The latest collaboration between architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron and artist Ai Weiwei may be called Hansel & Gretel, but it brings to mind just as much another literary classic: George Orwell’s 1984.
The immersive, site-specific installation, located within the expansive Wade Thompson Drill Hall at New York’s Park Avenue Armory, places visitors in a darkness-cloaked environment, where your every move is tracked and monitored by motion sensors, image captures and a team of surveillance drones. The work is a not-so-subtle interpretation of the expanding role of surveillance in modern-day society and the changing dynamics between the public and private realms.
“Hansel & Gretel extends dynamic creative synergies that exist between the practices of Jacques, Pierre, and Weiwei and adds a new dimension to the imaginative, monumental work they’ve created together,” explains Pierre Audi, the Armory’s Artistic Director. “Weiwei is an artist who has an innate understanding of the impact that built environments have on the artistic experience—as well as the direct experience of being watched 24/7. Jacques and Pierre bring deep experience of the emotional interplay between the public and private domain. Together they provide the ideal complement in pushing each other’s practices.”
The installation's title is a reference to the classic German fairytale, but inverted – instead of characters leaving a path to avoid getting lost, visitors are subject to extreme surveillance that makes hiding impossible. As subjects make their way through the bunkers and into the cavernous Drill Hall, their movements are recorded using infrared cameras, broadcast online to a global audience, and then returned to the Armory where it is projected onto the installation. Each person’s path through the space is marked by a bright white light, which leaves a trail behind before eventually fading away. Overhead, a team of drones casts shadows onto the floor – a constant reminder of the watchful presence of “Big Brother.”
“This project provides a powerful lens for examining surveillance as one of the defining social phenomena of our time and provokes pressing questions about the right to privacy in a hyper-monitored world,” said Rebecca Robertson, Executive Producer and President of Park Avenue Armory. “In this work, Jacques, Pierre, and Weiwei have fostered a robust dialogue with our building to create a thought-provoking, immersive experience that explores how surveillance transforms public space into a controlled environment where individuals forfeit their anonymity.”
Hansel & Gretel is the most recent collaboration between Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei. Previous works have included the 2012 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion and the “Bird’s Nest” Stadium at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.