Selected Artist

Verena Friedrich [DE]
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VANITAS MACHINE addresses the desire for eternal life and the potential of life-prolonging measures.

Based on a candle which – by means of technical intervention – burns down very slowly, the installation creates a contemporary analogy to the endeavour of prolonging the human lifespan with the help of science and technology.

Being one of the classical vanitas symbols, a burning candle recalls the futility of the moment, the transience of human life and the certainty of the end of all existence. But is this end really still inevitable?

In the course of the last two centuries, average human life expectancy has increased significantly in the industrialised countries. Moreover, in the context of scientific research the biological causes of ageing are being explored. Numerous theories of aging have already been developed pointing both towards physiological as well as environmental factors.

One of the first theories of ageing was the so-called »rate-of-living theory«, which claims that the lifespan of organisms is reciprocally related to energy turnover and therefore connected to calorie intake, oxygen consumption and heart rate: The higher the metabolic rate, the shorter the lifespan of the organism.

In VANITAS MACHINE, a candle is placed in the centre of an experimental setup. Similar to the human breathing process, a burning candle consumes oxygen and produces carbon dioxide and water. The higher the oxygen and energy turnover, the shorter the burning time of the candle.

VANITAS MACHINE has been specifically developed to keep a candle”alive” under controlled conditions. By protecting it from environmental factors and by precisely regulating the oxygen supply the “metabolism” of the candle and thus its lifespan can be influenced.

Kapelica © Miha Fras

Technical realisation in collaboration with Lab3 – Laboratory for Experimental Computer Science, KHM – Supported by the Academy of Media Arts Cologne, Germany.


Verena Friedrich is a multidisciplinary artist creating time-based media installations in which organic, electronic and sculptural media come into play. Her work is driven by extensive research as well as direct hands-on experimentation with materials, forms and functions. She has actively collaborated with scientists and engineers and has been working in several bioscientific laboratories for the last few years of her practice, too. Through poetic installations, she translates complex issues into a tangible form and involves the audience on a conceptual and physical level, inviting them to explore existential topics related to (bio)technology, science and the body.

Her projects have been presented internationally in the context of exhibitions, media art festivals and conferences. She received the International Media Award for Science and Art from ZKM Karlsruhe 2005; a special mention in the VIDA 13.2 Art and Artificial Life Awards; an honorary mention in the Prix Ars Electronica 2015 and a jury mention in the Japan Media Arts Festival 2015. In recent years she undertook several research and production residencies in Québec/Canada supported by the “EMARE –  European Media Artists in Residence Exchange” and the „Pépinières Européennes“ program. In 2016 she received the lab.30 award for her installation THE LONG NOW which over the course of the last two years has been shown extensively in exhibitions throughout Europe, North America and Asia.

Verena Friedrich holds degrees from the Academy of Media Arts Cologne and the University of Art and Design Offenbach, both in Germany. She has been teaching at the University of Art and Design Offenbach and at the Bauhaus University Weimar.


Using technological means, VANITAS MACHINE aims at making a candle burn as long as possible. By protecting it from environmental factors and regulating its “metabolism” the burning behavior can be influenced, thus increasing the lifetime of the candle.

The first step was to create a closed environment by putting the candle under a custom-made bell jar. The second was to manipulate the atmosphere inside the vessel: depending on the intensity of the flame, I control the supply of oxygen.

Analogue sensors such as oxygen and UV-sensitive flame sensors are used to monitor the burning process. Whenever the burning intensity drops below a certain level, a small amount of fresh air is supplied. As the candle burns down, sensors and air outlet port follow the position of the flame. This is done by using a custom-made construction for motorized height adjustment and in reference to the sensor data. The oxygen supply is regulated by a magnetic valve which is used to control the ow of air provided by an air compressor. The rhythmic clicking of the valve indicates the system ́s current «metabolic rate».

Furthermore, the candle is directly coupled with a digital precision scale – a weight cell to be more precise – which continously displays its remaining mass.

In normal room air, approximately 0,02 grams of wax are used up in one second. With the current setup, it is possible to prolong the lifetime of the candle of about 2,5 times.

VANITAS MACHINE is a work that I started to develop in 2013. I had done some research about the topics of immortality, time in general and the idea to manipulate individual time by means of biotechnology and medicine.

Coincidentally, I stumbled across a particular image – the picture of a so-called “candle clock”. It shows an ordinary candle that has been put into a metal holder with a scale. When the candle burns down, one can measure the passage of time based on the material consumption of the candle.

Furthermore, being one of the classical vanitas symbols, a burning candle also recalls the passage of time, the futility of the moment, the transience of human life and the certainty of the end of all existence. In general, a burning candle with its vivid yet elusive flame often stands for human life or the soul, while an extinguishing candle often symbolizes death.

