When visitors to Art Basel walk into the fair’s Unlimited section, the first installation you see is Egocentric System, a work by the Berlin-based artist Julius von Bismarck presented by Marlborough. It’s the kind of installation that works so well at an art fair: it’s big, eye-catching, looks great on Instagram, and has an initial veneer of simplicity that gives way to unassuming beauty. It’s a giant concrete saucer spinning on an axis with the artist—who is tall, always in a designer suit jacket and rocking a ZZ Top-worthy beard—constantly inside. While the concave concrete structure spins, von Bismarck sits at a desk, or lies in a bed, or carefully walks around, all while the fair whirls around him. He stays on for hours. It’s one of the major hits at Art Basel.
After noting how cool it looks, the next line of inquiry is inevitably, How can this bearded guy stay spinning on this thing without getting sick or permanently damaging his body and mind? Man was not meant to be hurled around for an entire day. And so when Marlborough Chelsea director Max Levai asked me if I wanted to be the first person on Egocentric System with von Bismarck, spinning with him for an hour or so, I said yes.
I met Levai outside of Unlimited Wednesday afternoon, having pre-emptively consumed little that day but water, because of the obvious. I had some pretty understandable reservations.
“Oh, dude, you’ll be fine,” Levai said. “Just remember to keep looking at the saucer, not the crowd that will inevitably surround it.”
That’s one of the innovations of Egocentric System: it only starts to work if you ignore the outside world, and make a new world inside the work, and eventually, it will feel like you’re actually standing still.
As we walked up to the gyrating thing, Levai took out his phone and made a call. Von Bismarck, who was in bed on his art, taking a nap as if nothing was the matter, casually picked up.
“Nate’s gonna come on with you now,” Levai said, standing a foot away from the spinning artwork.
“Sounds good,” von Bismarck said.
The machine—which is a thin layer of concrete on top of fiberglass and wood, rigged on top of a high-powered rotor—slowed to a halt, I said a prayer, and hopped on. Julius and I were standing directly in the center as it started to move, quicker and quicker and quicker.
“Do you want to do the interview right here?” he asked, again as if nothing were the matter.
“Um, sure?” I said. “So, why did you want to do this to yourself?”
“A couple of years ago, I was dancing in a club, like on the dance floor, and I figured like, if you just turn forever you go crazy,” he said. “And I loved it so much that I was doing it more and more and more, I figured out that if you turned enough, you don’t think you’re turning anymore. It feels like you’re standing still, and the club is spinning around you.”
I tried to take a step and nearly fell over — we were at full speed, about one cycle per second, the crowds blurring around me.
“Maybe we talk later, and you just sit for a while here?” von Bismarck said. That sounded good. He set up the desk and the chair on the rim of the bowl, to get the full whiplash of the turns, to get the maximum insanity of the experience.
“I’ll just be napping,” he said. “Wake me up when you want to talk.”
At this point, about fifteen minutes in, I was just sitting and writing notes in my notepad, and given the circumstances I might have been going a little nuts—for instance, I forgot to turn my recorder off while von Bismarck slept, and the tape has me sort of talking to myself and saying “Oh, God,” “Oh God” a lot.
While he slept, I wrote the following in my notebook.
—Currently revolving in a concrete tilt-a-whirl in Unlimited. It’s like a world unto itself. Isolated, shut off. Except the extremely awesome Electric Light Orchestra soundtrack to the Kenneth Anger film a booth over is bleeding in. Totally OK with that. Eldorado. Great record.
—This is like a creation of a domestic space: a workspace, a kitchen. (OK, there’s just empty coffee cups and a half-drank bottle of Coke, but that counts.) It feels strange that I’m invading Julius’s little house here. Also, starting to feel slightly ill.
—There’s a VIP Program schedule in the one drawer in the desk. Looked at the Wednesday lineup. Missing roughly three champagne brunches right now.
—The ELO is on a 30-second loop, I realize. Still awesome.
—Close my eyes, and suddenly the thing starts to really work, profoundly so. I really do feel like I’m just sitting in a chair, with a fan on so there’s wind at my face, with weird cacophony and twisting threads of sounds swirling around—it’s a purely Zen experience, it’s a state of nothingness and everything.
—Bored with the Zen stuff.
And so on.
I woke up von Bismarck and told him we should talk briefly in the center of the saucer and then call it a day. Can’t just stay here spinning with an art fair to wander around in!
“What are the cumulative effects of this — like, when you get off this thing after a few hours, what is it like?” I asked, the thing still whipping us around.
“It’s so many things,” he said. “You can’t walk straight — it’s like when you come from a ship. You lose the sense of stableness. And when you move your arms, it does this curve. So every time you move something, it’s doing something weird with it. Like, I was picking up a glass of wine, and I was saying to myself, Somehow, I have to get this glass of wine to my mouth.”
This, of course, is horrifying because I myself am about to get off. And while it’s fine when I do — because a little dizziness was worth it after spending an hour spinning in a futuristic pod — maybe staying on Egocentric System is just an experience better suited to the role of the artist.
“Working in you studio alone, for days and nights, months, fucking working your ass off—you don’t really have time to socialize,” von Bismarck said, as the saucer slowed to a stop. “At an opening, I’m looking at people but I feel disconnected. Then suddenly everyone is looking at me, but I feel more alone. So coming off of this—it’s like that, but much more extreme.”