Hansel & Gretel & Herzog & de Meuron & Ai Weiwei

John Hill
6. June 2017
All photographs by John Hill/World-Architects

Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron have once again collaborated with Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, devising Hansel & Gretel, an interactive installation at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City.

Spoiler Alert: Those who are going to see Hansel & Gretel during its run and want to do so with fresh eyes might want to click away from this post. For everybody else, the following text, photos, and video from today's press preview give a sense of the immersive installation.

Hansel & Gretel​ is curated by Tom Eccles and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, the latter who initiated the project about four or five years ago, when Ai Weiwei was restricted from traveling outside of China. At today's press preview, the Chinese artist was in attendance (photo at bottom) and therefore able to provide some input on the installation, which takes surveillance, presents it in a darkened and potentially sinister setting, but then imbues it with fun. In Ai Weiwei's words, "Surveillence is only one side of the story," but with Hansel & Gretel, visitors "see the whole process – and enjoy the process."

Ironically, the project started with the idea of creating a democratic space, something akin to a park in the Drill Hall. Instead, the final result is an open space that is constantly watched by machines. Cameras, projectors and sensors are situated overhead but out of sight, while low-flying drones pass by intermittently, occasionally stopping to hover over individuals (my video below reveals one over my head). A second part of the installation is located in the Armory's historic Head House, which Herzog & de Meuron have been restoring since 2006. There, participants confront the technology behind the installation – and question the fun they were having just five minutes beforehand.

Hansel & Gretel is being held at the Park Avenue Armory from 7 June to 6 August 2017.

Entrance to the installation is via a long corridor from Lexington Avenue rather than the Armory's formal entrance on Park Avenue.
The large Drill Hall is darkened, punctuated by rectangular areas illuminated by overhead lighting.
These areas invite people to congregate and trace their movements across the floor.
Holding poses for prolonged durations left images on the floor that would slowly recede into darkness.
Although the projections and occasional buzz of drones made the surveillance aspect of the installation clear, people had fun interacting with the images.

My video from today's press preview:

The second part of the installation focuses on surveillance, with faces of visitors projected on screens and iPads for further exploration around the theme.
Left to right: Pierre Audi, Park Avenue Armory Artistic Director; Ai Weiwei; Pierre de Meuron and Jacques Herzog; and Tom Eccless, co-curator with Hans-Ulrich Obrist (not in attendance).

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