Archeology of Utopia
February 17
— March 10, 2017

 

For CFHILL, it is a boon and a blessing to have the opportunity to present Utopins arkeologi/Archaeology of Utopia, curated by Sandra Weil. With this exhibition, she shows how the impossible can become possible: How the unbearable lightness of fashion illustration (Mats Gustafson) relates to a modernist from the previous century (Siri Derkert). How a leading light of the Bauhaus (Oskar Schlemmer) is reflected, reinterpreted and revived in the work of an artist who grew up in third-generation Israel, who is trying to interpret (and mend) the shattered wreckage of a fantastic but failed project (Ohad Meromi). How a group of people who find themselves on the run may suddenly experience beauty and a moment of grace (Malin Fezehai).

Or how the dream of a land of milk and honey is translated into industrial carpet (Gal Weinstein) even as the humblest of plants is vibrating with life (Christine Ödlund).

We also wish to thank all the writers who contributed to the catalogue: Roy Brand, Maria Carlgren, Agnes Grefberg Braunerhielm, Elisabeth Millqvist, Paulina Sokolow, Tali Tamir and Sandra Weil herself.   

Michael Storåkers
Anna-Karin Pusic
Michael Elmenbeck

 
 

Archaeology of Utopia
Sandra Weil 

On 30 September 1922, Das Triadisches Ballett – “The Triadic Ballet” – a work by German artist Oskar Schlemmer, had its premiere in Stuttgart. Schlemmer, born in 1888, was a multi-faceted artist: a painter, sculptor, set and costume designer, choreographer and dancer who taught at the Bauhaus, the famous experimental art school, from 1921 to 1929.

Das Triadisches Ballett consisted of three acts, each with its own background colour scale, yellow, pink and finally black. The ensemble consisted of three dancers who performed twelve choreographies in eighteen different costumes.

“It evolved from a merging of various artistic disciplines and derived its expression in dance from the color and form images of a painter and sculptor. It is the work of a visual artist who fulfilled his dream of seeing a pictorial vision transformed into movement. Seen from a dance viewpoint, this ballet is the work of a self-taught artist who ignored ordinary conventions of his era. The Triadic Ballet represents a period-document of undiminished importance reaching beyond the boundaries of its creation.”

(From the programme of a revival of the piece at the Joyce Theater, New York, 1985)

The Bauhaus was a German school of decorative arts, design and architecture, founded by Walter Gropius in Weimar in 1919. It closed its doors in 1933 when the Nazis came to power. The tremendous influence of the Bauhaus School on modern art and architecture is undisputed. It is considered a precursor to high modernism.

Schlemmer started with the costumes, then added music and finally choreography. He purposely limited the dancers’ mobility by using heavy materials for their costumes and dressing them in geometric shapes and masks. The costumes were like architectural or cubist structures.

A contemporary of Schlemmer’s was Sweden’s Siri Derkert, an innovative visual artist, illustrator and sculptor, also born in 1888. Siri Derkert was probably the first Swedish modernist to use clothing as a medium of artistic expression. In 1917, she and artist Anna Petrus, along with her friend Märta Kuylenstierna and her sister Sonja Derkert, produced an avant-garde dance performance at Intima Theatre in Stockholm. They created a total work of art including dance, music, sets and costumes, inspired by Isadora Duncan and the Ballets Russes. Derkert’s costumes made a splash and were much discussed. Like Schlemmer, she also appeared on stage as a dancer.

Movement is the theme of Utopins arkeologi/Archaeology of Utopia. The show centres on two iconoclastic artists born in the same year, Siri Derkert and Oskar Schlemmer, who originated concepts and currents in their time, and who have influenced and inspired the whole world in the hundred years since then. Movement: not just in the sense of physical transposition from one place to another, but also in the sense of a group of people working together to promote shared political, social or artistic ideas.

Utopins arkeologi/Archaeology of Utopia presents several of Siri Derkert’s unique and fantastical fashion illustrations, drawn between 1917 and 1921. In addition to Derkert, the show includes works by Ohad Meromi (Israel/New York), Mats Gustafson (Sweden/New York), Malin Fezehai (Sweden/New York), Christine Ödlund (Sweden) and Gal Weinstein (Israel).

