Carlos Cruz-Diez’s Liverpool Biennial Commission: A New Take on WWI “Dazzle” Camo
“If they want to make an army invisible at a distance, they only have to dress their men as harlequins,” Pablo Picasso once told Jean Cocteau, alluding to the camouflaged artillery he would famously declare a product of Cubism. Known as “dazzle” camouflage, this form of ship disguise, marked by bold, high-contrast geometric shapes, was used heavily by the British military during World War I—a commission by the Ministry of Defence to contemporary artists of the time.
This year, the eighth edition of the Liverpool Biennial coincides with the 100-year anniversary of the first world war. With a hat tip to the “dazzle” camoufleurs—the artists who dutifully dazzled the hulls—the Biennial, Tate Liverpool, and 14-18 NOW have commissioned Carlos Cruz-Diez to cover a historic pilot ship (the Edmund Gardner) with “dazzle” camo. Why Cruz-Diez? At 90 years old, the Venezuelan artist has spent the better half of a century exploring color, optics, and kinetics; three elements at the core of the British defense.
“Dazzle” painting, relying on jagged shapes in garish colors, used optical distortion to confuse enemies of the direction a ship was moving, rather than attempting to blend into the waters. This idea of movement is not new to Cruz-Diez; his “Physichromie” series, began in 1959, consists of vertical bands of color that shift according to the intensity of light and movement of a viewer, and his “Chromatic Inductions” (like his design for the Dazzle Ship) use retinal persistence, or the “after image” phenomenon, to present the visual memory of a color in tandem with its complement.
As if a culmination of his lifetime of experiments in perception and the autonomous behavior of color, the Kinetic and Op Art pioneer presents Dazzle Ship, void of the threat of German submarines, in a palette of red, green, yellow, and black. And as always, the work will rely heavily on the perception of its viewers. “It will produce colors that are not painted on, that are just happening while you’re watching it,” Cruz-Diez said in a recent interview. From its post on a dry dock, next to Albert Dock Liverpool, the newly dazzled Edmund Gardner has become Liverpool’s newest public monument and an opportunity to experience the magic of color—and Cruz-Diez—at any moment passing by.
Portrait of Carlos Cruz-Diez © Mark McNulty, 2014; images of ship courtesy of the Liverpool Biennial.