Activation and Deactivation: Zero: Countdown to Tomorrow at the Guggenheim

posted on 16 Oct 2014 18:09 by sumolsen
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By Linden Hill

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Continuing the conversations we have had this semester concerning the musealization of kinetic art, our class (Hanna Hölling’s Cultures of Conservation) visited Zero: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s-60s at the Guggenheim, where conservator Reinhart Bek contributed his extensive knowledge on the installation and conservation of such media. This exhibition is the first of its kind devoted entirely to the Zero group in the United States. Led by Heinz Mack, Otto Piene, and Gunther Uecker, Zero is considered the first German avant-garde movement following WWII. Through their art, Zero’s members sought to project a positive view into the future by using innovative materials and technology. Themes of destruction and creation permeate the work as well as experiments with light, motion, and sound.

Because many of the works on display are reconstructions, we had fruitful discussions about authenticity, materiality, and the afterlives of performative kinetic art.

One installation we focused on was Light Room (Homage to Fontana) by Heinz Mack, Otto Piene, and Gunther Uecker. Originally presented at Documenta 3 in 1964, the installation (which has never been shown in the United States until now) consists of seven sculptural elements, all created between 1960 and 1964, which move and project light at various times throughout the six-minute “performance.” The variously shaped filaments inside the light bulbs project different shapes on the walls and ceiling of the gallery; a motorized timer controls the chaos of light as the space constantly shifts as viewers experience the process of time.

Not only does this work immediately challenge the idea of individual authorship in favor of a collaborative network of artists, but it also raises questions about what happens when a kinetic work of art is “on” versus “off.” The performance of light and motion comes in six-minute intervals, followed by six minutes of rest. During that resting period, all of the sculptural components of the work are stagnant and in darkness. Clearly, it is important for these aging kinetic works to not be constantly in the “on” mode; from a conservation (and fiscal) standpoint, it is unreasonable to have the work performing continuously. The Guggenheim curators, however, in leaving the sculptures in the dark for six minutes prevent viewers from admiring the work from a sculptural perspective. I find that when I look at kinetic installations, I primarily focus on the movement rather than the technical or sculptural elements of the apparatuses themselves. Had the curators left the lights on while the objects were momentarily static, we would have been able to better appreciate the extremely detailed construction of the sculptures and have a “behind-the-scenes” look at the work that often only curators and conservators are privy to. As we walked through the rest of the exhibit, we often had to wait for works to “activate,” which allowed us to appreciate the work for its aesthetic and technical complexities as well as the performance. The majority of these works, unlike Light Room, were not in darkness when they were inactive.

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Light Room, through the elaborately choreographed light projections, also encourages participatory viewing rather than simply looking. The curators, however, completely mediate the viewers’ interaction with the work by explicitly placing a barrier in front of the sculptural objects. Not only does this encourage a frontal viewing of the installation rather than a 360-degree, immersive experience, but it also diverges from the original Documenta installation. As seen in two small photos located outside the gallery, Documenta visitors could walk through the installation and experience the light sculptures from a variety of angles. I feel that these types of kinetic works are often indeterminate and that each viewer should be free to experience the work in her own manner. By over-exerting the museological strategy, the Guggenheim curators moved more toward the direction of “freezing” this work of art, rather than staying true to its spirited, interactive nature.

Later in our visit, we encountered a somewhat similar moving light installation, Otto Piene’s Light Ballet. Unlike Light Room, visitors can enter the installation and move around with more freedom (although a vigilant security guard warned visitors if they stood “too close” to a particular piece of the installation). Our class discussed how we appreciated being able to experience the work in a more direct manner and we thought about different ways to document these installation works. We decided that in addition to film, photographs, and drawings, it was important to think about how to document the experiential aspect of kinetic installations via oral history or interview.

Overall, we had a wonderful time looking at and discussing the afterlives of kinetic art from the 1950s and 60s. The exhibit aptly illustrated topics we have been discussing over the course of the semester, namely the different layers and dimensions from which we can access ephemeral, performative works.

Linden Hill is a M.A. candidate at the Bard Graduate Center

Image 1:Heinz Mack, Otto Piene, Gunther Uecker
Light Room (Homage to Fontana) (Lichtraum [Hommage à Fontana]), 1964
Installation view: Documenta 3, Kassel, West Germany, June 27–October 5, 1964
Photo: Gitta von Vitany, documenta Archiv, Kassel

Image 2: Otto Piene
Light Ballet (Lichtballett), 1961
Metal armature, lightbulbs, electric motor, and rubber, 178 × 155 × 80 cm
Foundation MUSEION. Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Bolzano, Italy
Photo: Augustin Ochsenreiter © Foundation MUSEION. Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Bolzano, Italy

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