Sensoriationalism

First Moholy-Nagy Takes Winnipeg, Then He Takes Berlin

“Sensing the Future: Moholy-Nagy, Media and the Arts” is an exhibition that perfectly suits the layered and eccentric character of Winnipeg. It was curated by Dr. Oliver AI Botar, a University of Manitoba art history professor and recognized expert on Moholy-Nagy for the Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art. Whatever else Moholy-Nagy was (and he was many things), he was not, strictly speaking, a contemporary artist. He died on November 24, 1946 in Chicago. But as Botar argues, the Hungarian-born polymath made and imagined work that situates him securely in the present.

Eduardo Aquino, Textspace, 2014, text and sound installation based on the writings of László Moholy-Nagy. Sound design/composition by Örjan Sandred. The texts were selected by Oliver Botar and spoken by Oliver Botar and Simone Mahrenholz. Installation view, Plug In ICA, Winnipeg, March 7-June 3, 2014. Photo: William Eakin.

One of the ways the exhibition makes its claim on contemporaneity is through the inclusion of work by 12 living artists, the majority of whom work in Winnipeg. Botar’s idea was to match these artists with specific works by Moholy-Nagy. The resulting new pieces constitute both an act of homage and an art of reinterpretation. The Moholy-Nagy we encounter in this collaborative exhibition comes out of the past and steps into our future.

Along with Botar, eight of the artists included in “Sensing the Future” were interviewed in September and October in Winnipeg. Louise Witthöft and Rodney Latourelle, who designed the installation for the Bauhaus-Archiv Museum, were interviewed by phone from Berlin on October 15th, 2014.

“Sensing the Future: Moholy-Nagy, Media and the Arts” was on exhibition at Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art from March 8 to May 11, 2014 and subsequently at the Bauhaus-Archiv Museum für Gestaltung in Berlin from October 8, 2014 to January 1, 2015. It is accompanied by a 192-page catalogue written by Professor Botar (Lars Müller, Zurich, 2014).

László Moholy-Nagy, Kinetic-Constructive System. A structure with paths of motion for sport and recreation, 1928, ink, photomontage and watercolour on card, 76 x 54.5 cm. Executed by István Sebök.

OLIVER BOTAR: Moholy, We Hardly Knew You

How much was Moholy-Nagy ahead of his time and how much was he drawing on what his contemporaries were thinking about? He read fairly widely and he took ideas and reformulated and repackaged them. He was a brilliant publicist. He got this idea that you could encompass everything, which is basically an Enlightenment idea. It’s Diderot and the Encyclopedia. The idea of nature and technology was controversial at that time but it was absolutely in the air. Tatlin and El Lissitsky were definitely interested in it.

You say he was a brilliant publicist. His friends called him the “fast runner” and in the description there is a slightly critical sense that he was trying too hard, that he needed to see himself on the cutting edge. I have come to the conclusion that is not the case. He was definitely interested in the new but his motivation was utopian rather than avant-garde. He really was a person who believed that art could help people live happy and more fulfilled lives. And that utopianism comes from the Hungarian avant-garde. The goal was not Socialism or Communism, but the creation of the new, well-adjusted person. So he felt completely at home when he ended up in Germany and gravitated towards the Life Reform movement and met a young, brilliant, German-speaking Jewish woman in Prague, Lucia Schulz, who brought him into this alternative movement. He discovered reform pedagogy—remember he had never taught, had never gone to art school. On the one hand, he realized that it could be a vehicle to change people and to help them adapt to modernity, and on the other, it could also be a source for making a new art. This utopian idea of using technology to its fullest including technologies not intended for art making became his driving force, which he combined with the idea of educating all our senses to the fullest. That process would necessarily open up channels toward new technologies of art making because different technologies speak to different senses. I think that was a more important motivation than his desire to be a fast runner. He was often described as being childlike and enthusiastic; he was never cynical and was always generous.

