Die Rede / The Speech
“The signature of the emerging world is transparency.“ This was what the philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote in the early 1920‘s with reference to the filigreed, transparent skeleton constructions of the Modernists. lt was not, however, any finished building that inspired Walter Benjamin to this rush of optimism – after all it is a well-known fact that common building practices in those days, in view of the dire need for masshousing construction, effectively laid fetters on the ideals of any modern architect –but rather those prismatic, glass-constructions as created by Mies van der Rohe as models for future high rise glass buildings, or the visions of Gropius and Le Corbusier who dreamt of translucent or radiant white edifices basking in the sunlight. Benjamin expounded on these visions of modern glass architecture, which were already in themselves idealistic, so far as to envisage a new era in the history of mankind. For him, as for many of the architects of his time, the transparency of the glass buildings was taken to symbolize the transparency of a new socialistic, transparent and translucent society.
Not just to build transparently, but to Iiterally instate Light as an architectural component, this was an ideal pursued by the architect, painter and photograph László Moholy-Nagy, a participant in the Bauhaus project. He made Light an integral factor of the rooms, experimenting with walls of light, and sought to find ways of objectifying light as a more or less inherent part of interior architecture.
And taking this as a cue, I at last come to the artist Mischa Kuball about whom, or rather about whose work, this whole thing is really supposed to be. Mischa Kuball‘s starting materials and the basic motifs in his work are Architecture, Space and Light. Little wonder that art critics and art historians have long associated him, and rightly so, with Moholy-Nagy.
Kuball, however, takes things a step further. His skill – he in fact refers to himselfas an “installer“, and with good reason – his skill and artistic techniques are a continuation of the Bauhaus tradition, reactivating visions, projects and ideals of the classical Modern school. Yet whether deliberately or by chance, Mischa Kuball‘s work is, at the same time, a dose depiction of the failure of these ideals. In an exaggerated fashion he reveals an involuntary congeniality between the high flown ideals of the Modernist architects and those of the Nazi dictatorship.
“At night, the building shimmers like a phosphorescent crystal“. That was how art historian and critic Hubert Schrade, an enthusiastic supporter of the Third Reich, described Albert Speer’s German Pavilion at the World Fair in Paris in 1937. Indeed, light, flood-lights, lighting effects and crystal symbolism played a major role in the architecture of the Third Reich. Also, or precisely because National Socialist architecture was anything but transparent, comprising hermetically sealed cubes, camouflaged dug-outs, as Ernst Bloch once called them, for this very reason they, or their creators, had to make extensive use of light. National Socialist edifices served as a kind of projection surface for the magical transformations generated through the lighting effects, effects which at night transfigured granite into crystal, citadels into castles of the Grail. Consequently, imaginary architecture, the so-called “Dome of Light“ of Albert Speer, has become even today synonymous with National Socialist
And, as provocative as it may at first sound, the Dome of Light is nothing more than a derivative of the self-illuminating cathedral created by Lyonel Feininger in 1914 as the emblem of the Bauhaus Manifesto. The ultimate goal of those congregated around the Bauhaus was a new, socialist community, united in the new State, much as the early Christians in their cathedrals and it is the delusive message of Speer´s Dome of Light to the in reality oppressed, so-called comrades that this ideal community has finally been achieved.
Mischa Kuball´s environment „German Pavilion“ unmasks these hidden affinities. The means by which this demasking takes place are the same as those used by the teachers of the Bauhaus and the manipulators of the Third Reich. The result, however, is the total opposite. Kuball blurs the images back to their realities. With his projections he distorts and refracts an apparently cohesive image, sometimes even creating new architectural forms in the process, as in the exhibit „Tor“ (Gate), thus revealing the manipulative aspect, the very essence of this emotive form of art. He reduces it to ist individual components and fragments. As the observer reconstructs the images again in his own imagination he gradually realizes what has happened, recognizes the effect for what it is. „lt is impressive, but that is about all“, was the reply of the architect Heinrich Tessenow to his pupil Speer when he was confronted with Speer‘s designs for National Socialist buildings. The majority of people were mesmerized by these „impressions“ for a whole
twelve years. And if we consider the reactions evoked by AndyWarhol‘s Light Dome Series or the general renown enjoyed by Anselm Kiefer or Gerhard Merz, for example, then there is at least a vague indication that the impressive, mesmerizing elements of National Socialist architecture are here too being subconsciously glorified.
