Études with a camera – Dóra Maurer’s films and photoworks

 

What can one do with a cobblestone?

Cobblestone

What Can One Do With a Cobble-Stone? 1971

This was a question asked and answered by Dóra Maurer in 1971. It is the title of a series of photographs in which she documented a cobblestone being obliged to participate in various activities. After tethering it with string for one photo, in another she pulls it along a run of marshy ground like a reluctant animal. Later in the sequence, Maurer washes and caresses the stone cube like a child. Then, after wrapping it in a sheet of paper, she sets fire to the package; the cube survives its ordeal. She then casts it into the air, as if attempting to rid herself of an encumbrance. Organized in a grid of 15 photographic prints, both the first and last images suggest different discoveries of the same cobblestone. It is an object that seems, at least in this arrangement, to keep reappearing like the proverbial bad penny.

Maurer was not the only Hungarian artist thinking with cobblestones that year. Film-maker Gyula Gazdag had just completed his movie, Sípoló macskakő (The Whistling Cobblestone), the story of a group of Hungarian teenagers at a KISZ (Young Communist League) work camp on a collective farm. Their listless summer is interrupted by a visitor from Paris who has a toy cobblestone dangling from the rear-view mirror of his Citroën, a ‘souvenir’ of the events of May 1968 in the French capital. The visitor encourages the students to follow the lead of the Les Enragés in France, to little effect. The taboo subject of the failed Hungarian Uprising of 1956 – when cobblestones had been loosened to impede the progress of Soviet tanks – haunts their conversation. As one student notes, the cobbles in Budapest are now covered in Tarmac

In March 1972, inspired by Gazdag’s film and in support of demonstrations marking the anniversary of the 1956 Uprising (and the War of Independence in 1848), Hungarian critic and curator László Beke called for artists to make works featuring cobblestones (and, tellingly, gravestones[1]). In fact, this idea already had its proponents: Gyula Pauer made replicas of cobblestones incapable of bearing the weight of traffic (1971–72), and Gyula Gulyás fashioned a portable paving block with handles bearing the words ‘Made in Hungary’ (1972). Unlike, perhaps, the works of some of her colleagues, Maurer’s ‘What can one do with a cobblestone?’ expresses a cautionary view of revolutionary politics and of political art. This is not surprising. Under the influence of the Soviet Union, art in the Hungarian People’s Republic at the end of the 1940s had been turned into a tense zone of censorship and propaganda. Even the liberalization of Hungarian culture in the late 1960s was accompanied by prohibition, with officials identifying three types of art: that which could be supported and so can be called official; that which might be ‘tolerated’ (a category which included expressive forms of Modernism); and that which remained prohibited. Maurer was a central figure in a close and resolutely independent community of artists, musicians and poets that strove to create its own culture outside of this grading system. They organised their own exhibition spaces in apartments and, famously, a disused chapel in the resort town of Balatonboglár, over 80 miles from the capital;[2] they commissioned each other to make work with common themes; and they issued samizdat (self-published) journals. Usually described as ‘conceptual artists’ (or, sometimes, ‘concept artists’), this loose community is estimated to have created more than 50 such collective ‘actions’ in the first half of the 1970s.[3]

Writing in 1972, Béla Hap described the attitude of ‘unofficial’ artists to power in Hungary:

It is an artistic ‘movement’ that neither supports not attacks the establishment, but remains outside of it. Any attack on the establishment would acknowledge its existence. Being a real organized movement is another form of engaging in the game of the superficial world. The underground does not forbid its supporters from political subjects, as it does not forbid or order at all, but the appearance of such subjects is the private business of the artist.[4]

Demonstrating his point, Hap’s words appeared in Szétfolyóirat (Writing that Flows Apart), a short-run samizdat edited by Maurer in February 1973. Featuring experimental art and poetry, art criticism and philosophy, Szétfolyóirat was as much a concept as a magazine. Five copies were made of each issue (each edited by a different person) and then passed on to a trusted recipient who would add in at least 15 more pages and then send the augmented publication on to five new recipients. Szétfolyóirat not only put uncensored ideas in circulation, it knitted together a community of readers and writers.

‘Hungarian_ issue of SchmuckWhile Maurer has been resolutely independent in her career as an artist, she has often worked closely with others, most regularly her husband, Tibor Gáyor, a Hungarian who escaped the country after the political repression that followed the Uprising. The couple met in Vienna in 1967 when Maurer was in the city on a Rockefeller Scholarship. Their marriage brought dual nationality, which meant that she could travel between Austria and Hungary with relative ease, becoming a key means of contact between unofficial artists in Hungary and their international counterparts. Maurer has also enjoyed productive exchanges with figures active in other areas of the arts. She has curated many exhibitions and edited anthologies including a ‘Hungarian’ issue of Schmuck magazine (in collaboration with Beke), which was published in Britain in 1972. With Miklós Erdély and György Galántai, Maurer developed a series of experimental workshops at the Ganz-MÁVAG Cultural Centre in the mid 1970s that were later known as ‘Kreativitási gyakorlatok’ (Creativity Exercises). Rejecting conventional art training and encouraging collective activities, participants were given playful group exercises, sometimes using video cameras – a rare resource in Hungary at the time.

