The very serious artfulness of Mischa Kuball
There was a time when fine art had not yet posed any limitations on the entire terrain of artistic creation, when the oeuvre had not yet absorbed the work that had been invested in it and the purpose tor which it was designed. It was a time when a project always contained the self-doubt of its creator. Commenting on the limits of his talent, Luiz de Camoes prefaced his epic "The Luisiads" with the words: "if inventiveness and art enable me". With this attitude, art openly admitted its artfulness, the artist combined seriousness with skill, and — as an "inventor" — he was often cunning and sometimes even ingenious. What we describe as contemporary art is often far more akin to artfulness than to fine art, as playing with concepts has become a firm part of artistic methods. Not that concept artists are impudent or impertinent, but all the sincerity with which they install a concept, using suitable material in a specific room, bears an element of pretence and pour cause — something it has in common with all artistic endeavour. After all, if they wanted to treat their concepts as such, they would test them under real conditions. The 'artful' artist, however, is primarily concerned that his concept should have value per se, irrespective of whether or not it meets generally accepted standards.
Mischa Kuball does mad things with light by cleverly blocking it completely or using it for a clearly defined purpose. The logical Anglo-Saxons refer to "light" as a "mass noun", not denoting a specific object, but something without any limits to its volume. Seen from this somewhat broad point of view, light eludes the distinction of private and public, as it is available to us — the general public — just like the air we breathe. Only a particular type of lighting can be subject to this distinction. Fortunately, light is available in abundance and more intense than air. Even if pollution ever deteriorated to a point where we could only consume air privately, sold in bottles — like cooking gas in many countries — I don't believe that natural light would ever be bottled and marketed as a product. It is true that every region has its own brightness, but Mischa Kuball's eye is cosmopolitan. He artfully works with manufactured light, producing light sources in the Bauhaus tradition and offering a lamp for a lamp, bartering like in the old days. On the one hand, the owner of a lamp is given a cosmopolitan object, on the other hand, Mischa Kuball takes a culturally contextualised object, removes it from its environment and displays it together with other lamps, so that it becomes public: the entire arrangement is shown in a room accessible to the visitors of the Biennial. All that remains of its private origin is its specific shape, a note about its provenance and a photograph of the owner in an everyday situation.
Classical ready-made objects do not suggest any social relevance. The artist removes an object from the context where it was used and turns it into something meaningful simply through the act of detaching it from a flood of everyday items. Mischa Kuball's project frustrates the idea of social relevance. The only traces that are left from the negotiations leading to the exchange of one lamp for another is the photographs that have been added to the exhibits. The artist's empire absorbs the objects by fixing them in the form of photographs. However, what is left of a sign once it has lost its social relevance? To compensate for this deficit, Mischa Kuball puts together existing light signs, filming words in neon lettering, though the words are not obvious from the combinations of letters. The "artful" artist covers up the real combination, so that the word can only be seen as something that is hinted at and has been written from memory. Yet this does not satisfy his hunger for signs, and he therefore turns himself into a portrait of someone eating letter-shaped biscuits. When they eat their croissants every day, the French are not aware that the shape of a croissant commemorates the Battle of Lepanto, when the Venetians and their allies succeeded in stopping the Ottoman invasion. Mischa Kuball is metaphorically eating words that pollute our daily horizon. However, rather than reminding us of anything, he merely wants to exercise that power which he pretends to have over the potential combination of letter.
This enables us to understand the meaning of his project. While a concept needs signs in order to work, the concept artist wants to prevent it from working. On the one hand, he changes neon signs into meaningful signs, on the other, he eats the elements of ready-made signs, thus revealing their poverty as carriers of meaning. The demiurge no longer imitates the world of shapes, hut he accepts the necessity of working together with others to combine a number of meaningful objects, while at the same time retrieving his creative competence in the form of a portrait, turning it right round into something negative. All this leads to open events in which concepts are prevented from being concepts, and lamps from spreading their usual light. The artist merely displays his artfulness in an ironical charade, showing and hiding everything, and creating a space where light and sound are no langer combined but where they are intended to suggest new virtual combinations. In this way, however, nobody obtains the code that might enable him to understand the oeuvre in fieri. The viewer needs ta keep rummaging in his bags until he has found the right key, relying on the installation notes and comments in the catalogue, explanations written before the work had even been created, and he has to try and collect comprehensible fragments from which he might — perhaps — construct a tentatively sketched meaning. Instead of following the way of fine art, this new art goes in the opposite direction, destroying the work in order to display isolated sketches. Yet by doing so it bestows intensity upon the moment.
Translation Hugh Beyer
Quoted: Private Light/Public Light: Mischa Kuball, Deutscher Beitrag zur 24. Biennale São Paulo 1998, Crantz Verlag Ostfildern-Ruit, New York 1998.