In 1957, two American bomber jets were the first to circumnavigate the globe without landing. The same year, the Russians sent their Sputnik into Space, and in Brussels – over a decade after Hiroshima – the Atomium was built to celebrate the nuclear age.
The world, driven by the twin poles of the United States and the Soviet Union, was involved not just in an arms race but also a race toward the future. It was an age in which everything imaginable was being tried out. Back in Germany, however, Konrad Adenauer and his party, the Christian Democrats Union, had just won an absolute majority with an election pledge of “No experiments!” Despite the burgeoning post-war economic miracle, Germany was still a country destroyed by war and overwhelmingly gray – except that in a small artist’s studio on the first floor of 69 Gladbacher Street in Düsseldorf.
There, Otto Piene worked on relief images, which both captured and blocked the light, as well as smoke pictures, which he created by using soot after setting fire to solvents on paper. He also created art by swinging torches through perforated templates, making the wall appear as if it were dancing. He didn’t want to just paint – he wanted to do something.
Disgusted by his depressive colleagues, who licked their wounds by painting with muted colors, Piene wanted to show the positive and the elemental. He used pure light instead of colorful paint and real fire instead of tepid feelings, and he did so by using the most modern techniques. Art was supposed to light up and burn – and the audience, too.
“An exploding atom bomb would be the perfect kinetic sculpture,” Piene once said, “if we could only view it without shaking.” Like the Russian Suprematists and the Italian Futurists, he embraced progress. Unlike them, however, he also recognized its destructive potential. And unlike his contemporaries, he believed technical innovation did not just lead to war, but could also revitalize art.
After completing his philosophy studies in Cologne in 1957, Piene decided he needed a brand new start. He found a few like-minded people, Heinz Mack in particular, and with them founded the artist group Zero. The word was not supposed to denote nihilism but rather the beginning of something new, a positive marking of time.
There has been a new lightness in Germany since the fall of the Berlin Wall, with people now more receptive to Zero and Piene. His work is currently showing in three places in the country: Düsseldorf’s Langen Foundation, and in Berlin the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle, which focuses on this work from the 1950s to the 1970s. The exhibitions include pictures, as well as silver boxes and globes, perforated and lit from within, which Piene named “light artists.” Yet all of these works are just a side-show for what made Piene a truly bold and spectacular artist: his flying art.
Even though he was forced to be an anti-aircraft gunner as a teenager at the end of World War II, he never lost his love of flying objects and went on to create his own – helium-filled tubes and balloons filled with hot air. He named these flying works of art SkyArt. Among the best known was a 700-meter (766-yard) long plastic rainbow that was raised into the air at the closing ceremony of the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.
Piene was looking to the stars but Germany was still stuck on the ground.
It is important to emphasize how much Piene paved the way for artists like Ólafur Elíasson or Anish Kapoor with his Sky Events. Unfortunately, he also helped prepare the ground for the culture of art events so prevalent today.
Yet Piene was never interested in creating a fuss about himself. He was looking to the stars but Germany was still stuck on the ground. In the end, he left for America. For 20 years, he was director of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He worked closely with physicists, chemists and other scientists, whom he regarded as close allies in his mission to bring together art, technology and nature.
“Should we not believe in the fact that the sun allows roses to grow and at the same time feeds power stations?” he once asked. “And that fire grills steaks and also fuels rockets?”
Today, with the country dotted with wind turbines and solar panels, it is hard to remember that there was a time when no one wanted to believe Piene. That didn’t bother him. As soon as there was some new kind of synthetic fiber, he had it sewn onto his balloons. He had neon, argon and laser lamps as soon as they came out. And when the slide projector hit the shops in 1964, he of course had to try it out immediately. The result of that experimentation can be viewed in the Neue Nationalgalerie. Every night the slide installation “The Proliferation of the Sun” will be shown between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m., in which a storm of colors made up of 1,120 digital slides are projected onto the glass walls of the Mies van der Rohe designed building.
In this monumental slide show, Piene seems to bring you closer to the sky: You don’t need to look up, but rather the firmament comes down to you. Lying on the ground on cushions, for 15 minutes, you see nothing but colorful circles, galaxies of parrots, green holes and yellow giants, as if you were tripping on LSD, until the voice of the late artist tells you that you have now reached the sun.
The German experimental artist Otto Piene died on Thursday July 17, the day after the opening of a new exhibition of his work at Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie. He was 86 years old.