‘The Form-language of film art’

Reversable

Reversible and Changeable Phases of Movements No.4, 1972

With its grid structure, What can one do with a cobblestone? expresses Maurer’s interest in motion and change. The vigorous and full-body actions documented by this work were, however, soon replaced by a focus on small human gestures. Her ‘Reversible and Changeable Phases of Movements’ series of 1972, for instance, examines mundane activities such as throwing and catching a ball, the demeanour of a face or common hand signs. The first work in the series concentrates on interactions between a hand and a stone. Here the reproducibility of the photographic image allowed a small number of images – in this case, just three – to be placed in many different permutations. Like the syntax of words in a sentence, some of these image combinations – when read left to right – seem meaningful (a hand puts a stone in the corner); others do not (corner, corner, corner). When the order of the sequence is reversed, the meaning of the gesture changes (puts down becomes picks up). Highly systematic and accompanied by terse instructions or even diagrams, these works have the aura of a scholarly semiotic investigation into the logical relations of words.

Maurer was by no means alone in her interest in the operations of language. Conceptual art had kindled in others an enthusiasm for logic and linguistics, as well as systems and experiments. In 1973, the young film-maker Gábor Bódy established an experimental film-making programme at the state-run Balázs Béla Studió (BBS), which commissioned artists and composers to explore ‘film language’. The intention was for the techniques and tools of film-making to be put under scrutiny by creative artists using the resources and professional expertise of a well-equipped film studio. Later known as K/3, the programme provided remarkably unfettered opportunities for experimentation, even if its output was rarely screened. ‘K/3 was established,’ according to Miklós Peternák, ‘with the ambition of becoming a Bauhaus-like centre for research in the audiovisual area’.[5] In fact, Bódy imagined László Moholy-Nagy, the Modernist artist, film-maker and Bauhaus teacher, as an ally from the past (Bódy once planned to make a film in which Moholy-Nagy would appear on screen).[6] One of the greatest theorists of the modern image, Moholy-Nagy was only – and somewhat belatedly – being rediscovered in the People’s Republic after the prohibitions on Modernism had been relaxed.

DV-0105_MAURER_DORA_Relativ_lengesek_03

Relatív lengések (Relative Swingings, 1973)

Maurer’s three-part film Relatív lengések (Relative Swingings, 1973) was a product of the experimental programme at BSS. The ostensible subjects of her film are a cone-shaped lamp and a simple cylinder (like the elemental volumes that were the trademark of so many Bauhaus artworks and designs). Suspended from the ceiling, they are swung in horizontal and circular movements, as is the 35mm camera that films them. Maurer systematically explored the full range of combinations of swinging camera and swaying subject. Sometimes the image of motion is produced by moving the lamp and sometimes by moving the camera. Later in the film, all three elements are in motion, the light from the moving lamp creating different effects on the moving cylinder. To demonstr

Reversable 3

Reversible and Changeable Phases of Movements No.2, 1972

ate the techniques involved in conducting this set of experiments into the nature of perception, this film is accompanied by another that shows how Maurer and the cameraman, János Gulyás, achieved a range of subtly different perceptual effects.

Ostensibly Maurer’s serial photographic works and structural films from the 1970s seem systematic, objective and rational. And in many ways they are. But images are not words, and bodies are not abstract symbols. The stuttering repetition of images or the viewer’s capacity to compare one sequence with another in the grid seem, perhaps inevitably, to point to human associations and limitations. Maurer also interrupts her own systems. The second work in the ‘Reversible and Changeable Phases of Movements’ series (1972), for instance, combines three photographs of a male figure in a field, in three different phases of the act of sitting. Like other works in this series, the piece explores all the permutations of these phases. A pattern logic seems to organize the composition until a ‘rogue’ image appears in the last frame: a photograph of a chair. Once the viewer becomes aware of this interruption, Maurer’s study suddenly seems to acquire existential associations – this is not just a chair but an empty chair. There is also something of this ineffable quality in her attempts to measure natural materials in works like Schautafel 3 (1973), which Maurer called ‘quantity boards’. Laying a cord grid of tidy squares over straw and sand gathered from a river bank, the piece is an invitation to count the infinite. Later – in 1976 – Maurer made a simple experiment with a piece of paper that was as long as she is tall. Folding the sheet four times, she created a proportional system for measuring her own body. Unfolding her new yardstick on the ground, Maurer then attempted to assess the span of her outstretched arms, the roll of her shoulders and other dimensions of her body against this new proportional system – an improvised version of Le Corbusier’s Modulor Man or Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. The video documenting this action – entitled Proportions – records both a bodily ideal and the ‘failure’ of a system.

