Though Otto Piene’s Light Ballet works pick up from Moholy-Nagy’s Light Space Modulator (1930) and Fernand Leger’s Ballet Mécanique (1924), they have something to say about the ‘black box’ phenomenon which arose in the mid-twentieth century around the issue of radar. This was a new kind of imaging technology, one whose inner-workings were no longer visible (a la the mechanics of film). For Moholy-Nagy’s open and transparent structure Piene substituted the perforated drums and chrome globes of Lichtballett (1961) and Hängende Lichtkugel (1972) with their abstract magic lantern plays. One can still ‘get’ how they work, but the mechanism is no longer the point; ‘output’ is. The low violet glow of Electric Anaconda’s timed argon lights (the piece dates to 1965) attests to the presence of forces working behind the scenes, below the threshold of our senses, and beyond our control.
The ‘raster’ in Piene’s titles for his late-’50s paintings—Rasterbild, Untitled (Raster-Rauchzeichnung)—means ‘grid’, but it opens the door to the raster of television’s cathode ray tube. ZERO, the group Piene co-founded with Heinz Mack in Düsseldorf, was billed as a reaction to Germany’s expressionist heritage, but it was more forward thinking than that, and less purely formalist. With fire, soot, and pigment Piene generated hazy screens and coronas of static, forging haunting material analogues for the new technology’s largely invisible vocabulary of form. His work offers a key to that troublesome lock between art and technology, and it’s only just beginning to turn.
Image: Otto Piene, Lichtballett (1961) & Electric Anaconda (1965); installation view from Sperone Westwater
Light Ballet and Fire Paintings, 1960-1967
6 April – 22 May, 2010