Art installation in hamburg: the flag is burning

A smoke flag burns on LED canvas at Hamburg’s Rathausmarkt. Artist John Gerrard wants to draw attention to carbon dioxide emissions.

Art or reality? Somehow both Photo: John Gerrard, courtesy Thomas Dane Gallery, London and Simon Preston Gallery, New York

If you’re early, it’s your own fault: Why did you fail to calculate that it gets light seven hours later in Texas than it does here? And that, consequently, the "Texas" LED wall at Hamburg’s Rathausmarkt will still be black when you appear at 9:30 in the morning.

A huge, ominously black cube stares back at you, passers-by are surprised and laugh a bit, until the security man in charge explains in a friendly way that this is a night-time shot; he doesn’t know exactly when it will get light.

Until the 15th The cube, designed by Irish artist John Gerrard, is to stand in Hamburg’s city center until September. He has named it "Western Flag," and when you come back around 3 p.m., it is daytime on the video, and you see: a flagpole with black smoke in the wind, around it a barren landscape. The camera circles the pole – and the viewer with it. The place shown is Spindletop in Texas, where the first great international oil boom began in 1901 and permanently devastated nature there.

Many times the artist photographed the landscape by day and night to assemble the images into a video simulation that portrays the (eternal) life of this fictional flag. The smoke, Gerrard says, represents the carbon dioxide emitted nonstop.

Between reality and illusion

But one can also associate burning (U.S.) flags in the Middle East, in Iran, in Afghanistan, or burning oil fields in Iraq. The U.S. flag painted in 1954 by the pop artist Jasper Johns also comes to mind with its smug question as to whether it is a flag or a painting; this too is a game with illusion, albeit a more open one.

It is precisely this iridescence between reality and illusion, whereby the consciousness does not distinguish between 2-D image and 3-D reality or even animation, that "Western Flag" thrives on. For the real-looking landscape is computer-created, the time of day programmed by a computer algorithm; is it real now?

On the other hand: Isn’t oil a dying raw material, and aren’t nuclear power plants, coal-fired power plants and fracking currently more problematic? One could also ask what ecological footprint this work of art leaves behind, initiated by the current Hamburg city curator in the course of the two-year project "Hamburg Machine.

It is praiseworthy, however, that the art, which is often considered elitist, comes to the people here, and it is also enjoyable for computer freaks. However, the "Western Flag" has its strongest effect if you don’t know about the simulation and take the whole thing literally. Then you feel very queasy when you see it: There’s a place that’s burning and burning, and we’re just watching.

John Gerrard: Western Flag /(Spindletop, Texas), 2017: until Sept. 15, Hamburg Rathausmarkt

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