Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Bremen, Linz and home

The first purely abstract paintings were exhibited in 1912, just over 100 years ago.  The main reason for my trip to Europe was to attend the conference 100 Years of Abstract Art at Jacobs University in Bremen.  Jacobs University is a small private university (under 1500 students), named Jacobs University in acknowledgement of a very generous grant from the Jacobs Foundation, which in turn derived its money from Jacobs coffee.  The language of instruction is English, and about two-thirds of the students are from outside Germany.  The buildings were originally built as a military barracks in the 1930s.  There is a humanities program, and also a Visual Communication research unit, which involves psychologists as well as artists and designers.

The conference was organised by Professor Isabel Wünsche, assisted by Wiebke Gronemeyer and several students.  It was the most concentrated art history endeavour I have encountered.   There were over 25 talks, and all but three were by art historians.  The other three were by artists: Leo Bronstein from Canada and Wendy Kelly and myself from Australia.  The participants were from North America, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and a wide range of countries across Europe, from Britain to Russia and Georgia, as well as three Australians (and another Australian who now works in Scotland.)  

There were two keynote addresses, one by Christiane Paul, a curator at the Whitney Museum in New York, on digital abstract art.  She covered a range of computer-generated art, from early work by Frieder Nake in 1965 - and Frieder was in the audience! - to what amounts to a parody of abstraction by Cory Arcangel just using Photoshop's gradient tool.  The second keynote address was by Eli Bornstein, reflecting on a long career as an abstract sculptor.

A sampling of topics from the paper sessions: the influence of anarchist ideas on Kandinsky and on Kupka, the early photograms of Man Ray and others, the co-option of the forms and colours of abstract art for things like location signage in office buildings, the influence of the surrealists who emigrated to New York on American painting, the political use of art in the Cold War from both the American and the Soviet points of view, the use of abstract art by the fashion industry, "found abstraction" as a motif in contemporary photography (some of which looks like the abstract painting of 40 years ago), and a lot more besides.  There was only one stream of talks, so a conversation could develop.

Wendy Kelly talked about contemporary concerns of abstract art in this post-post-modern era, illustrating her talk with a very wide range of current Australian examples.  I talked about abstraction and representation in the context of artworks that contain or result from a constructed process, typically a computer program.

I didn't see anything of the city of Bremen, but there were two conference excursions, one to Worpswede, a village just outside Bremen that used to be an artists' colony in the Art Deco era - now it is pretty much a tourist place, but there is an interesting gallery about one of the main protagonists, and a strange round house known as the Käseglocke (cheese bell), after the glass cover placed over a plate of cheese.  The other excursion was to Hamburg, to see a big exhibition on Giacometti.  In a café in Hamburg there was a wonderful example of both the use of abstract art by fashion and "found abstraction" in photography.  I idly picked up a fashion magazine and found in it a lavish spread of swirly abstract photographs by a Japanese photographer (I don't have the name).  They turned out to be photographs of a naked dancer, not that one could tell.

A number of people stayed overnight in Hamburg, but I had already booked a train to go to Linz in Austria.  My main reason for visiting Linz was to see the Ars Electronica Center.  For many years there has been an annual festival in Linz called Ars Electronica, and there is now a permanent museum, a unique hybrid of science museum, electronic and computer art museum, and animation and computer special effects theatre.  Jon McCormack, who is my associate supervisor at Monash, recently installed a large work there - 50 prints each one metre square, showing computer-generated imaginary plants derived from oil company logos.  Among other works was the subversive Newstweek, a small device that, if plugged into an ordinary power point in an area with an open wireless Internet hotspot, allowed anyone to intercept news feeds from the BBC (for example) and edit them.  I was interested to see in the museum a detailed attack on Facebook in the context of privacy law.  It appears that Facebook collects and keeps more data than it is allowed to under European privacy laws, and an activist group (Europe versus Facebook) has been attempting to sue Facebook's Irish company.   Facebook has improved its privacy behaviour, possibly in response to this action, but there seems to be a considerable way to go.

Linz also has a more conventional contemporary art museum, the Lentos museum, and I visited it too.  Naturally there is a focus on Austrian artists, though there are a few works by well-known non-Austrians, including Josef Albers, Roy Lichtenstein, Donald Judd.  Certainly worth a visit.

Then back to Frankfurt.  I had a day before my flight home, so I visited an exhibition at the Kunstverein (art society) exhibition space, showing current works that deal in one way or another with the weather.  The most engaging was the Basteltornado (D.I.Y. tornado) by Klaus Weber, involving a small fog machine, an open cylinder and a vacuum cleaner.  When set in motion by a foot pedal it produced a small tornado inside the cylinder, about one metre high.  A nice thing to see at the end of my trip.

Nexus, a small 3D-printed work by Bathsheba Grossman, at the Ars Electronica Center

Basteltornado (detail) by Klaus Weber

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