Unknown photographer, Unidentified woman with László Moholy-Nagy (n. d.). Image courtesy Hattula Moholy-Nagy
At an art gallery, we expect to look—to engage our sense of sight and take in what we see on and within the gallery walls. But a new exhibition at Winnipeg’s Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art offers visitors a more immersive sensory experience.
Sensing the Future: Moholy-Nagy, Media and the Arts considers the impact of technology today by exploring how it was addressed in the art and ideas of the Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946). An influential, but perhaps lesser-known figure in modernist art, Moholy-Nagy was a groundbreaking multimedia artist who worked in painting, graphics, photography, film, and sound and kinetic art, among other forms.
Moholy-Nagy was additionally a prolific writer—one who suggested that artists have a responsibility to help people adapt to the complexities of modern life, says Dr. Oliver Botar, the exhibition curator. “Generation after generation since the late 18th century, we’ve all been dealing with new technologies that challenge our sensorium and ways of perceiving,” explains Botar, alluding to our tendency to feel overwhelmed by the seemingly intensifying, multisensory technological landscape. Moholy-Nagy, however, thought that artists could help people counteract those feelings by teaching them to use all their senses to a greater extent.
Sensing the Future gives visitors a chance to do just that. The exhibition combines historical art with works by contemporary artists that respond to these and other themes in Moholy-Nagy’s oeuvre. One such work is Aromapoetry, a 2011 piece by Chicago-based artist Eduardo Kac. Consisting of a “book” of complex aroma poems—such as “Manhattan,” which hints of gas— Aromapoetry embodies Moholy-Nagy’s suggestion to incorporate the olfactory sense in art. Other works, such as Berlin-based Olafur Eliasson’s 2014 Silver Globe, respond to Moholy-Nagy’s interest in transparency, reflection and motion. A glass and lacquered globe with silvered oceans and transparent continents, it creates mirroring surfaces on its interior, picking up images and movement from the surrounding space.
Installation view, Sensing the Future: Moholy-Nagy, Media and the Arts, Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art, 2014. Pictured from left to right: Andreas Haus, Nike Elena Arnold, Aline Helmcke, Frank Hopper, Frédéric Krauke and Walter Lenertz, Dynamik der Gross-Stadt. Ein filmisches Experiment nach László Moholy-Nagy [Dynamics of the big city. A filmic experiment after László Moholy-Nagy], 2006. Three-channel DVD projection; Olafur Eliasson, Silver Globe, 2014. Partially silvered glass sphere and lacquer; Olafur Eliasson, Your screen-free environment, 2014. Twelve c-prints. Photo: William Eakin
Sensing the Future also includes several reconstructions of Moholy-Nagy works, including one of a 1923 pair of lost metal and glass sculptures, which Botar describes as “a very early example of an interactive sculpture that you could rearrange yourself.” Winnipeg-based sculptor Bernie Miller worked from two documentary vintage photographs to figure out the scale and configuration of the original sculptural ensemble. His resulting re-creation allows people to experience the piece for the first time since the 1930s.
The reconstructions and contemporary works—many of which Botar commissioned especially for the Plug In exhibition—are exhibited alongside historical works by Moholy-Nagy. There are paintings on loan from Berlin’s Bauhaus Archiv Museum for Design, the Salgo Trust for Education in New York, the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), and the collection of the artist’s daughter, as well as a selection of Moholy-Nagy’s films, designs, photograms, and photographs, including the NGC’s Light-Space Modulator. This 1930 print depicts Moholy-Nagy’s “Light Prop for an Electric Stage,” a kinetic light-projection device that he designed to create light displays on surrounding surfaces.
Fittingly for an exhibition that explores Moholy-Nagy’s writings, fourteen of his Bauhaus books and other publications are also prominently displayed. “For him, writing and publishing were very important,” notes Botar. “Not only because writing was another medium of expression, but because it was a way of getting through to a potentially larger audience.”
Extended by three weeks, Sensing the Future: Moholy-Nagy, Media and the Arts is at Winnipeg’s Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art until June 1, 2014.
Robyn Jeffrey is a writer and editor based in Wakefield, Quebec.
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