Getting to res.o.nant
Mischa Kuball's intervention at the Jewish Museum Berlin
November 17, 2017 – September 1, 2019
The Düsseldorf-based Mischa Kuball was the first artist commissioned for the Jewish Museum Berlin’s recently initiated program of contemporary installations. This 4000 square foot work is currently on view through September 1, 2019. A light and sound piece, it occupies two galleries and three of the elusive voids in architect Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum Berlin. Res.o.nant was created as a dialogue not only with Libeskind’s architecture but also with the historical references and conceptual strategies the architect deployed. The following article, which will be published by Sternberg Press this fall, contextualizes res.o.nant within the artist’s forty-year public art practice.
Many of Mischa Kuball’s public art projects and institutionally based works deploy light. For much of his career the artist has used this ephemeral medium as both an intellectual and emotive resource. He uses it too as a suggestion of loss and privation, a barometer for ethical questions, an instrument of social demography, and as a communal means to demonstrate unity within diversity. Kuball typically employs light both literally and figuratively within historic situations and strategic contexts, often in ways that combine affect with meaning. Take for example his Hitler’s Cabinet of 1990. In this installation, essentially a multi-media sculpture, he paired sinister archival images that evoked the growing power of authoritarianism (that metamorphosed into Nazism) with a Minimal wooden box-like floor sculpture shaped as a cross, the images seen via 35mm slide projectors lodged near the ends of the cross’s four arms. The resulting shapes of light emitted onto the nearby floor were eerily distorted from square to elongated trapezoidal forms. Thereby the symbolic meaning of the cross—the solid, physical element of the sculpture—took on mutated resonance as the projectors turned on to reveal the splayed images radiated by the illuminated slides. The result transformed the conventional cruciform shape from a Christian symbol of redemption into a swastika—a diametrically opposed icon of racism and hatred. 1
Kuball’s projected slides drew from the film archive of Siegfried Kracauer, the late German-born, New York-based cultural historian famous for his psycho-political treatise on emerging Nazi resonances in German cinema of the 1920s and 1930s. In superimposing the rotating projected images surrounding the wooden form, Kuball transposed theory into symbol. At the same time, he fused varying, distinct, formal artistic practices in juxtaposing the hard physicality of Minimal art with the ephemerality of light sculpture. In fact, the very distorted nature of the projected images offered a dynamic metaphor for Kracauer’s theory, for the authoritarian, racist issues and images Kracauer codified began emerging in popular culture during the interwar period. Kuball’s merging of the intellectual and formal, the physical and the programmatic contrasts greatly with the works of earlier artists and art groups that used light as a means of expression. Examples of these include works from the German Zero group, the American Light and Space movement, and the Italian Arte Povera artists. Despite the fact that Kuball turns those movement’s intentions on their heads, he nevertheless is keenly aware of them and builds upon their precedent. The withdrawal of feeling and personal expression, the trademark of the Zero group (Mack), the transcendent environments of the Light and Space artists (e.g. James Turrell), and avoidance of analytic investigation of certain members of Arte Povera (e.g. Alighiero Boetti) are mere touchstones—points of departure—to be expanded upon for Kuball’s social and political, religious and spiritual, polemical and moral investigations.
Typically, Kuball’s strategies convert complex concepts into evocative images laced with affecting force. He harnesses what contemporary artist Olafur Eliasson considers the “vaporous physicality and emotive nature of light” in general, and sculptures using light in particular.2 Kuball distills ideas so firmly that his results appear contradictorily both straightforward and cunning. Ultimately his projects are packed with dualities, triangulations, even exponential resonances. As previously noted, his combination of conventional Minimal materials and electric elements go well beyond, for example, Alighiero Boetti’s Pavimento Luminoso (1966) where the juxtaposition of two simple elements yields a complex, if enigmatic, phenomenological, formal fusion. Expanding beyond this, Kuball’s use of light and reflective elements is often site-specific. Importantly (and this is where he differs critically from other artists using light), he includes a strategic intellectual program that is layered onto—or coming from within—his opposing materials. Kuball dares to superimpose the simple onto the complex, the formal onto the ideological, the intellectual onto the emotional, and vice versa. In doing so he entrances viewers, sometimes even trapping them within his uncanny objects and installations. At its core Kuball’s practice roams both utopian and dystopian aspects of modernism as it simultaneously engages viewers with multi-layered, multi-disciplinary connotations.
