In the 1950s, the CIA carried out Operation Midnight Climax in a nondescript apartment building less than two miles from Silke Lindner, where Nina Hartmann is exhibiting her solo show, "Soft Power." Part of MK-Ultra, the Operation Midnight Climax experiments were meant to investigate LSD’s potential as a "truth serum." In a Greenwich Village brownstone, CIA operatives dosed unsuspecting individuals with the psychedelic drug and observed them from behind two-way mirrors. After about a decade, the project was deemed unethical and Operation Midnight Climax ceased to be. Soon after, the drug was criminalized. While LSD is commonly associated with the 1960s hippie counterculture, its MK-Ultra connotations remain.
In "Soft Power," Nina Hartmann makes use of secular and spiritual imagery to illuminate a peculiar relationship between New Age thought and government manipulation—not unlike LSD’s dubious history. Many of the panels’ elaborate shapes come from occult motifs. They deploy scientific and technological images along with blurry photographs of mysterious figures. Some are inlaid with diagrams and red lines, much like a detective’s red thread used to connect suspects and evidence. The exhibition makes obvious gestures to contemporary conspiracy theories—such as 5G fear-mongering and COVID-19-era pseudoscience—and their affiliation with New Age belief systems. But upon closer examination, "Soft Power" also reveals itself to be a curious investigation into mechanisms of social control.
The term "soft power" describes the ability to wield influence with some level of remove—it is a pressure applied indirectly. Disinformation, propaganda, and even cultural norms are examples of soft power’s exertion. Hartmann plays with our anxieties about shadowy social forces by associating them with "extrasensory" phenomena. The fact that capitalist institutions use metaphors of disembodied control to account for their power, like the free market’s so-called "invisible hand," begins to feel suspect in this light.
Near the gallery’s entrance is "Tools of Psychic Warfare," a resin sculpture cast in the shape of a Koch snowflake fractal. A blown-out image of an ecclesiastic-looking man is contained within it. The man is Uri Geller, who could supposedly bend spoons with his mind. The fractal resin sculpture is overlaid with what appears to be a floor plan, depicting the layout of a panopticon with an endless capacity for extension. The panopticon presents the omnipresent threat of being watched—which, in the digital age, no longer requires physical proximity. Talk about remote viewing! In parapsychology "remote viewing" is the psychic ability to gather information from a distance which, from a certain perspective, could be synonymous with "surveillance technology."
This concept of power exercised from a distance is again evoked in "Networked Cross (Closing the Circle)," a larger-scale work of encaustic on wood. Its shape comes from the tree of life, a metaphysical diagram of corresponding nodes and pathways, mapped onto esoteric ideas. Down its Y-axis, the sculpture features a distorted aerial view of a cellphone tower and is flanked on the X-axis by mirror-images of hands grasping spoons (another reference to Geller’s psychic stunts). At the intersection is an image of a nuclear storage facility, as if to suggest a nefarious outcome wrought by invisible forces like telekinesis and/or telecommunication. Brimming with loaded symbolism, the associations in “Networked Cross" veer toward the farcical.
A thread of absurdity undoubtedly runs through the show, though I don’t think its intention is solely to poke fun. Because "Soft Power" references both outlandish conspiracy and legitimate political concerns, it prods at a cultural soft spot. The exhibition provokes our desire—desperation, even—to separate fact from fiction, science from pseudoscience, and sociology from speculation at this juncture.
At times the work feels hyperbolic, and at others, cautionary. Hartmann has a keen eye for abstracted, graphic symbols. The sculptures’ sharp angles, multidirectional points, and saturated colors imbue the show with a sense of urgency. Their complex circuitry demands repetitive consideration and their insistence is felt. This visual language is resonant and each of the pieces in "Soft Power" hits an emphatic register.
Hartmann has taken the aesthetics of magical thinking and conspiracy and has abstracted them to the level of art, with a potent political edge. The exhibition links science, spirituality, and superstition in uneasy unity. Although "Soft Power" is made up of just seven sculptures, the show is a veritable kaleidoscope of symbolism—a dizzying array of meanings and associations as dazzling as they are mystifying. Each sculpture is shaped like the piece of a jigsaw puzzle where none of the pieces fit together. By assembling a cryptic lexicon of symbols, individuals, and technology, Nina Hartmann has fabricated a mythology all her own at Silke Lindner.