Stage sets and the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art, were central for both Schlemmer and Derkert, and have influenced Gal Weinstein and Mats Gustafson as well. Gal Weinstein studied set design before switching to art school, and Mats Gustafson studied set design at Dramatiska Institutet, the college of film, radio, television and theatre in Stockholm. In the 1970s, Gustafson designed sets for Teater 9 in Stockholm. He also designed costumes for TV and film at the beginning of his career.

Ohad Meromi relates much of his work to architecture, often placing his installations in dystopian settings such as a border station, a classroom or a doctor’s clinic. Eventually, one space in particular captured his fancy, namely the stage – which can be transformed into the other spaces.

Ohad Meromi constructs a world in which he invites visitors to move relative to his work. In his stop-motion video piece, “Peanut Gallery”, we see a staging room that rotates, and in his paintings, the people change, taking on geometrical, formalistic shapes, just like the dancers in Das Triadische Ballett.

Malin Fezehai is exhibiting photos of displaced persons from around the world, people in transit who are forced to move to different places: A young Eritrean refugee couple who, despite their uncertain future, are getting married in Haifa, Israel. Two little children in a camp for internal refugees in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka. A whole group of children in Zaria, Nigeria, swinging and playing. In Fezehai’s series “Vanishing Nation”, she photographs people in Kiribati, a state made up Pacific Ocean atolls which are under threat of slipping below the surface and being swallowed by the ocean.

Christine Ödlund is an artist and composer who creates work at the intersection of art, science and music. Her two metre high works painted on paper with plant-based pigments and glues offer a glimpse into the research on communication between humans and plants that informs her art. The works go under the name “Plant Armour”, and she employs indigo, dyer’s madder, mahogany, Osage orange (a species of mulberry), strawberry, thyme, meadowsweet, European goldenrod, nettles, St John’s wort, buckthorn and a bit of walnut. They are painted with pigments artists have been using since the dawn of time and feature light-coloured shapes against a black background, like the third, “black” act of Schlemmer’s ballet. The result is an abstract encounter between nature and movement.

Gal Weinstein created his first installation using industrial carpeting 15 years ago. “The Valley of Jezreel” illustrates a site from the Bible, a place with rich agricultural land that also symbolises the Zionist pioneers’ dreams of the 1920s. The work is like a colossal jigsaw puzzle made of pieces of the cheapest kind of office carpeting and resembling a fertile agricultural valley. Since then, Weinstein has continued to create depictions of farmland that are like patchwork quilts in various versions and colours. In “Utopins arkeologi/Archaeology of Utopia”, these are displayed in a variety of ways: like carpets in a carpet store, rolled up and standing on end, on the wall, and as part of an installation, hung close together. As if they were in a showroom of different materials, Weinstein’s works hang one after another. Visitors can flip through them, much as you might look for a poster of your favourite artwork at a museum gift shop after looking at the exhibits.

Siri Derkert’s fashion illustrations serve as a historic reference for Mats Gustafson’s timeless pieces. Derkert was in Paris in 1913–1914, a golden age of fashion drawing and illustration. She studied at Russian artist Marie Vassilieff’s studio along with other artists including Robert Delaunay (1885–1941), who drew illustrations for Vogue. It was specifically at British Vogue that Mats Gustafson began his career in 1978, when his first fashion illustration was published there. This quickly led to jobs for American Vogue and Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine. Several Mats Gustafson pieces from the past twenty years are included in the show. In this image, painted in watercolour, he captures models in motion. “Silhouette” (long skirt, hat) for Yohji Yamamoto in 1997, “Black Coat” (Anna Molinari) for Vogue Italia in 1999, “Tutu” for Comme des Garçons in 2005, “Evening Gown” (Lars Wallin Couture) from 2011, “Red Evening Dress” (Gucci) for Vogue China in 2011 and “Rose” (dress by Alexander McQueen) for The Last Magazine Issue No 15 in 2015 are all examples of designers, fashion houses and magazines that have repeatedly hired Mats Gustafson over the years.

I am grateful for the opportunity to bring these six artists’ work together under one roof, and for the opportunity to present works relating to human movement and change, created in various media and materials, at locations spread round the world and spanning such a long period of time. A hundred years separate the creation of the first and last artworks in the show.