Hitler’s Cabinet is a singular multi-media sculpture meant to be displayed in a standard white cube exhibition space. Often though, Kuball has been commissioned to engage historically freighted spaces as his means of investigation and intervention. In these he positions the complexity of their historical past with the distinct physicality of the related architecture. Such installations inevitably generate viewer responses that range from the mysterious to the menacing. He was among the first artists—along with Lawrence Weiner, Carl Andre, Richard Serra, and Rosemarie Trockel—to be commissioned to create an installation at the still extant Stommeln synagogue in Germany’s Rhine-Ruhr region. Stommeln was one of the few synagogues in Germany to survive World War II. Most artists working in this formerly religious, now memorial, space have staged the interior with their signature sculptural fabrications. But Kuball turned things insideout using an approach as deceptively simple as it was shrewd. He lit the inside of the old sanctuary with glaring lights, then locked the doors to the building, thereby restricting viewer access to the interior. The quality of the flagrant light emanating from the windows at night thus prompted memories of the Nazi’s threatening searchlights, simultaneously conjuring Albert Speer’s enormous cathedral of light in Nuremberg that in the 1930s was used as a momentous display of spine-tingling Nazi power. But Kuball’s brilliant strategy of locking the building to preclude visitor access transformed the historical remnant into an inaccessible locus. Consequently, it became the source of light that went on in a place where the metaphorical lights of its congregants were extinguished. Of course, such a strategy also parallels theorist Julia Kristeva’s connective readings between the sacred and the abject.3 This poetic tactic raises other more complex questions. Why was this a holy site barred to human access? Was it the synagogue’s rare survival under the Nazi regime that made it seem (at least to Kuball) suggestively untouchable?
Such inevitable questions are part and parcel of Kuball’s thinking. He has sometimes used this interrogative form as part of his projects to engage his visitors with questions that are complex and rhetorical. One example was his 2001 installation at the Lutheran Church in Düsseldorf, where he queries the purpose and form in which to remake a stained-glass window destroyed during WWII. The issue of whether the church window might be realized today, and if so, how, is not easily soluble for either the artist or his collaborators: the congregation’s minister and its congregants.4 Instead their alliance became grist for the congregants’ mill; the most important take-home issue here being how to create a discussion about beauty, meaning, holiness, as well as the need for restoration or re-creation. Not to be understated here is the problem of representation itself.
The complexities of these earlier-career projects help us understand the logic by which Kuball was selected to intervene in another near-sacred space: Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum Berlin with its powerful Deconstructive architecture. Like Kuball’s, Libeskind’s work is loaded (some say fraught) with sophisticated dualities and/or contradictions. The unusual intricacies of the Libeskind building play the solemn mass of traditional architecture against the lightweight spatial volumes of classic Modernism. Libeskind purposefully created a structure and space that at once confine and deceive, restrict and trick. Among its many other diametrically opposing poles the building at once plays off the monumental against the irrational, the perplex against the venerable, the claustrophobic against the voyeuristic, the hygienic against the barbarous, the emotive against the conceptual.5 Remembering his own impressions of first seeing Libeskind’s empty new building, Kuball describes its stirring nature. He notes its elements of surprise, the utter silence it evoked for him, and the fact that after experiencing the building, nothing any longer seemed straightforward.6 Aside from Libeskind’s complex intentions, there remain also the opposition between his metaphorical intentions and the ways in which the museum’s galleries became occupied to narrate a Jewish history told through more straightforward material objects: photographs, vernacular culture, reproductions, and facsimiles. Kuball respects Libeskind’s architectural masterwork even as his own installation accentuates and morphs the building’s spatial and physical features. In some ways Kuball returns it closer to its original architectural intentions, in other he exaggerates them. In relationship to the architect’s parallel achievement, Kuball’s res.o.nant expresses the dualities the artist aims for his own project, and the ways he factors them to dialogue with, or echo, Libeskind’s work. In Kuball’s own words he intends to “fuse architecture with skin, light with mass, sound with space, inside with outside.”7
Evident through discussions of Kuball’s earlier projects, he knows how to convert and subvert spaces and images, to juxtapose the material and the immaterial, as he offers critique and adds new meaning to their original forms. Kuball intervenes in Libeskind’s brilliant yet apprehensive architecture. He also enters into dialogue with the former display and didactic functions that two of Libeskind’s galleries served. This educational use of some of the building’s spaces overlaid some of Libeskind’s architectural intentions. Computers and objects that formerly defined these spaces were removed as Kuball transforms the galleries from halls of instruction in which users were taught facts, to become spaces devoted to entirely different kinds of sensory, aesthetic experiences. Kuball bathes one triangular area with red light, diffusing the solid feature of its concrete walls. He leaves the built-in vitrines, empty, that formerly were lit and fitted with documents. He casts dim reflections on them thus making full use of the allegorical meaning of their barrenness. Kuball thus creates his own echo of Libeskind’s ingenious voids as expressions of loss, and of precisely the failings of documentary explanation, expression, and, representation.8 As Emanuel Mir astutely observed, [Kuball’s res.o.nant] “is a commentary on existing architecture as a reflection for understanding the institution.”9
In short, the inspired intention of Libeskind’s voids was to represent the un-representable aspects of German history and the Holocaust: the loss of life and culture, the terror and the impossibility of either expression or meaning. He thus created spaces inaccessible to visitors’ entree—sites or situations existing somewhere between forbidden and sacred. Kuball treads carefully and respectfully in these loaded spaces. Through light, through reflection, through color, through motion, he animates the newly defined areas and he penetrates the voids with echoing forms of light. At once Kuball emphasizes and corrupts Libeskind’s voids. Interrogative underpinnings exist for Kuball and his chosen ephemeral media: does the non-tactile aspect of this light in fact violate Libeskind’s architectural no-man’s lands? Does such new use of light respect or defile this masterful, theologically driven architecture? Although aesthetic questions are raised, they reach such an intensity that perhaps juridical, perhaps even rabbinic, explications are warranted. Of course, calling artistic intentions into such a legal realm renders the answers ambiguous and tautological. The question and its unanswerable exponent are precisely Kuball’s goals.
