Otto Piene at the ZKM
Elements and Experiments

Otto Piene was involved in the founding of the “ZKM – Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie” (the Center for Art and Media Technology) in Karlsruhe; since then he has always taken part in its exhibitions. Just before his 85th birthday, the ZKM had given the artist the opportunity to hold his first solo exhibition – entitled “Energiefelder” (Energy Fields).

Otto Piene; Otto Piene; | © Südpol-Redaktionsbüro/M. Conrads Otto Piene can remember his first artistic activity in Karlsruhe very clearly – in 1968 he had been invited to what was then a US Air Force base to release some sculptures that had been filled with helium into the air. It was the time when Piene discovered that the sky could be used as a space for art. For these Sky Art events dozens of people had to help - an activity Piene instigated to bring all kinds of social groups together. It was “the first step towards people getting involved in participating event art”, as the artist said on the occasion of his “Energy Fields” exhibition at the ZKM’s Museum of Contemporary Art in Karlsruhe in 2013.

It was above all these Sky Art events that brought international acclaim for the artist, who was born in 1928. The aim was to promote the awareness that “we live from the sky and that we eat from the sky”. A fine example of these spectacular works would be the rainbow that curved 125 metres into the sky above the closing ceremony at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
Energy Fields. Otto Piene on his 85th birthday

Mythological moments

It is however all the more baffling that there was no documentation of his Sky Art events in his retrospective - a retrospective that has turned out to be rather modest as it only showcases 50 of his works. To compensate for this, curator Philipp Ziegler says, the “mythological moments” in Piene’s Sky Art works have been preserved in the ceramic works on display. After all, the artist considers these heavy, glazed clay tablets that have only come into being over the last few years to be the siblings of “light” Sky Art.

The thing however that strikes the viewer most when it comes to works like Frieze (2007) or Viereck Auflösung (2008) is the similarity the abstract motifs have with Piene’s works from the late 1950s and 1960s. Both works involve the raster screen technique Piene has been using since 1957 and which is symbolised by the yellow image called o.T. (1959/60). Back then the artist perforated cardboard screens with a hole punch to form a grid and then passed oil through it onto a screen to create a relief image.

Light ballets and fire images

As a member of the group of artists known as ZERO (1958–66) Piene devoted a great deal of his creative attention to experimenting with visual phenomena. “Elements” or “Energy” were concepts that enabled the members of the group to search for a contrast to what at that time was the prevailing “Art Informel” movement - a movement they felt dwelled upon the dark and dismal.

It was within this context that Piene made two discoveries: in his quest to find a way of documenting his raster images he allowed light from candles and petroleum lamps to shine through the perforated clay tablets and this is how his “Light Ballets” came into being. By causing them to move in a dark room they would then cast spots of light along the walls, floor and ceiling. Two excellent examples of this are being shown at the exhibition: Pirouetten (2012) and Four-Foot Light Cube Black (2012). At the same time Piene experimented with smoke signals; this is what led to his fire images that involved spraying a canvas with paint and then setting fire to it. In an act that was perceived as constructive he created works like Komet (1973) or Hot Mountain (1964/1974), in which the images take on an almost figure-like appearance. Otto Piene, Fleurs du Mal, 1969; Otto Piene, Fleurs du Mal, 1969; | © Otto Piene / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2013, Photo:

Innovative aesthetics

Alongside the large-scale, pneumatic work, Fleurs du Mal (1969), there is also the 45-minute-long film entitled Black Gate Cologne which is the “living” heart of the exhibition, so to speak. In 1968 Piene worked together with the Italian-American artist, Aldo Tambellini, on a live-action project involving audience participation for a TV production for the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) station. The project made use, among other things, of light shows and films. The images were then later collaged in such a way that they paved the way for an innovative aesthetic approach to the depiction of electronic visual media.

Again and again Piene’s works have been compared to those of László Moholy-Nagy; in 1974 Piene took over the management of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge (USA) from Moholy-Nagy’s colleague, György Kepes.There is however hardly any mention or sign of this in the exhibition. Unfortunately the Energy Fields retrospective does not do justice to either the exhibition capacities of the ZKM or, more pertinently, to the significance of Piene for contemporary, inter-medial art.

After studying painting, art education and philosophy in Munich, Düsseldorf and Cologne, Otto Piene, born in Laasphe in 1928, made a name for himself as one of the founding members of group of artists known as ZERO. The group, which has been operating out of Düsseldorf since 1958 and to which Heinz Mack and Günther Uecker also belong, caused quite a stir back then when they rejected the “Art Informel” movement that was dominant in West Germany at that time. It gained international renown when it joined forces with other European artists living in other European countries, like Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni. When ZERO was dissolved in 1966 Piene spent more time teaching at universities in the USA. Piene’s works, which have been shown at many exhibitions and which change hands these days for a very high price, are considered to be particularly influential in the field of inter-medial art.