Today, when more people than ever before have to flee to save their lives, and powerful forces are seeking to silence free speech, the voice of the artist participating in social movements is as important as ever.

 
 

Guilty feet have got no rhythm
Roy Brand


I. Foot power

Human movement, the act of changing place or position, necessarily involves bodily motion. We move our feet, one step after the next, in a sequence that creates rhythm and direction. By moving, we encounter other people, meeting face-to-face or walking alongside them. Such contact can bring about tension, but it also makes dialogue possible. Any social movement is based on real people walking, standing, or assembling together. Any art movement requires the same—real people coming together. I say real rather than virtual since, as we have learned, social movements might be reflected or organized in the virtual world, but they don’t happen there. To bring about a social movement, you have to get your ass in motion.

Physical motion is an ethical imperative similar to French philosopher Emanuel Levinas’ demand to face the Other. In Levinas' case, this action is confrontational. The Other, with a capital ‘O,’ defies my capacity to understand or represent it and, therefore, constitutes a threat. In our case, keeping on our feet means participating in an ongoing procession of people moving, carrying their belongings, moving through borders, at times with signs of war and carnage stamped on their bodies. We should face them, even with the knowledge that otherness tends to incite fear and then rejection, and later avoidance. We need to overcome those barriers. Moving together is a step forward.

Who are those anonymous others that walk the streets of almost every major city in the world—the peasants, proletariat, refugees, displaced, and unemployed? They usually exist at the margins of our sight and at the backs of our mind. Standing up and walking together means rubbing shoulders and interacting. Such action levels the playing field, either by rendering us anonymous also or by making us all known. On the most basic level, the move from observation to participation is linked to our means of transportation. Traveling by car, plane, or digital device is not enough. Arriving at our destination too quickly won’t do. We should linger, dwell, roam, and drift in public spaces, on the streets—wherever we encounter inequality, injustice, and insecurity face to face.

We are bipedal animals, and our walking allows us to raise our arms, observe, think, and take action. Thinking while walking is not the same as thinking sitting down. Decisions taken while in motion are different. How different? They tend to be more open-ended. They carry a sense of continuity from past to present and towards a future. They include multiple viewpoints. They have a smell, taste, and kinesthetic awareness. They are dialogical. They pace themselves, have a rhythm and an intensity. They lean slightly and swing gently…. You can add your own experience of walking, thinking, and sorting out your actions. Some people cannot think without moving—and perhaps no one can.

Foot power is the connection among social movement, political movement, and artistic movement. In all cases, it’s about people coming together and thinking on their feet. Art demands that we get off our couch, turn off our screens, and walk someplace, stand up with others, and open our thinking to other possibilities along the way. Since artistic movement depends on moving our bodies, we can learn about the characteristics of the art by the way it makes our bodies move. Classical art held us in static poses. The Renaissance was an awakening and a raising-up. Modern art moved us towards a utopian future, and contemporary art makes us present, in the here and now, to one another.

To be more specific, the Bauhaus was a movement constantly in motion. The school itself moved from Weimar to Dessau to Berlin in the span of fourteen years (1919-1933). Movement was one of its primary concerns: the movement of people in cities and within their apartments; the movement of shapes and colors; mechanical movement; repetitive, structured movement; and so on. In each case, we can gain an understanding of the art based on the kinds of movement it preferred and fostered.


II. Oskar Schlemmer’s ”Das Triadische Ballet”

Oskar Schlemmer’s ”Das Triadisches Ballett” became a staple of the Bauhaus and was performed numerous times following its premiere in Stuttgart in 1922. What can it teach us about movement?

The Ballet contains three acts, each characterized by a strong color background (yellow, pink, and black) that suggests a particular mood. The three participants (two males and one female) change their costumes in each set, and the design configures their movements. Colors and shapes provide the ballet’s driving force, rather than its narrative or music. The piece transforms the human body into what Schlemmer called a “figurine,” a synthesis of organic and formal attributes. This combination of sensory and corporeal focus coupled with analytical structures, epitomizes much of Bauhaus thinking.

The piece is about movement and characterizes the distinctive way that the Bauhaus understood movement: partially mechanical, partially illusory—something in between a sculpture, a painting, a court dance and a game of chess.

