Brothers Grimm‘s gruesome tale of Hansel and Gretel, borrowing its anxious and uncomfortable theme while also inverting it. Instead of purposively leaving a trail to avoid getting lost, the surreptitious tracking of visitors, who become active elements in the work, makes it impossible to hide their location.
The project also marks a long lasting collaboration between Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei, who have worked together, most notably, on the Bird’s Nest National Stadium in Beijing, created for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Reflecting on the collaboration, Pierre Audi, the Armory’s Artistic Director, said: “Ai Weiwei is an artist who has an innate understanding of the impact that built environments have on the artistic experience—as well as the direct experience of being watched 24/7. Jacques and Pierre bring deep experience of the emotional interplay between the public and private domain. Together they provide the ideal complement in pushing each other’s practices.”
Surveillance and oppression are not unknown concepts for Ai Weiwei. Detained in 2011 for what the Chinese authorities described as tax evasion, the artist remained under their constant watch, when at the police station but also while under house arrest. Taking the artist’s past into consideration, the piece takes a solemn twist and feels even more admirable.
“This project provides a powerful lens for examining surveillance as one of the defining social phenomena of our time and provokes pressing questions about the right to privacy in a hyper-monitored world,” said Rebecca Robertson, Executive Producer and President of Park Avenue Armory. Ironically enough, social media platforms have been bursting with photos of people attending the installation, adding yet another dimension to the work.
“Hansel & Gretel” is on view at the Park Avenue Armory through August 6.