M.C. Escher, the late Dutch artist beloved by architects, scientists and mathematicians alike, was known for envisioning the impossible. That’s no exaggeration: his two-dimensional illustrations, lithographs and woodcuts rendered three-dimensional scenes that toyed with symmetry and perspective to create optical illusions. His work, like that of so many artists, is better seen than described – the gravity-defying Relativity (1953) and the Penrose stairs of Ascending and Descending (1960) continue to befuddle and delight viewers.
So, to design the exhibition Between Two Worlds, which showcases 157 Escher works at Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria until April 7, 2019, the M.C. Escher Foundation selected a natural partner: Japan’s Nendo, led by Oki Sato. Whether through perspective-bending furniture design or imaginative installations at Milan Design Week, the studio is no stranger to optical illusions. And it responded to the commission with an immersive experience that displays Escher’s oeuvre thematically rather than chronologically, conjuring a labyrinth-like experience around the art.
Built loosely around the idea of creating a home for Escher’s work, the exhibition’s core motif is a basic pitched-roof house. It recurs in the show’s 10 distinct spaces spread out across four galleries and presented in an entirely monochromatic palette that plays with perspective, shadows and reflections – like many of Escher’s art pieces.
The 17-metre hallway leading into the exhibition sets the stage for what’s to come, with floor-to-ceiling geometric patterns giving way to a projection that twists abstract forms into the familiar form of a house. The first Escher piece one encounters is Study for Drawing Hands (1948), above.
The two rooms that open the exhibition showcase Escher’s obscure early works. In one, the pieces are hung on walls that enclose a space with a bench constructed from half-formed houses at its centre; the other room, featuring the artist’s work with refractions, is bisected symmetrically – a line runs down the centre of the room – with works floating in reflective display cases. Before visitors leave this part of the exhibition, they’re greeted with mirrored shelves that display a shapeshifting house whose form rotates when lit from different angles.
Next is Transforming House, the biggest – and, we’d wager, the most Instagrammable – installation to experience. In the 60-metre-long space, visitors walk down an aisle between a row of black houses with white interiors. As the journey progresses, the subsequent houses begin to deconstruct, opening their roofs in succession, and transitioning into white houses with black interiors.
The installation prompts visitors to toggle their point of view. To heighten this sensation, when seen from a suspended viewing deck, Transforming House appears flat and two-dimensional – almost like “walking into an artwork and inside of Escher’s mind,” as Nendo’s designers put it.
Quite naturally, the two galleries that follow focus on extreme perspectives. After departing the dark of Transforming House, a forest-like tangle of black metal pipes emerges, which overlap to form (you guessed it) the shape of a house. Here, 16 Escher works are sandwiched between glass panes. Next, a dizzying, dazzle camouflage corridor guides visitors beyond.
If a forest of metal pipes seems chaotic, the following gallery, called House of Movement, celebrates Escher’s orderly side. Its six works unabashedly salute geometric beauty, such as molecular configurations. Nendo punctuated the room with an installation that features a looped projection atop a thin metal sheet embossed with miniature houses.
Escher’s 17 most famous works are presented in the next gallery – a circular space evoking the idea of infinity. At its centre, Nendo constructed a jaw-dropping chandelier from 55,000 black and white houses. At five metres tall, the installation is meant to be walked around to appreciate in its entirety.
Just as we’ve gotten accustomed to geometric forms, Between to Worlds throws a curveball – quite literally – with its final gallery. Called Snake House, the final chamber is devoted to Snakes (1969), the last print Escher began before he died. The twisting path, whose walls tilt inward to form the shape of a house, leads to the artist’s incomplete final work. Placed in a vitrine with two mirrors above it, Snakes is completed by its own reflections.
To tie together the stunning experience, the last print on display is Drawing Hands (1948), which features two hands drawing each other, along with a contemporary paper interpretation by Oki Sato that will join the museum’s permanent collection. It’s a poetic conclusion to an exhibit that could’ve only been created by Nendo – and that Escher, we imagine, would surely appreciate.