Its rays welcome the day, illuminate the world, and give warmth—when the sun is shining we’re happy; our bodies can only make vitamin D, which is so essential our health, when exposed to its light. Its energy is therefore vital to our survival and that of nature. Without sun there would be no life. But if you come too close to it, it’s deadly. Despite its importance, the celestial body, which is, in fact, a star, has not been fully explored—organizations such as NASA launch probes into space that are always state-of-the-art scientifically.
Oliver van den Berg’s work Sonnenprobe [solar probe], presented in 2018 as part of the Shine on me exhibition at the Deutsches Hygiene Museum in Dresden, is not a banal imitation of a probe, but rather a transformed version of itself. Here, the artist has restricted himself to the essential, to what we grasp as viewers: the form. At first glance, everything that makes it a flying object appears be present: a corpus in which the technology is integrated, solar panels, antennas, and a shield protecting the technology from overheating and being destroyed. Sonnenprobe is Oliver van den Berg’s take on a medium for preserving scientific data characterized by various deviations—at times obvious, at times more subtle.
Differences in proportions between the projectile’s individual parts make this obvious: the artist constructed a smaller-scale version of the solid-cast aluminum protective shield. This element plays a crucial role since all sensitive technology is hidden behind it and thus protected from the sun. As an individual fragment, it is almost a little lost in the room relative to the installation context, thus calling its former protective function into question. Instead, via this comparison, it becomes an independent object situated in relation to us viewers and the body of the space probe. The part of the projectile originally conceived as a protective shield transcends its pure-object character as a reflection of us and our surroundings.
In his artistic practice, van den Berg often references methods of scientific research—the sketch, prototype, and the model are his modi operandi—but without attaching too much importance to science. This interests him—just like technical details—only peripherally. Rather, the meta-level of individual devices and machines is what consistently fascinates the artist: he specifically selects rockets, telescopes, cameras, or, as in the case of Sonnenprobe, space probes, because they transcend their object-ness and function.
Nonetheless, human intelligence is first required to develop the technology that allows machines to function. The probe is thus directly linked to man, or more explicitly: as a technologically controlled machine it can do things that humans are not (yet) capable of—the device thus becomes an extension of man and his senses. As our stand-in, the device fascinates us, excites us. The four “antennas” attached to the probe, for example, make this personification clear. Van den Berg has cast various fingers in aluminum: here the finger is only attached to a wooden stick with tape, there the artist has cast the complete construction in aluminum. If the machine is to be understood as an extension of the human senses, then the “fingers” of the Sonnenprobe represent the sense of touch: the projectile literally touches the sun.
The theme of time also plays a role for van den Berg: as a device for measuring and recording, the probe represents our knowledge of the future—always with the awareness that this will someday be outdated. This is true for the integrated camera in particular, which is supposed to depict the actual state of things, but which in the same instance brings painfully to mind the fleetingness of the moment. Like an archaeological find, van den Berg has preserved an analogue camera from the sixties in a thermoplastic casting compound—as readymade and objet trouvé, it not only expresses bittersweet nostalgia, but also contrasts with the one-off character of the artwork. In the present moment, Sonnenprobe ultimately challenges us since its identity is no longer clear-cut: the outer form echoes a space probe, but as a sculptural object made of wood, aluminum, and plastic its original function is lost. The device, sent out into space as our stand-in, offers us in the gallery version here the possibility of coming closer and identifying with it. It is part of us.
Oliver van den Berg (b. 1967 in Essen) studied painting and sculpture at the University of the Arts (former Hdk) in Berlin. He has been involved in numerous public art and architecture projects, including the Rummelsburg memorial site in Berlin, King Abdullah University in Saudi Arabia, or the Charité in Berlin. He is the recipient of numerous grants, such as the work stipend in the visual arts of the Berlin Senate Chancellery or the Stiftung Kunstfonds as well as the scholarship of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Berlin. His work has been featured in numerous international group exhibitions like Made in Germany at Kunstverein Hannover, Sprengelmuseum and Kaestnergesellschaft in Hannover (2007), Rückkehr ins All at Hamburger Kunsthalle (2005), berlin_london_2001 at ICA in London (2001), Kurs at Museum Fuglsang in Denmark (2009), Serious Games at Museum Mathildenhöhe in Darmstadt (2011), zoozoozoo at Kasseler Kunstverein (2016), news flash at Kunsthaus im Kunstkulturquartier in Nürnberg (2018) and Fly Me to The Moon. 50 Jahre Mondlandung at Museum der Moderne in Salzburg and at Kunsthaus Zürich (2019). His works are also represented in the collections of the ERES Foundation in Munich, the University of Michigan Museum of Art in the US, the Jerry Speyer collection in New York, and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia.