The Divine Comedy

The Harvard Graduate School of Design and Harvard Art Museums collaborated on an unprecedented three-part exhibition that addressed the converging domains of contemporary art and design practice. Entitled The Divine Comedy, the exhibition was comprised of major installations by internationally acclaimed artists Olafur Eliasson, Tomás Saraceno, and Ai Weiwei, was on display at the Graduate School of Design, the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, and the Northwest Science Building.

The Divine Comedy borrows its title from Dante Alighieri’s epic medieval poem in which the author presents a vision of earthly existence as an allegorical journey through the realms of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Dante’s masterwork is widely considered to be the first poetic presentation in which scientific and philosophical theme s were given central place. This exhibition explores the political dimensions of History (Weiwei), Mind (Eliasson), and Cosmos (Saraceno), and how these aspects of contemporary experience are being engaged by art and design speculation today.

Exhibition curator Sanford Kwinter, Professor of Architectural Theory and Criticism at the Graduate School of Design, notes that “these three artists reflect an important new habit of thought and work that is emerging today in a hybrid realm between activism, art, and design. It is here that aesthetic practice can be seen as inseparable from the production of knowledge in our society. The presentation of their work within a major research university thus operates both as a kind of homecoming and as an inherent challenge to the boundaries on speculation that still persist within the walls of academia.”

Olafur Eliasson Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Gund Hall, 48 Quincy Street, Cambridge, MA Public hours: Monday–Friday, 9am–5pm; Saturday and Sunday, noon–4pm Olafur Eliasson’s contribution, Three to now, engages the tacit forms of experience and understanding that underlie both scientific theorization and our knowledge of the exterior world. This installation at the Graduate School of Design consists of 55 technical instruments, machines, and other objects that challenge or subvert the trusted and familiar routines of perception by which we order our comprehension of the physical world.

Tomás Saraceno Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Terrace, 24 Quincy Street, Cambridge, MA Public hours: Monday–Friday, 10am–5pm; Saturday and Sunday, 1–5pm

Tomás Saraceno is widely known for his rethinking of urban geography and its potential migration into the physical and political atmosphere over our heads. His inflatable sculpture, Cloud City—part planet, part vehicle, and by definition humanly inhabitable—is embedded with solar technology and sensors that record and interact with aspects of the wider environment. The sculpture has the potential to launch and travel through the atmosphere while harvesting data and communicating back to the installation site.

Ai Weiwei Northwest Science Building, B1 Level, 52 Oxford Street, Cambridge, MA Public hours: Monday–Friday, 7am–10pm

Chinese artist and architect Ai Weiwei’s installation, Untitled (2011), memorializes the thousands of schoolchildren who died as a result of the major earthquake in China’s Sichuan Province in May 2008. A site-specific work of 5,335 identical school backpacks represents the exact number of children who died during the earthquake and in the subsequent collapses of poorly constructed school buildings. A related sound piece by the dissident artist, a voice recording reciting the names of the victims, titled Remembrance (2010), will play in the space. The counting of the student earthquake victims and collection of details about their deaths are the products of a “citizens’ investigation” conducted by Weiwei and his studio, leading to growing government censure.

View a series of short films about the exhibition on our Vimeo channel.

Sanford Kwinter, curator
Dan Borelli, director

This exhibition was made possible by The Graham Gund Exhibition Fund.