Letter from BERLINby David Rhodes
GALERIE KROBATH, BERLIN | APRIL 30 – JUNE 25, 2011
A mobile is characterized by balance and movement; various parts are able to randomly reorganize themselves in response to touch or to currents of surrounding air. This simple device, in effect a kinetic sculpture, is also familiar as a children’s toy and a store window display. Alexander Calder’s (1898 – 1976) sculpture, of course, comes to mind, and it was Marcel Duchamp (1887 – 1968) who coined the expression “mobile” to describe Calder’s earlier mechanical windup objects. The unpredictable movement of a mobile can be associated with the first months of life, where color and motion, together with sound, inform and provoke well before an understanding of language is gained. Musicians such as Earle Brown (1926 – 2002) and Morton Feldman (1926 – 1987) have taken inspiration from the mobile in compositions that are open to chance and irrationality. The use of chance has also become a widely employed constructive strategy in visual art.
Dorit Margreiter’s “zentrum (sabine)” (2011) consists of flat black and white shapes, actually elements of letters, suspended by steel cables from polished aluminum bars. They rarely align to form a letter and because of this, there is always an ambiguity between information and abstraction, word and image. Where the mobiles of Calder are organic, polychrome, and playful, Margreiter’s are elegantly machined, rational, cool, and architectonic. There are several variants of “zentrum,”each with a different female name “zentrum (lynne)” (2011) will be shown at Galerie STAMPA in Basel from May 31 to August 13 this year, in another one-person exhibition). Only lower-case letters are used, which are based, at a 1:1 scale, on the letters of a no longer existing neon sign from the socialist housing project Brühlzentrum, built in Leipzig in 1963. The origin of this style of letter is the revolutionary New Typography movement of the 1920s, when Bauhaus colleagues Josef Albers (1888 – 1976) and Herbert Bayer (1900 – 1985) and the Leipzig-born graphic designer and theorist Jan Tschichold (1902 – 1974) produced radically innovative design based on the principles of functionality, clarity, and a formal simplicity.
Such typographic specificity, together with this particular source, lends itself to a meditation on the role of architecture and media in forming our social/political environment. While Margreiter’s work remains a direct visual encounter, it is also a succinct elegy (without longing) for past utopian ideals, a passage from initial concept to failure and fragmentation. The elegance and beauty of the work, however, reclaims an optimism and poetry that leaves the expectations and control of the last century’s ideologies behind. Margreiter, who lives in Vienna and Los Angeles, visited Brühlzentrum as the recipient of a Blinky Palermo Grant in 2006. As someone who has worked as a graphic designer, Margreiter was already very aware of Leipzig’s reputation as a center for neon tube design, typography, and typesetting. But the buildings of the project were already unoccupied and scheduled for demolition; the vision of a complex of housing and social amenities generating future well-being, already defunct.
Since the early 1990s, using sculpture, photography, and film, the artist has been engaged in an exploration of key episodes in modern architecture and the aesthetics of contemporary media and commodity culture. Concentrating on fragments, enclosed views, surface textures and design details, Margreiter evokes ,rather than conventionally narrates, the consequent inscription of media within architectural space. As it happens, the long takes in her film pieces, not present in this exhibition, equate unexpectedly with prolonged viewing of the mobiles; they are two completely different ways of realizing a visual experience of time.
A series of advertisements taken from the Los Angeles Times, individually framed and titled “Original Condition (Case Study House)” (2009), are also concerned with changing attitudes toward modern architecture. The Case Study Houses, once neglected and ridiculed as a failed vision of socially advanced housing, are now well regarded and highly prized by West Coast-based intellectuals and artists. Like the Brühlzentrum in Leipzig, the Case Study House’s original plan to mass-produce affordable, albeit middle class, dwellings that combined design and technological innovation was abandoned. Yet one in particular has become an icon of its era: Pierre Koenig’s “Case Study House #22” (1959). This house is also the subject of a number of works by Margreiter.
A wholesale turn toward an amnesiac postmodernism, always dubious, looks increasingly misguided as time goes by. Artists such as Margreiter, who assess and reconsider the achievements and failures of Modernism, are offering something far more thoughtful and incisive.