PLAN 80: Article
Piene And Haacke At The List

Revisiting MIT’s Early Contributions to Contemporary Art

Two simultaneous exhibits at the List Visual Arts Center – both on view from October 31 – December 31 – focus attention this fall on MIT’s historical contributions to contemporary art.

One of the two exhibits showcases light-based sculptural work by Otto Piene, internationally noted artist and director of SA+P’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies from 1974-94. During his 20 years in that post, Piene was a leading force in demonstrating the interdependency of art, nature and science, and in emphasizing the civic and public role of art. He established MIT as an important hub for creative and scholarly work involving the visual arts and technology, fostering creative collaborations of artists with engineers and scientists.

The exhibit at the List highlights Piene’s pioneering exploration of light as an artistic medium, bringing together several sculptures from the 1960s and ‘70s along with two new works created especially for this exhibition. First produced through the use of hand-operated lamps shown through perforated stencils, Piene’s kinetic light sculpture became mechanized in the 1960s with revolving lamps, grids, globes and discs operated by electric switchboards.

The exhibit includes Electric Rose (1965), a major work from the List collection that has been restored for the exhibition, consisting of an aluminum globe covered with neon bulbs that pulsate light in four sequenced phases; Light Ballet on Wheels (1965), consisting of interior lamps that project light through a revolving disk onto the ceiling and walls; and Electric Anaconda (1965), composed of seven stacked black globes with light ascending through them until the column is completely lit. The two new works produced for the show – Lichtballett (2011), a site-specific wall-sculpture, and One Cubic Meter of Light Black (2010-11) – continue the artist’s decades-long investigation of light phenomena.

Throughout the duration of the show, several special presentations of the light ballets are being accompanied by an original score composed by the artist in the 1960s for his early light performances; the exhibit also includes a series of film screenings that document the history and performance of several decades of light ballets.

The second exhibit at the List, revisiting Hans Haacke’s solo show at MIT in 1967, presents a particularly cogent look at this artist’s largely undocumented early work and casts new light upon the development of his later, better-known oeuvre.

A world-renowned artist, Haacke is best known for what is commonly termed Institutional Critique dealing with political and corporate systems, much of it focused on the art world and the system of exchange between museums, corporations and corporate leaders. But few are aware of his early work involving biological and physical systems – living animals, plants and physical states of water and wind – which was stimulated if not produced by the show at MIT.

Many of those early pieces involved provoking and staging time-based events: wind in water vs. water in wind; the cycles of feedback systems of organic life; the production of artificial climates; and the dynamism of water in its solid state – freezing, evaporating and melting. In retrospect, one can see how his later efforts with social systems relate to these experiments.

The 1967 show premiered several new pieces including Wide White Flow, a construction of white fabric and fans, and Grass, in which a mound of dirt was seeded with grass that grew inside the gallery. The exhibit also featured Weather Cube, in which water droplets condensed in response to the gallery temperature and humidity; Ice Stick, a six-foot refrigerated column on which ambient moisture froze and melted; and a 1400-foot string of balloons flown as an outdoor piece.

Although some photographic material related to the exhibit does exist, no significant documentation or critical text on this important project has ever been produced. With major artists such as Olafur Eliasson now adopting and extending Haacke's early systems art, it is timely to revisit it and examine it in its own unique context at MIT.

For the present installation, many of the works from 1967 show are brought together again for the first time in 44 years, along with ephemeral works that both preceded and followed it, both reinventing the solo show and contextualizing it within Haacke’s broader research. The exhibition is accompanied by a scholarly catalogue that includes an essay by SA+P professor Caroline Jones, statements from Haacke, and an introduction to Haacke’s work written by the late Edward Fry that has never before been available in English.

Hans Haacke 1967 was organized by Caroline A. Jones, director of SA+P’s History, Theory and Criticism Program. She is the author of Machine in the Studio: Constructing the Postwar American Artist; Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg's Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses; and editor of Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology, and Contemporary Art.

Otto Piene: Lichtballett was organized by João Ribas, Curator at the List Visual Arts Center. Funding was provided by the David Bermant Foundation, the Barbara and Howard Wise Endowment for the Arts, the Goethe-Institut Boston, the Council for the Arts at MIT and the Massachusetts Cultural Council.