Measuring the Universe | Roman Ondák | 2007
First installed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 2007
Viewers play a vital role in the creation of Measuring the Universe (2007), by Slovakian artist Roman Ondák (b. 1966). Over the course of the exhibition, attendants mark Museum visitors’ heights, first names, and date of the measurement on the gallery walls. Beginning as an empty white space, over time the gallery gradually accumulates the traces of thousands of people.
The inclusion of viewers in the process of art making has a long tradition in the history of performance-based art. By inviting people to actively participate, artists attempt to overcome traditional divisions between art objects and spectators, and production and reception.
Measuring the Universe turns the domestic custom of recording children’s heights on door frames into a public event, referring through its title to humankind’s age-old desire to gauge the scale of the world. The process creates a work of art with a multitude of participants, merging art with everyday life in a confluence that is at the very center of Ondák’s artistic practice.
Materials: The materials are incredibly simple. The only items required for the installation were a white room and a few black markers. What began as a clean white space has been filled with letters and lines and numbers as people pass through the gallery. Each tiny line represents a different person. The thousands and thousands of lines show just how many people pass through the museum each day, how many people were, in some tiny way, affected by this installation.
About the artist: Ondák often utilizes the participation of strangers in his work. The resulting art is, according to Jens Hoffman in her essay “East by West”, “a controlled study of collective imagination.” Pieces such as ‘ ‘Passage’ ‘, in which Ondák gave five hundred steel workers chocolate bars and asked them to sculpt the wrappers, and ‘ ‘Our City in 3000’ ‘, which consisted of drawings done by San Francisco children about what they think their city will look like in 3000, resemble ‘ ‘Measuring the Universe’ ‘ in their interactive quality. Ondák has one observe how people differ and come together in their various works, and even in their heights. All show the unity, and some separateness, in how people think, feel, and even in how they look.
Ondák, like performance artists, attempts to transcend traditional divisions between piece and spectator, between viewing something and being a part of its creation. He makes art interactive, bringing together both the artistic cognescenti and plain, everyday steel workers. He allows everyone to have some sort of artistic record of themselves, from the highest of critics to tourists from Omaha who just wanted to visit a famous New York City museum, and ended up being a part of a fascinating work of art. Ondák brings together total strangers in his work. He gives what could be interpreted by many people as cold and impenetrable pieces of conceptual “art” a warm, friendly feeling. He allows everyone to have a little piece of high art. Conceptual Art is often perceived as something pretentious and inaccessible, but Ondák gives anyone and everyone the chance to literally be recorded in a museum. ‘ ‘Measuring the Universe’ ‘ also possesses domestic qualities. In thousands of households, one can find a spot in the kitchen or living room or basement in which children’s heights are measured with a simple ruler and black marker, records of life and growing up. Ondák’s installation allows complete strangers to come together in an intimate way. By bringing an action normally confined to private corners of people’s homes to something as large and anonymous as a museum, he ties strangers together. They perform a somewhat intimate, comforting act together, bringing not only black lines to a white space, but a record of who they were and when they came together. He fills a plain space not with meaningless symbols or lines, but records of real, actual people who appreciated his work.