Haseeb Ahmed’s The Wind Egg: The beautiful and bizarre intersections of art and science

Haseeb Ahmed (1985) is a Brussels-based American researcher, artist and graduate of School of the Art Institute of Chicago and MIT. His latest exhibition currently on display a M HKA, The Wind Egg, forms part of a wider trilogy that the artist is working on with the von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics in Brussels. The show aims to blend myth, aeronautics and technology; call it art, science or somewhere in between.

Visuals Christine Clinckx (c)

Walk through the wind egg tunnel, with its murmuring sounds buzzing around you. A small annotation on the wall indicates that we are allowed to do so. Yet, when my foot hits the interior metal, other onlookers stare at me strangely, as if to step here is to disrupt the artwork and break the rules. In Haseeb Ahmed’s The Wind Egg at M HKA, you can exist inside part of the exhibition and as a component of the experiment, something that is both intriguing and unsettling.

The show wavers in and out of scientific and poetic abstract terminology, which is at times confusing. This is part of the experience of the exhibition: the viewer is not patronised, but is instead challenged to understand and to participate. It took hours for me to grasp its complexities; to feel its rhythms, flows and methods.

The presentation of the explanatory text on the walls mirrors the black background and diagrams found in the graphic design of science textbooks and astrology posters. The annotations thus might be construed as a kind of pseudo-science; art that mocks and embodies scientific terminology without really integrating it. After further inspection, however, it becomes clear that there is extensive academic and hard scientific research backing the thought processes of each object and how they relate to each other. Except, unlike scientific laboratory projects, there seems to be no direct “end goal” or functional purpose. Which, I suppose, is what makes this exhibition a work of art.

It is altogether an in-depth and bizarre body of work; one that is pushing the boundaries of what art is (in a postmodern art world where such boundaries are already hard to locate). Wind currents navigate around the room in a complex system. In the back of the space, the air travels clockwise, pushed through metal fans and into upright sticks of wheat.

The artist explains that here “everything is connected”; “everything is self movement”. In order to understand the flow, of water, rivers and the sea, Ahmed explains, “you have to be inside the flow and the experiment itself.” Art for the artist should be “an experience … something that can go from your brain, through your body, to your emotion.” It is a holistic exhibition that considers the somatic and biological state of the viewer, brilliantly emphasising the role we play at every stage.

The show also utilises aesthetic potentialities behind scientific objects, such that a tunnel, usually used for flour storage at industrial bakeries, can be transformed into an immersive piece of art. Its circular quality, for instance, is both formal and functional. Accompanying the metal cylinders are shrieking, ethereal sounds created from computer generated calls of a female vulture. This construction appears not unlike a sci-fi set from the 1950s, or the shell of a silo, as its tinny sounds circulate around you.

The balancing act between aesthetics and science is present in other sculptures in the room. On the back of the large, red-curtained podium in the middle is a painted white object: standing erect as a grave, alluding to Whiteread perhaps, or Twombly’s sculptures. Its placing in the exhibit reiterates the poetic and painterly considerations occurring simultaneously alongside hard science. Consequently, the show manages not to disavow the importance of aesthetics.

It functions on many visual and poetic levels. Central to the artist’s work is an engagement with the differences and intersections between the literal, physical and metaphorical. At one moment the narrative voice in the film calmly says “they are futurist poetry”. The genius of this exhibition is that it engages with poetic language, drawing out the layered semantic potential of individual words such as wind, whilst also making this element an integral part of an aeronautical system.

The film finally brings to the forefront the gender dynamics that I felt were uncomfortably in the background of the wind egg theory: that these reproductive entities end up “freeing men from their nature and freeing women from men”. The idea that eggs can be impregnated by the wind is conceptually related to ancient religion and philosophy. One annotation elucidates this idea, quoting a 4th century Greek thinker who wrote, “the vulture is kindled with a desire to conceive, opening her womb to the North Wind.” There are perhaps sinister undercurrents working here, where fertilisation is a form of colonial ownership or possession over the female reproductive system. It was important to me that this was acknowledged, though I left feeling that the darker elements of this theory still lay uncomfortably dormant.

This covertness ceases at other times in favour of artistic transparency: scrolls line one proportion of the wall space and reveal diagrams and text plans for the inception of the wind egg. The exhibition gives off the feeling that it is letting you in on its magic and mysticism. Inciting the role of the viewer at every stage, it cuts right to the heart of what rigorous experimentation is about. It is not merely working up from a belief in artistic instinct, but is vividly backed up a depth of thought, which bends the use of materials, and rethinks the uses of poetry, technology, history and spectatorship.

Haseeb Ahmed’s The Wind Egg runs until Sunday 6th January 2019 at M HKA in Antwerp.