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Ann Veronica Janssens, Experiences and Sketches, installation view, Esther Schipper, Berlin 2008

This show is surprising, and not what you might expect from Ann Veronica Janssens. Esther Schippers’ space has been transformed by the artist into a mix of studio and laboratory. The works on show seem live, and there a distinct sense that Janssens is present in the background, ready to adjust, start or record any of the individual elements of the show. In reality, the exhibition comprises small scale works and models spanning the past ten years of her career.

So why does something retrospective seem so current and valid? The sense of scale and proportion in each work shares the same balance as one of Janssens’ familiar light installations. The smaller works draw you into a feigned role play: becoming the artist and examiner of these tests and processes. Many of the works are test models and macquettes for works she has made and installed previously full scale. Others are new and bear resemblance to previous pieces, but now fulfill different roles in this environment.

Entering the gallery you first see ‘Rouge 10 6 – Bleu 132’, 2003, a cubical container housing flashing blue and red lights that radiate a ‘trick of the eye’ white glow. The participatory nature of the show creates dilemma in the viewer as to whether to enter the pristine environment of the human sized box or simply observe. Janssens’ work characteristically involves some sort of participation and the entire show shares that tension; an eagerness to experience and the self-conscious awareness of engaging with an artwork, a display object. This self-consciousness is highlighted in an untitled work that reflects a distorted image of the viewer. Two metallic strips skirt the base of both long walls in the gallery, mirroring visitors as they examine the exhibits.

Janssens’ mise en scène, and the theatricality of the space, is emphasised by ‘14, 0 6 6 6 7’, 2008, a yellow glow that lights up and reflects on the other works in the larger of the two gallery spaces. Positioned high on the wall, it is perhaps most characteristic of the artist and the least scaled down of her works here. This yellow glow is reminiscent of that of a photographic safe light. As Janssens has proved in earlier works, light effects our reading of space and our emotions on some subconscious level. It does so here, again.

‘Scrub Colour II’, 2002, screens on a monitor haphazardly positioned on the gallery floor. Originally projected on a much larger scale in previous installations, this work sits exceptionally well within this context; it appears to be a sort of on-screen test signal. The difference between this and the original display-method alters the piece entirely. It is no longer a space to be inhabited, but one merely to be observed.

The exhibition title Experiences and Sketches is a clear indicator of this reassessment, and it is of particular interest human that she takes stock in this way. Describing any of these works as sketches, suggests a mid-point to a final outcome, but her return to them gives them a new found significance in the surveying of this new collection. But, their configuration within the gallery suggests Janssens is revisiting ideas with some future purpose. Bolstered by the projection ‘Slow Light’, 2007, a scientific examination of light and a new untitled, but familiarly configured work that bubbles as if it is an old work in a new experiment.

In the smaller back room of the gallery are two imposing works. ‘Espace Infini’, 1999, dominates the space. Its white void not only sucks in spacial awareness but also, strangely, sound from the other gallery. The silence of the room is emphasised by the dollshouse-like maquette which intends sensory isolation, and proposes an altogether different function of the actual space. This work has parity with a photographic work in the larger space. In it a figure stands with their back to the camera, arms out-stretched and embracing a grey/white void, and potentially the void of the gallery wall itself.

These two works together indicate both the experience and sketch in the show’s title. The purity of the white light in the remaining works in both spaces implies a definitive punctuation; one end of the scale between light and dark or black and white. The experiences of light and space between both points remains Janssens’ focus and this self-reflexivity can only provide further avenues of investigation.

Steven Cairns is co-editor of MAP