Another seemingly immaterial—perhaps non-tactile is a better term—medium Kuball uses in res.o.nant is sound. The counterpoint to light which deploys the eye as its receptor organ, sound of course is experienced within the ear. Just as light can be turned on and off with electricity or other man-made energy sources, so can sound. In these senses the two media can be readily experienced by specific human receptors or shut down. They can virtually evaporate. To create the sound element of his res.o.nant installation, Kuball made an open call to musicians and composers to create a short one-minute work that the artist calls “sketches.” He purposely transposes the use of the term from its standard draftsmanship label. Two contrasting participants of Kuball’s more than 100 contributors are Michel Pärt and Alicia Svigals. The Estonian musician Michel Pärt, a convert to the Orthodox Chruch, offers his highly solemn spiritual qualities, while Svigals employs klezmer, an ethnic Jewish folk form of composition and performance. The two seem very far apart but are linked with their other contributors by the diversity of the sound and intentions of the music played in the galleries. This diversity of present cultural contributors mirrors Libeskind’s mapping of locations of Berlin’s important Jewish pre-WWII cultural and scientific players. These lines are mapped conceptually and resolve to form the angled outlines of Libeskind’s building. Individuals erased under Nazi era dogma are put back into the space through Libeskind’s linear, radial, and resolving machinations. Now Kuball adds cross-cultural contemporary musical realities into these spaces of memory.
Kuball’s installation in general and its own directional projections inevitably are reminiscent of his earlier project at the mosque in Azerbejian, where he tackles the conflicting lineages of sacred and scientific thinking from both Muslem (Jafar al-Sadia, 8th c.; al-Balkhi, 9th c; and Alhazen, 11th c.) and Christian (Copernicus, Galileo) scientists. Here he shows not just the potential for contemporary artistic animation of other religious sites, but also how the struggles between religious and scientific thought have evolved and resolved over time. By extension, Kuball’s evocative installation refracts the inevitable questions of how the Jewish Museum Berlin will balance the intellectual and historical versus the aesthetic and emotive.
1. See also, Norman Kleeblatt, ed. “Transforming Images into Symbols, Mischa Kuballs’ Hitler’s Cabinet,” in Mirroring Evil: Nazi Images, Recent Art, New York: The Jewish Museum and Rutgers University Press, 2001. Pp. 105-107.
2. The most succinct quote from Olafur Eliasson is from “How Artist Olafur Eliasson Finds Inspiration in Scandinavia's Sunlight” in Departures: “I am very interested in the experiential and perception-related questions about how light affects us, both physically and emotionally. For additional descriptions of how Eliasson thinks about both the physicality and immateriality of light, see also Hyperallergic: “Olafur Eliasson on Turning Light into Color” and Wallpaper*: “Olafur Eliasson reflects on ways of seeing ahead of his latest exhibition.”
3. Julia Kristeva, From Filth to Defilement and Semiotics of Biblical Abomination in The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, translated by Leon S. Roudiez, Columbia University Press: New York, 1982. Pp. 56-90.
4. Add reference to Kuball catalog on Dusseldorf Church Window
5. I am grateful to artist/architect Tim Furzer for sharing his observations on Libeskind’s museum in Berlin with me. Furzer first visited the Libeskind building in January 1997 when he was a student at the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London. The building holds great resonance and ambiguities for him. He revisited the building in June 2002 and July 2010.
6. Kuball, Interview with Mischa Kuball in JMB Journal,
7. Mischa Kuball, “Eight premises for res.o.nant” sent to the author by the artist, as well as an interview with Anne Boissel
8. In his review of res.o.nant, Colin Lang dwells particularly on issues of representation in Liebeskind’s architecture and Kuball’s intervention.
9. Emanuel Mir