Sozialer Wohnungbau (social housing-scheme). This term has long fallen into disrepute in the Federal Republic, deservedly so. lt arouses associations with the standardized, schematized satellite towns and the dreary housing-estates and container wastelands which disfigured vast areas of our cities after 1945 to mere caricatures of their former selves, or at least devoided them and their population of any individual identity.
Concrete functionalism was the appropriate term coined by the architectural historian Heinrich Klotz in connection with these monstrous conglomerations and the system of which they were a product. Social housing-schemes – I find myself tempted to revert again to the term „disfiguration“; social housing-schemes, or concrete functionalism is a miscarriage engendered on the one hand by the housing-estate idea of the classical Modern school. That which they referred to as diversity of form and which in its experimental stage, according to Benjamin, gave rise to hope for greater transparency, suddenly changed into the inadequate and brutal realization of profit calculation charts.The other parent: the dictatorial architecture of the Nazi regime with its parade-grounds of cubic constructions, all lined up in battalions. The midwife and witness to this abortion, just for the record, was, and still is, the building industry.
Here Mischa Kuball renders tangible to the senses something which the critics of the late Modernists were only able to describe in theory. And he achieves this tangibility by a process of over-refining, in a positive sense. Oblivious to any direct experience, his cases are a rank of plastic-coated, appallingly badly coloured monoliths into which he has incorporated the industrial norms and standards common to social housing-schemes. They are presented as what they really are: - screamingly tragicomical rabbit-hutches, or refunctioned concrete dug-outs, typical of the battalions of columns and cubes under the Nazi regime. In other words, here too Kuball distorts reality, on the one hand playing down
the Terror, yet at the same time focusing on it. We perceive Kuball‘s reflections on the destructive force of social housing-schemes, embodied in this work of art, at a relatively safe distance; similar to the audience at a theatre where it is involved in, yet, because of the footlights, is held at a distance from the events on stage, but at the same time is still actively part of things.
Is Mischa Kuball then the great artistic representative of the Enlightenment which appears at the present time to have been confined to the wings, and with fatal consequence? Kuball, the social critic and historian? Be careful, to judge hirn in this way would be to behave as those who, in the over-abundance of light, no longer recall its blinding properties. That is to say, one look at the works exhibited here is enough to recognize their fascinating attraction, their captivating grip, their emotiveness.
As an art historian, and above all one who is here to talk about Light Art, it would be just as blind if one were to withhold from oneself and the audience the knowledge of the cultic connotations associated with Light. Please do not worry, I am only about to proceed to a rambling digression on the cult revolving around Light over the past millenia! Kuballs‘s work does, however, merit at least a cursory glance in this direction, inasmuch as his early works comprise apparently abstract encounters with the fascinating theme of Light: -carefully scored or torn card in transparent slideframes which send mysterious angles and hatchings across floors and walls; atmospheric, unintentional, everything is seemingly left to chance and the spontaneous force of Light.
Let us draw a line, whereby the historic references in Kuball‘s work also justify such a step, at the turn of the century. „Hovering between brinkmanship and the luck of the aeronaut“, was how the cultural historian Hermann Glaser referred to that period in which we can see, in retrospect, the seeds of the First World War, the subsequent revolution, its appeasement through the Weimar Republic and ist lurid overturn by the so-called brown-shirt revolution of the Third Reich. Reformers, fanatics and even rebels, all garbed their hopes of salvation and those of their supporters in the symbols and signs of light mysticism. As an example we may look to Fidus’s sketches of gigantic mass-festival halls which he visualized as self-illuminating domed constructions in whose magical light all mankind and all Germans would be ennobled to radiant Aryan figures.
A sense of awakening through light and glass-architecture was something also prophesied by the poet Paul Scheerbart. He wrote, „Glass-architecture will transform dwelling places into cathedrals“. In 1911 and 1914 Bruno Taut, inspired by Scheerbart, built his famous expressive glass-houses in Leipzig and Cologne. They were, despite the ultramodern building techniques used, magically radiant caverns of worship. Temples of the Holy Grail where „festivals of art and life“ could have been held, about which the painter and architect Peter Behrens wrote in 1901 and promised that their exalting power would melt down all differences in class and interests to form one new, fraternal religious community.
