Weird Terrain

Carola Uehlken

When the Mariner 10 satellite passed Mercury in 1974, it photographed a huge impact basin situated half in and half out of the sunlight. They named it Caloris and only 25 years later did the rest become visible. It transpired to be bigger than the scientists had had ever assumed. The mountainous, antipodal side, i.e. the one precisely opposite the area of impact, has since been referred to as the “weird terrain”. A reasonable expectation would be that the area directly antipodal to the impact would be least affected. However, the opposite is the case: It is assumed that this area formed when the shock waves of the Caloris impact moved not only through the planet’s core, but also around its circumference until they converged on the opposite side.[1] The original antipode also came about in equally strange circumstances: In the classical definition, antipodes are the inhabitants of the areas on the other side of the terrestrial globe, who live “with their heads facing down and their feet facing up”.

Berndnaut Smilde moves around the world pursuing natural phenomena and the terminological attributions intended to explain them to us, turning them upside down, walking at times with his feet up and at times down. He investigates the surreal moments that arise when clouds float indoors and not outdoors (Nimbus), rainbows are concave rather than convex in relation to their surroundings (Breaking Light), or even tampers with big-tech’s corporate recording, categorisation and archiving of reality (Askeaton).

I met Berndnaut for the first time in 2014 on what for me was then the still unfamiliar terrain of Shanghai in China. At the time, I was assisting the curatorial team of the Minsheng Art Museum, which had invited artists from around the world, including Berndnaut, that deal with the human relationship to the cosmos in their work. When I met him, he was carrying with him a small piece of Aerogel, a material used by NASA to capture interstellar dust. Excitedly, he dipped into his pocket and conjured forth this high-tech material in a conventional cardboard box normally used for screws: Aerogel is apparently the lightest material with the highest molecular density and is so sensitive that it loses thousands of particles even at the slightest touch of a finger. At the time, he was working on architectural models featuring this material in place of a roof, which permitted an unimpeded view of the sky.

A year later, we worked on his one-man show False Firmament, which was held as part of a residency at LIAN Contemporary in Shanghai. By then, I had become used to this new strangeness. The exhibition incorporated his latest research on the topic of light refraction and was concentrated on the site, its surroundings, as well as its opposite, its antipode. The fact that some 15% of the land territory has an antipodal relation to another piece of land, which corresponds to 4.4% of Earth’s total surface, alone makes the connection between two local points an exceptional one. Only later, when I received a photo of Berndnaut stood in a field, did I realised that this was the beginning of his many years of interest in the topic. He was standing on the precise antipodal point to the LIAN Contemporary Art Space, Shanghai, in Entre Ríos, Argentina, smiling into the camera.

In his artistic explorations, Berndnaut focuses on illusions within reality, which has once again been shaken to the core during this past year. The rights of personal freedom of movement have been curtailed and global trade mechanisms to some degree exposed. The pandemic, but also the worry of leaving an uninhabited planet behind us, have been hotly debated both in the media and especially in the private sphere. Singular interventions such as that by Tesla boss Elon Musk, who as one of the architects of the neoliberal world order has chosen to transform the night sky for the time being by putting 40,000 satellites into orbit, have in contrast been accepted without major comment. It has been an odd year with developments whose strangeness is only gradually being felt. When strange things happen, our vocabulary also changes. New words enter into the canon, with which Berndnaut finds a way of interacting, by revealing their surreality but also the creativity in their coining.

The strangeness with which the world and its atmosphere were once interpreted is demonstrated by the word firmament, for instance: In pre-modern times, the firmament was imagined to be an enormous solid dome where the sun, stars and moon were arranged in the atmosphere. The earliest recorded instance of people speaking of this fixed sky date back to the thirteenth century.[2] Technology has since allowed us to gain insights into virtually every surface of the earth. Our conception of the view into and from out of the sky, however, remains subjective and is related to our knowledge, our stories, our myths and how we change our points of view and move through the world. Berndnaut intervenes in this strangeness and poses questions regarding the truthfulness of our viewpoints.

With his exhibition Traumbild Senden, which represents an anagram of his name, Berndnaut Smilde moves geographically into a terrain that could not be more familiar to me. Having myself grown up on the north German mudflats, whose presence and absence seems to impart a stubborn vibe to the mentality of some, I ask myself whether vibrations from the opposite side of the earth might succeed in reaching here. At the Museum gegenstandsfreier Kunst in Otterndorf, Berndnaut is showing works whose object is the incoherent relationship between humans and nature. By showing the moulds used for producing fences, through which new means of fixation can be created, he shows instruments manufactured to straighten out nature.

While nature here in the North has to adapt wavelike as a result of doing battle with the ebb and flow of conditions and tides, humans are concerned with its continued fixation. That which still appears as strange is named, fences are built, lakes bought and minerals extracted. The objectification of one’s own name, which operates as an anagram in the title of the exhibition, the negative form of the fence, as well as one of his iconic works, the cloud, which lingers in a terrain alien to our perception, each lead us into reconfiguring that which is within and outside of nature. With his ephemeral sculptures and installations, Berndnaut invites us to explore, Weird Terrain[3] and to reflect on its fabricated nature.

Carola Uehlken


[1]                Cf. Emily Lakdawalla: Mercury’s Weird Terrain, 19 April 2011            ( visited on 10/ 6/2021)

[2]                The word is derived from the Latin: firmamentum, literally “means of fixation”.

[3]                Also of interest in this context: The “New Weird” as a genre designation in recent fantasy fiction. This mainly involves novelists working in the genres of science or speculative fiction. In her lecture held at the HKW Berlin (2019) Elvia Wilk provides an introduction to the “New Weird” literary trend, which explores blueprints for the future beyond utopia and dystopia and away from people to an uncanny outside world: (, visited on 10 June 2021)