Hans Peter Kuhn

Rory MacLean meets Hans Peter Kuhn

Hans Peter Kuhn   Foto © Junko Wada
Hans Peter Kuhn   Foto © Junko Wada
Writers write. Painters paint. Conductors conduct and dancers dance. But what does one call a sound artist who builds light installations? A composer who reinvents industrial landscapes? A one-time rock ‘n’ roll singer who will transform Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway to celebrate the London Olympics?

Hans Peter Kuhn is hard to define: an acclaimed light and sound artist, a collaborator with avant-garde director and playwright Robert Wilson for over 20 years, co-founder of Berlin’s first independent radio station, and a laughing, imaginative, inventive man who seems always open to chance and serendipity. ‘I think fun is important in art,’ he told me over lunch at Berlin’s Café Einstein. ‘There’s too much heavy work in the world. But the fun in my work has to have a serious side.’

A Light And Sound Transit - Leeds   Foto © Hans Peter KuhnBorn in Kiel sixty years ago, Kuhn moved to West Berlin in 1974. ‘At school I’d realised I wasn’t a person to sit behind a desk. In those days Berlin was a hot spot, just as it is now. Everyone wanted to move here. When I arrived I started to look for work in the theatre, because of my background in music, and lucked into a job as assistant soundman at the Schaubühne.’

In the 1970s the private theatre excelled in producing bold political, social and experimental works. Within a year Kuhn became the company’s soundman, helping to stage seminal productions by Peter Stein, Klaus-Michael Grüber and Luc Bondy, working on Winterreise at the Olympic Stadium and an inspirational interpretation of As You Like It in which the audience followed the actors through half-a-dozen sets at the old CCC-Film Studio.

‘I was really lucky with the chain of good events,’ he said. ‘But after a time I became bored with the work. The directors always told me what to do, to make the sound of the wind or a barking dog. So I handed in my resignation.’

Kuhn’s contract required him to work on one last production, which happened to be with America’s vanguard theatre artist Robert Wilson. It was an experience which changed his life.

‘Bob had a totally different style. He never told me what to do. He gave me no hints. So we argued, and then fought. He called me a fascist and I pulled the plug and walked away,’ recalled Kuhn, smiling at the memory. ‘The next day – after Bob had apologised - I thought I just have to do something, and I chose a piece of music for one particular scene. Bob just lit up in response. He was so pleased, and – then and there - we found a way of working together. I understood what he wanted me to do, what I was looking for: creating sounds.’

Together Wilson and Kuhn created Death, Destruction & Detroit, the first of thirty collaborations. In 1993 their installation Memory/Loss won the prestigious ‘Golden Lion’ at the Venice Biennale.

Echtzeit 24   Foto: © Gerhard KassnerAfter the Schaubühne, Kuhn concentrated more and more on his own artistic development, amassing a huge body of work over the years. He created sound and light installations, penned and scored radio plays, composed film music (most recently for WDR’s Der Letzte Kurier), as well as conceiving dance programmes and music environments. In Saarbrücken he created Echtzeit 24, setting 24 television monitors around the rim of a vast, circular industrial building, tuning each set to a different European channel, then turning the screens away from the audience. As in Plato’s Analogy of the Cave, the spectator saw only the flickering shadow of the light of the world, of Europe.

A Vertical Lightfield - Singapore      Foto: © Hans Peter KuhnIn Singapore at the Orchard Central shopping mall Kuhn suspended dozens of moving neon tubes in A Vertical Lightfield. In Rome he collaborated on a sound installation with choreographer Sasha Waltz and Guests, dangling dancers from the ceiling of the MAXXI Museo nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo. His many works in the UK include the Sound and Light Transit, which transformed Leeds’ Neville Street tunnel into an ever-changing installation.

‘I am not a baroque person. I am a minimalist. My light work is pure, plain and simple. My sound work is a little more complicated.’

Among his most stirring pieces is 2 Formen, a pair of pure light forms set at the end of a wooded urban garden. The vertical line of light and canted luminescent rectangle seem to glow with a strange otherworldliness.

2 Formen  Foto © Hans Peter Kuhn‘My work is site-specific,’ he told me. ‘I try to give a place – for example a garden or the Neville Street tunnel – a second layer, to give it a meaning beyond reason. This changes the way people look at that place, and gives them a new perspective.’


In 2012 for the London Olympics, Kuhn will create an installation at The Giant’s Causeway, the grand, interlocking basalt columns in County Antrim on the northeast coast of Northern Ireland. In the amphitheatre-like bay beyond the columns, he will pitch 150 poles fixed with stiff, lightweight flags. One side of the flags will be yellow, the other side red, and they will move in the wind to create an ever-changing, random pattern, interpreting the forces of nature, marking the countryside.

‘The installation will be a kind of analogue/digital converter for the wind,’ said Kuhn with a laugh. ‘I always use random processing in my work. I like it when things just happen.’

As they did at the Schaubühne and with Robert Wilson, as with the contacts and commissions which have rolled in unbidden from around the world. In a way his openness to chance and serendipity have shaped Hans Peter Kuhn, making him into a particularly individual artist.

‘My motivation?’ he said, turning his light blue eyes on me. ‘I can’t sit still. I have to always be doing something. When I see a space that moves me, the idea for a construction comes to me in an instant. I like to create something that doesn’t yet exist; to bring an idea to realisation, and then to experience it.’

Rory MacLean
January 2012
Related links

Dossier: Media Art in Germany

History, tendencies, names and institutions