His initial reaction to Kurt Schwitters was quite negative but that changed. Was Schwitters’s openness to the possibilities of sound and literature playing into the visual arts one of the things he appreciated about him? Absolutely. He wrote a letter to his best friend where he was critical of Schwitters, which stands out, because he was so rarely critical. I think the button Schwitters set off in Moholy was that his activist, expressionist style portraits represented a totally different way of making and thinking about art. Then he met Raoul Hausmann and any conception of art was blown sky-high. He already had the idea that art could do more than one thing but the idea that discarded material could be transformed almost alchemically into art was something very new. Here’s the thing: a lot of people thought that Hausmann and Schwitters were crazy, but Moholy immediately understood their depth. The deeper understanding wasn’t that Schwitters was a very fine artist but that he lived a completely different paradigm of what an artist and art could be. For Schwitters a lot of it was play, which you see in his poetry. Moholy, on the other hand, never played in his art; he was always serious.

László Moholy-Nagy, Z VII, 1926, oil on canvas, 95.3 x 76.3 cm.

Let’s talk about your conception of the exhibition. Why does it take the shape it does? I had done previous shows in New York and in New Brunswick, New Jersey and at the National Gallery in Budapest. But the genesis of this exhibition was that I wanted to do something for my students, a number of whom were becoming practitioners, and for my community. Something very modest. The original idea was to show films and my book collection, add some photographs that I owned, and an important painting from The Salgo Trust for Education. I wanted the exhibition to include contemporary artists from the very beginning and I am very gratified that every artist I asked agreed to participate. The other part of the concept was that Moholy’s post-mediality was so prescient. It wasn’t the medium that was of central concern; it was the idea. So Conceptualism comes through in the so-called Telephone Pictures; his idea was that you could sub-contract the actual manufacture of the art. He didn’t have the academic ideas that had been drilled into all the artists, even the avant-garde ones, most of whom had gone to art school. He didn’t know what art was supposed to be and I think that for him post-mediality was very important and precedent setting. So I wanted to invite artists who had something in common with Moholy and would take to these ideas, even though they may not have known about him. It was critical that there be not only new media in this exhibition. I wanted to make the point that what is important about Moholy-Nagy was that he was a pioneer in a number of new media art forms, and that he also presented an alternative model about how to be an artist. I wanted to get across a number of ideas. One is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with utopianism. I’m an historian and I want people to understand that things weren’t all invented in the 1960s. Even now you read about immersive participatory art beginning in the 1940s, so there is a little bit of the art historian trying to set the record straight. But more important is a recognition of the role that pedagogy played in Moholy-Nagy’s thinking. In a sense, art was of secondary importance to teaching. The art itself had to be pedagogical but not in a pedantic sense because the pedagogy was making people aware of the capabilities of their sensorium. This is a very interesting type of pedagogy. He recognized that the physical and sensory challenge allowed people to perceive the world more fully. You couldn’t stop the juggernaut of technology, but you could learn to live happier and more balanced lives in modernity. This was key to him. When people say that he valorized technology, it simply isn’t true. One of his central articles, published in 1926 in bauhaus, no. 1, is entitled, “Directness of the Intellect – Detours of Technology.” You can have an idea about something, but how you achieve that technologically is always going to be problematic and difficult. He was also an early environmentalist but he was always a little bit skeptical of technology because he realized that things could go very wrong. I also would like to legitimze an art of the senses by providing it with a history. This type of art never really ended; James Turrell is a bridge between the sensory art of the ’60s and the present but it was marginalized for a long time. Finally, I want to stress that he is relevant to contemporary artists because he made proposals that have yet to be fully realized, including the expanded cinema and the multi-channel installation idea which, as far as I can tell, he was the first to articulate in 1924–25. Even today, a multi-projection space with moving projectors is very unusual.

…To read the other interviews with collaborators of Moholy-Nagy projects, order a copy of Issue 132 or subscribe.

Volume 33, Number 4: Correspondences

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #132, published December 2014.

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