Updated: May 24
When I discovered that somewhere in Basel, there was a labyrinth with the doors that led to the past, the present or the future, there was a decision to make. Looking back wasn't an option, but I spent the morning casting around whether I should live in the moment or jump the gun and envisage the future.
After a jolly twenty-minute walk along the river Rhine, I reached Museum Tinguely, which houses this curious three-part labyrinth, or, to be more precise, an interactive exhibition called "Too Early to Panic", set up by Swiss artists Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger. I almost leaned into the future, but suddenly remembered the importance of carpe diem and opened the door to the present.
Holy hell, it's an overload of pink! I glance at those rampant fingernails lined out on the manicurist's desk and allow myself to explore this fabulous place but the receptionist shows up and the seat must be given up. His casual manner of speaking and slightly awkward pauses, make him look as if he isn't fully present or has a secret agenda. I'm not sure if I should linger any longer at this reception, but then he asks: "Do you know what Wabi-Sabi is?" Wabi-Sabi in Japanese aesthetics centres on the acceptance of imperfection.
According to the philosophising receptionist, the present is about transient and live beauty, about internal attitude, not some perceived ideals that we’ll never reach. He juxtaposes natural and artificial beauty and then crushes the latter. I toss my dyed hair, peek at my polished nails and feel something shrivel inside. Is my beauty perception an example of a misperception?.. I leave the thought hanging.
The receptionist reassures that the present is all about beauty and offers to book treatments. "What are the options?" I ask. "I don't know... What do you want?" he replies and I start walking down the corridor as I must explore the options first.
I walk into the room called "Collection of Tears". It's all inscrutable until a tear collector in a laboratory coat starts telling a story about how some Japanese scientist collected a few hundred of human tears and documented the reasons of crying. There is also a journal of European tears. Is that any different? The tear collector shares his insight: "Japanese use memory to evoke tears, whereas Europeans require chemicals." Oh goodness, we must be rocks of insensitivity and restraint compared to Japan.
Hey, hold on a moment, those hundreds of Japanese tears were collected by the two artists a year after Fukushima's nuclear disaster, which hit the nation on 11 March 2011 and left over one thousand dead. No wonder people released their emotions. By contrast, aren't we, Europeans, blessed to ask for an onion to shed a tear at present?
According to the scientist, the collection is ultimately about beauty. These microscopic ornaments of human tears represent the whole spectrum of emotions. He points at the tears of pain and tears of happiness. It's rather clear that the former are dark and resemble intense frost, whereas the latter are light and remind me of a spring garden. Beauty all around!
But it's apparent that every beautiful thing hides an ugly side or story. I step into the poorly looking corner behind the curtain, which isn't so alluring. It's the backstage of the exhibit, where the hard work of crying is done. The tear collector offers me to shed a tear for aesthetic-scientific purposes and adds that they have run out of onions. Am I willing to get emotional at present?
I'm not in the mood to cry but am keen to try an Oral Vaccination of the Beauty Virus next door. The treatment room is dark and mysterious. I sit down, ring the bell and wait... The ritual is performed by the same receptionist. He names the main ingredients and explains that it will not alter my physical appearance but will change my perception of beauty and how I feel about it inside. I get a shot and a loud ding-dong sound goes off in my head. Whoop! I'm a beauty queen now.
The self-awareness journey continues to the room called Diagnostics. The room imposes the question: what kind of a flower am I? I just sing to the shell and a poppy lights up. I never knew my unmusical voice could awaken flora.
After a few more steps of this senses-evoking journey, I'm forced to stop living in the moment. Whether I want it or not, the fantasy of the future Garden of Eden emerges with all its colourful, chaotic junk. The room is filled with the construction of natural tree branches, roots as well as with a vast amount of artificial mass production objects. Aloe Vera grows on a hairbrush, a scrunchy is hanging on a crooked branch, banana is made of plastic beads... The moss might be natural though. But mostly it's a garden of artificial wonders.
Artificial growth has been incorporated in the chaos of natural and plastic objects. Those lush, oddly looking "plants" are crystals grown from synthetic fertilisers. They represent beauty and fertility of the future, which is driven by technology. Aren't we lucky to look forward to such transformation of nature and growth?
I'm pretty sure G. Steiner and J. Lenzlinger's answer would be "yes". Whilst it's scientifically proven that synthetic fertilisers cause imbalance in the ecosystem of Earth, the artists focus on the dissolution of this polarity between natural and artificial plants. In the interview with Maya Künzler (tageswoche.ch) they admit that they no longer distinguish whether something is artificial or natural.
What a joy! The future garden offers an exercise option, which is integrated with the whole lot of branches and might even give you wings. Of course, first thing we do in paradise is a workout, so I quickly jump on the fitness machine. The personal trainer on roller skates tells me to come down here once a week if I want to get stronger. If such frequency is enough, I really am in paradise.
With every lift the doors of the two refrigerators open and various sounds of mostly domesticated animals go out which makes me think of the chilli con carne that I had last night. Refrigerated animals in the fantastical Garden of Eden... Yummy!
The personal trainer also points at the white cabinet called "Torture Garden" saying that this one is warmly recommended. Torture in the tons of flowers? Pleeease, I can be tortured this way! At least for my Instagram account. After all the cool kids have taken photos with their heads sticking out, I'm finally able to accept the challenge as well.
I step up, stick my head through the hole and shortly start feeling how plastic flowers tickle my bare arms. Not only them, but also sponges and other artificial objects are installed in this mesmerising but apparently unpleasing garden. It's all plastic and fantastic.
As I walk out through the futuristic foil-covered corridor, my thoughts wander back to the present, where I got to experience the dynamics of human body aesthetics, the link between perception and appearance. Being present has prompted me to reflect on the relationship between natural and artificial beauty ideals. However, the spotlight is taken by the future relationship between natural and artificial vegetation, represented by this biodiverse interactive wonderland, which raises a question: is this the future garden we're hoping to walk into?
"Too Early to Panic"
Open until 23 Sept 2018
The Museum Tinguely
Paul Sacher-Anlage 2, 4002 Basel, Switzerland