The inanimate world of objects comes to life, and the body is elevated into sheer movement. The stylized gestures, made of primary structures, are anonymous and general. The dance transcends particularities and becomes pure language, immediate and universal, just like the one the Bauhaus itself aspired to achieve.

An artistic and political goal of the Bauhaus involved purging national identity through geometry and elevating desire to the formal structures of reason. The school’s universalist program was a clear alternative to the growing power of the right in the aftermath of World War I. The ballet suggested a new human figure for the twentieth century—a beautifully formed, mechanical automaton wearing a mask that rendered it mute, classless, and stripped of cultural traces. Mobility becomes universal. Unimpeded by borders, its only restriction is design.


III. Leni Riefenstahl’s ”Olympia”

In 1938, New York’s Museum of Modern Art exhibited Schlmemer’s figurines just as in Germany, a new movement replaced the Bauhaus. It represented a counter-reaction and emphasized strong national identity, power, and cultural specificity. Any artistic movement seems to inspire the creation of an opposition. Is it possible to know from within the movement itself where we are headed? Is there a way to understand the aesthetic features and structure of an artistic movement thatcarries us, even though its political and socioeconomic causes are likely invisible to us?

In 1938, Leni Riefenstahl’s released her Olympia Part 1, Festival of the People, documenting Berlin’s 1936 Summer Olympics. As the film opens, the credits etched in stone. Slowly, the frieze begins moving and images of statuesque human bodies emerge. The camera revolves around what looks like an early Olympic site, and morning sun pierces through the foggy sky. Several minutes into the film, as daylight dawns, we reach the Parthenon and have witnessed a transfiguration. The past becomes present, and stone comes to life.

In Riefenstahl’s presentation, the human body emerges from inanimate matter, like a shadow of the Platonic ideal. The stone body of the discus thrower begins to move. We watch astonished as the emergent, moving body detaches itself from the sculpture. If Bauhaus explores the transition from the ordinary to the universal, Riefenstahl’s proto-fascist aesthetics moves in the other direction, from the ideal to the concrete. The divine comes to life in unique specimens of perfect, athletic bodies.

A few years later, in the second part of Olympia, Riefenstahl extends perfection to a multitude of moving bodies. Female dancers, inspired by Dalcroze’s Eurythmics, wave their arms in the air, and their silhouettes dissolve into one another. At first, their gestures remain distinct and synchronized. But as the camera pans out and up, we observe hundreds of bodies moving in a spectacle of uniformity. Like the perfect athletes who embody the ideal, the mess of moving bodies can also achieve perfection, by accepting extreme measures of discipline.


IV. Solitary walkers

There is something fundamentally solitary about walking. You establish your own pace. and you can go for ten or more hours without effort. If you try to synchronize with someone else, it often becomes tiresome. In walking alone, the body adjusts to a rhythm. Walking is intimate and solitary in the same way as reading a book. Speak it aloud and you lose track. But in our head the words flow continuously and effortlessly to create another world.

Walking alone is not about meeting one’s true self. Rather, walking allows us to forget about the very idea of a true self. We can escape being someone fixed by a name or a history. Walking is universal and common in the same way as speaking a language is. We must be all doing it in the same way for it to work as means of communication.

Rousseau claimed he could not find inspiration without walking. Perhaps due to paranoia, he assumed that his thoughts weren’t his own when he was sitting down. His last, unfinished book, The Reveries of the Solitary Walker, documents his inner conversations and the particular mood of reverie that walking incites. Nietzsche, who described walking as a matter of physical and mental survival, wrote his greatest books while walking ten hours a day. In the Gay Science, he wrote to his imaginary walking comrades: “It is our habit to think outdoors—walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the sea where even the trails become thoughtful… Our first questions about the value of a book, of a human being, or a musical composition are: Can they walk? Even more, can they dance?”

For Nietzsche, as for many others, walking serves as a standard for measuring the value of work and the value of one’s life. To his wonderfully whimsical invocation, we can add more questions: can a work of art walk? Even more, can it dance? Can it bridge the gap between the solitary individual and that individual’s movements towards or with others? And what kind of thinking and action would result from this or that kind of movement? Would we be left with motion that dutifully follows a leader or movement that yields an assembly of individuals recognizing a shared common wealth that is home to all of us?