Otto Piene and Hans Haacke at MIT

You walk in to a darkish room where ever-changing shapes move like a school of fish across the walls. After your eyes adjust, you find that the there are two benches sitting among six sculptures that are producing the schools of fish and that the fish are made out of nothing but light beams. These sculptures are metal. Simple geometry (sphere, cube, etc). The room is quiet and calming. Everyone who has been here talks about the unexpected smiles that slip onto their cynical faces, and it happens to you too.

Installation view Otto Piene: Lichtballett. Photo: Gunter Thorn. All photos courtesy MIT List Visual Arts Center

To understand what is going on here, you have to look back to the 1960’s, which may have been the high point of art at MIT. During the sixties, arts funding was partially used as a counterbalance to the political consequences from the institute’s complicated and financially fertile military industrial connections. The Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) was founded in 1967 by Gyorgy Kepes and immediately went about funding exhibitions and visits for some very interesting artists. With the available capital, an unavoidable optimism of postwar boom, and a complete lack of habits (good or bad) Kepes attempted to foster “media geared to all sensory modalities; incorporation of natural processes, such as cloud play, water flow, and the cyclical variations of light and weather; [and] acceptance of the participation of ‘spectators’ in such a way that art becomes a confluence.” (pdf)

Two of the first artists who were invited to visit MIT were Otto Piene and Hans Haacke (as well as Stan VanDerBeek). Piene was in the first round of fellows (meaning he was in residency for a year), and would succeed Kepes as director in 1968. Haacke was invited for a solo show at MIT in 1967. The body of work both presented consisted of systems, those very cloud/water/lights that Kepes hoped to present as art media.

Installation view: Hans Haacke, 1967.

This fall, Haacke’s solo-show has been reproduced at the MIT List Visual Art Center (LVAC). VanDerBeek and Haacke were both deeply influenced by the ideas of cybernetics. Haacke felt that controlling the storm, moving the meteorological indoors, skipped a layer of abstraction and released the artist from reproducing essential features of the world; immediacy was the only type of innovative art left to pursue. Unlike VanDerBeek’s social videos, Haacke created kinetic art systems, objects that set in motion an action that had no end point.

The approachable physicality and comic impossibility of watching a ball float on a jet of air, or seeing a refrigerator coil (covered in frozen ambient humidity) as a sculpture reminds us just how useless art can be; how archaic and aimless we could make our art. These works are unlike our current trends: useful and solemn responses to the internet, the economy, or the social conditions in relation to capitalism. These are objects that bewilder and add to our aesthetic understanding by wonder and query. The closest these sculptures get to being explicit is to make visible the relationship between the whole and the part, between the center and the exterior. 1967 was a very delicate moment in American history: the Vietnam war raging as were race riots, but it was still before the chaos of 1968. Instead of making politics explicit, for which Haacke is usually applauded, these sculptures sing wordless songs about the 1960’s societal changes. These examinations into natural systems granted him tools that he later used to investigate social systems, like the gallery and politics of Germany, but were timely investigations that presage his later work.

Otto Piene: Electric Rose, 1965. Polished aluminum globe with 160 timed neon lamps. Photo: Gunter Thorn

On the other side of the LVAC, Piene’s light sculptures from the 1960 and 1970’s have been painstakingly restored and presented (some for the first time in decades). Despite the opportunity of seeing some vintage Piene sculptures in perfect condition, the two new sculptures, One Cubic Meter of Black Light and Lichtballet steal the show. Both project light through perforations in their skin. Lichtballet is a wall of rotating lights hidden away from sight, the circular pattern of holes in the wall filters the light, manipulating the light into physical motion in the surrounding room. There is almost no reason to look at the objects that Piene has created, instead, you should be looking at their effects on your environment.

The sensations we see flowing around the room are light, directly and with no symbol. Instead of seeing how light lands on a sculptural object, the sculpture provides its own light, and uses the light as a physical material. It may be a sculptural analogy for Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Has Piene released light from being a shadow on the wall? It’s hard to tell, as every time you step into the room, you are enthralled by the light show’s charms. You immediately forget any theory laden narratives you may have about the work, and instead experience the motion and change for what it is, a grand environment that undercuts words and explanations. It’s a direct experience. It’s that visceral art that we’ve left behind. It’s an example of Kepes hope to present the art object as a confluence, a meeting of viewer and natural process.

Otto Piene: Lichtballett and Hans Haacke: 1967 are on view at the List Visual Arts Center through Dec 31, 2011.