So, symbolic meaning and function merge here. On the one hand, there is this direct link between organic material and time as depicted by the object of the candle clock, on the other hand a burning candle symbolically stands for human life, particularly a predetermined “lifespan”.

In the course of the last two centuries, average human life expectancy has increased significantly in the industrialized countries due to improved standards of living, hygiene and medical care. On the individual level, some are seeking to prolong their lifespan by means of nutrition, exercise and the intake of medicinal products. Moreover, in the context of scientific research the biological causes of aging are being explored. Aging and death have become biological phenomena to be studied and, potentially, conquered. So, symbolically, we are no longer passively watching the candle burn down any more, but are actively manipulating and intervening into this process by means of science and technology.

I then came across an interesting theory in the field of aging research: The “rate of living theory” – which was one of the first theories of aging – claims that the lifespan of organisms is reciprocally related to their energy turnover or metabolic rate. So by slowing down metabolism and the chemical reaction that goes with it – which is connected to a lower calorie intake, oxygen consumption and the heartrate – one could actually prolong the organismś lifespan.

As previously mentioned for the burning of a candle air is needed – oxygen, to be more precise. Interestingly, the chemical reaction which takes place during combustion bears certain similarities to human metabolism, particularly the breathing process. When we breath, we take up oxygen and together with the carbohydrates from the food we eat, it reacts to carbon dioxide and water, which we then ex-hale. During the combustion of a candle, the carbohydrates from the wax react with oxygen to carbon dioxide and water. In both cases, energy is released.

In reference to the rate of living theory, I realized that by reducing the oxygen supply I could slow down the process of combustion and energy turnover, and thus make it the candle “live” longer. So based the fact that the combustion of a candle can be compared to the human breathing process on a (bio)chemical level, I´m using the candle as model system to evoke the idea that the individual time of organisms can be manipulated by technical and (bio)chemical intervention.

During my research I became interested in the topic of aging and also studied related theories. There are many different theories of why organisms age which can be roughly divided into evolutionary, programmed and damage-based theories of aging.

The rate-of-living theory belongs to the damage-based theories of aging. It basically claims that the lifespan of organisms is reciprocally related to their (mass-specific) energy turnover or metabolic rate.

The higher the metabolic rate, the faster the biochemical activity, the faster an organism will age.

Numerous experiments on model organisms seemed to show evidence for this theory: for example, it has famously been shown that calorie restriction could significantly prolong the lifespan of rodents.

Further variations of the theory also point not only to calorie intake, but also towards the heart rate and oxygen consumption as related to metabolic rate and aging.

Only later did I realize that the rate-of-living theory was actually one of the very first theories of aging, and had been widely accepted throughout most of the twentieth century. It was originally inspired by the observation that larger organisms have a lower metabolic rate and at the same time often live longer.

Nowadays, the rate-of-living theory is rather controversial as certain observations seem to contradict it. But approaches such as calorie restriction are still a current topic in aging research and continue to be explored today.

I actually came across this theory in the chapter of a popular science book whose headline was: “the bright candle burns quicker”. So the connection between the “rate-of-living theory” and the object and symbol of the candle had already been made. Although the metabolism of live organisms is certainly much more complex than the burning process of a candle, there are certain similarities on the (bio) chemical level – for example when looking at combustion on the one hand and the breathing process on the other. This is why in my project, amongst other things, I’m using the candle as a kind of model “organism”, to evoke the similarities and differences between animate and inanimate matter and systems.


Première : V2_ TestLab, The New Institute, Rotterdam, NL – mai 2013
– Prix Ars Electronica, Honorary Mention, « Hybrid Arts » Category– 2015
– 19. Japan Media Arts Festival, Jury Selection – 2015
– Cologne Design Prize, Nomination – 2013
Cinema 2.0 : The Phantom Machine, ifva Festival, Hong Kong Arts Centre, Hong Kong – 2017
DIE, AND BECOME! Art and Science as the Conjectured Possible“, Laznia Center for Contemporary Art, Gdansk, Poland – 2016
VANITAS MACHINE (Solo), Kapelica Gallery, Ljubljana, Slovenia – 2014
– Atelier #51, Experimental Platform for the Arts, PACT Zollverein, Essen, Germany – 2013
– Cologne Design Prize, Museum of Applied Arts, Cologne, Germany – 2013
VANITAS MACHINE | CELLULAR PERFORMANCE (Solo), Max Planck Institute for Biology of Ageing, Cologne, Germany, 2013
– Annual Show, Academy of Media Arts Cologne, Germany – 2013
TestLab, V2_, Institute for the Unstable Media, The New Institute, Rotterdam, NL – 2013


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