Then in 1919, in the heat of the revolution, the expressionist architects of the „Glass Cham“ designed „Sternenhäuser, Himmelsblüten, Luftkolonien and Domsterne“.Their fervent belief in the substitution of reason with ecstacy culminated in Luckhardt‘s megalomanic crystal temple-tower for the socialist millions which he entitled „An die Freude“ (Ode to Joy).
Nothing became of these sketches other than what they really were; webs of light and air. The place where light buildings and lighting effects attained at least apparent reality was, for a long time, the theatre. Max Reinhardt with his new lighting-systems and projection methods did more than revolutionize the German Stage. His real hope layin mass-theatre and its educational, tranquilizing effect.
In 1919, in the Berliner Großes Schauspielhaus which Hans Poelzig built for him out of a mammoth circus arena in only three months, the „Tropfsteinhöhle“ (stalactite cave), as the people of Berlin referred with sarcastic endearment to this huge theatre, the audiences were over whelmed with cascades of light, artificial rainbows and night-skies, with crystalline and phosphorescent architecture.
Reinhardt‘s creation was adopted by the German film industry. In her history ofthe German silent film, the film critic Lotte H. Eisner found an appropriate name for these fascinating light dramas, those black sabbaths of a traumatized collective conscience. She referred to the whole thing as „The Daemonic Screen“. Moreover, Siegfried Kracauer came to the conclusion that the cinema‘s artificial worlds of flickering lights and shadows were the forerunners of the manipulative arts of the Third Reich. In his treatise „From Caligari to Hitler“, he writes, „As Germany put into practice what had been propagated from the beginning in its films, so the screen characters literally came to life. As the personified daydreams of minds for whom freedom was a fatal shock, these figures took over the arenas in Nazi Germany. The veritable homunculus was abroad. Self-appointed Caligari‘s hypnotized
innumerable caesars into becoming murderers. Raving Mabuses committed insane crimes and went unpunished ... Battles raged, and victory heralded victory. lt was just like a film ... and the
Philistines in their Sunday parlours (or under the Dome of Light; the author) puffed out their chests in pride ... and the vague premonitions of the coming of a twilight of the gods were about to be fulfilled.“
This is precisely the theme taken up by Mischa Kuball in his installation „Hitler‘s Cabinet“. The projection beams turn the huge cross into a swastika; the distorted perspectives of the photographic stills reveal the grimace of the Nazi dictatorship hidden behind expressionist film material.
Then it is Enlightenment, after all? Not only! Because after a few minutes the informative side of the installation recedes in favour of the lighting atmosphere. You no longer try to puzzle out
the true contours of the stills but give way to the attractive power of their forms and lighting effects, you allow yourself to be ensnared by the darkness of the room, by the sounds, the forms ... In other words, the atmosphere, the magic of Light assume their own stimulatory function. Alongside the light of the Enlightenment we experience the light of the emotions. Information and enigma become intertwined.
Mischa Kuball‘s works are mostly called either installations or environments. I, personally, prefer the old-fashioned term „total art“. For this best sums up the self-opposing, yet self-generating focal points of Mischa Kuball‘s work. Kuball does not just „install“, he „stages“ as well. lt is not just his works of art that produce an effect, but also the rooms in which they are placed and of which they take possession. Not only the message but also the atmosphere produces an effect on the audience. Rationality and emotion, thought and feeling are equally affected and stimulated, chance and order complement each other within the influential field of the works.
lt is like walking on a wire-edge between light and dark, between enlightenment and mysticism. But what would art be without this wire-edge?
Mischa Kuball‘s work calls for and needs both distance and devotion. If one is willing to accept this, then it will afford a salubrious, rather than a desperate sense of confusion. Salubrious, inasmuch as it causes the observer to reflect, by attacking reason and feeling. lt follows that the artist is an agitator, a confuser, but also an expounder.
What more could one ask?
In: Kabinett/Cabinet, Heinen Druck Verlag, Düsseldorf, 1990