Tom Eccles and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Curators: “Hansel & Gretel is the latest work in the complex and exceptionally fruitful collaboration between Pritzker Prize winning Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron (architects for the Armory’s renovation) and the Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei. Having worked together for fifteen years in the field of art and architecture, never defining their roles and thus creating unexpected results, they have collaborated on projects such as the "Bird's Nest" stadium for the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 and the 2012 pavilion for the Serpentine Gallery in London. Hansel & Gretel brings together their combined interests in the psychological impact of architecture and the politics of public space; creating a playful, strange and eventually eerie environment with different layers of reality revealed to the visitors first in the Drill Hall and then in the Head House of the Park Avenue Armory.
The initial impulse for the project was to transform the vast Wade Thompson Drill Hall into a public park, a place of free movement and play, open 24 hours and accessible from street level. Hansel & Gretel is, however, quite the opposite, a dystopian forest of projected light where the floor rises up, as if lifted by an invisible force, and visitors are tracked by infrared cameras and surveyed by overhead drones as they systematically capture the parkgoers' data and movements. Here the breadcrumbs of the famous Hansel and Gretel fairy tale are not eaten by birds but rather digital crumbs are gathered and stored, reminiscent of Ray Bradbury's poignant, 1953 science-fiction novel Fahrenheit 451, where an omniscient state surveils its citizens from the skies.
Entering from a small street-level doorway on Lexington Avenue through a long darkening tunnel, the visitor experiences both psychological menace and exhilarating wonder upon exiting into the expansive landscape of the dimmed Drill Hall, animated by interactive projections mapping the visitor's every move. Utilizing state-of-the-art surveillance technology, the installation is both an enticingly playful and unnerving experience of what it means to be constantly watched, of public space without anonymity. Only upon leaving the Drill Hall and entering the hallways of the historic Head House, does the visitor discover through a continuation of the installation the extent of what has been seen and captured. An extensive digital library of surveillance histories and technologies is available for further research.
In an age of constant scrutiny and data storage beyond the knowledge and control of ordinary citizens, Hansel & Gretel is perhaps less fantastical and more menacing than it may at first appear.”
Ai Weiwei has described their collaborations as follows: “My experience of working with Jacques and Pierre is that we never think separately. It’s like three soldiers in the war—and that’s a good feeling: we have a constant understanding.”
On the collaboration with Ai Weiwei, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron have stated: “Since we first met - some fifteen years ago - we have travelled together, worked together, and imagined and realized architecture and art projects together, including a master plan for the Chinese city of Jinhua, the Bird's Nest for the Olympic Games in Beijing, a bamboo installation at the Venice Biennale of 2008, porcelain in Jingdezhen, and the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in 2012. We have always enjoyed doing things together, discovering new things that we would not have experienced by ourselves otherwise. We therefore did not hesitate when we were offered the opportunity to make an installation piece in the Park Avenue Armory Drill Hall in New York. This is a city that has left its marks on all of us in many different ways, going back to the early years of our individual careers. We see the installation project in the Drill Hall as part of an open-ended, ongoing collaboration, as another opportunity to meet and marvel together.”