 

Film music

While most of Maurer’s works can be – and often are – described as experiments, it is not always evident what is being tested or measured. In some, such as Relative Swingings, one can trace the outline of ‘the scientific method’: an experiment is set up in controlled conditions to test a hypothesis; the results of that test are recorded, ideally by an objective instrument, and then repeated as a ‘proof’. But increasingly over the course of the 1970s, Maurer’s films and photographs seem to be less documents of her activities than experiments on the viewer. Perception itself is being tested. Here one might sense a connection with the utopian Scientism that underpins Moholy-Nagy’s monumental and posthumously published book, Vision in Motion (1947). In this study, the former Bauhausler set a new agenda for progressive art that emphasises the body as much as the machine: ‘It is the artist’s duty today to penetrate yet-unseen ranges of the biological functions, to search the new dimensions of industrial society and to translate the new findings into emotional orientation.’[7] But rather than extend human potential, Maurer’s experiments seem to draw attention to the limits of human perception.

This focus on perception owes a good deal to her training and practice as a printmaker in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but also has much to do with Maurer’s interest in ‘displacements’, a term which she adopted as the title of her solo exhibition at the Neue Galerie in Graz in 1975. Shifts in the placement of regular forms create associations with spatial depth and movement even in static, flat works. Many of these investigations into displacement take the form of abstract paintings. Maurer’s ‘5-from-4’ works, for instance, are painted boards that combine a series of four squares and five rectangles, as well as empty spaces between the reliefs. Organized as a horizontal band, the squares are ‘displaced’ onto the next relief in these works. Maurer points to the uncertainty that these combinations produce, writing ‘the interference of the two series trouble the viewer in concentrating on one single form’.[8]

Kalah182This idea of presenting the viewer with irreconcilable perceptual effects perhaps reached its apogee in Kalah, a 1980 experimental film made in creative partnership with Zoltán Jeney, one of the founders, tens years earlier, of Budapest’s celebrated Új Zenei Stúdió (New Music Studio). The structure of both sound and images in Kalah was provided by the traditional Arabic game of the same name that is played with 72 stones. Maurer prepared coloured panels – which corresponded to the volume and pitch of notes on a chromatic scale – which she shot on film in the Pannonia Film Studio in Budapest over three days. She then spent a further three weeks carefully editing the film and Jeney’s music, itself ‘composed’ from existing recordings on magnetic tape. The same aleatory system, derived from the way numbered stones are used in the source game, governed both sound and image. The result is unsettling as the viewer struggles – and fails – to make sense of the rapid combinations of sounds and notes. Kalah captures Maurer’s preoccupation with the effects of the shift – the marginal movement or dislocation of a filmic image – on cognition. Kalah was not made simply to be seen but to be experienced: Maurer and Jeney imagined viewers lying under a curved projection screen.

The fact that Maurer calls some of her photo works ‘études’ and has read Anton Webern’s writings on serial music is significant. Meaning ‘study’, but usually describing a composition that is used by musicians to practice technique, an étude conventionally features a set of variations on a theme. Embraced by the 20th-century avant-garde, the form was extended to include experimental compositions that explored the structures and formal qualities of music itself. Famously, in his Quatre études de rythme (Four Rhythm Studies, 1949–50), Olivier Messiaen allocated numerical values to pitch, duration, dynamics and timbre. Maurer’s analogy becomes all the more vivid when one imagines a relationship with the work of American composer Steve Reich (a visitor to Budapest in 1977, where he performed and gave a lecture, and again in 1985 where he supervised recordings of his compositions by the Hungarian new-music ensemble 180-as Csoport (Group 180)). Reich’s minimalist compositions often involve subtle phasing of rhythms and musical phrases. In his works for ensembles of two, four, six or even 18 musicians, one player will follow another, playing the same material perhaps a quaver later each time, or slowly speeding up while the other remains at the same tempo. ‘Displaced’ in this way, simple musical elements – such as the single chord of Four Organs (1970) or the rhythmic pattern of Drumming (1971) – come to produce a huge diversity of unexpected rhythmic and harmonic possibilities; moreover, they generally follow a kind of cyclical structure as the musicians wheel through the phases. As in Maurer’s ‘Reversible and Changeable Phases of Movements’ photo series, repetition in Reich’s compositions is often combined with other expressions of restraint. Pieces like Six Pianos, as the title makes clear, achieve their mesmeric effects using the musical colour of a single instrument, albeit in phased layers. Tuning into the ever-shifting patterns, the listener becomes aware of the subtlest modulations of rhythm and harmony.

Triolák

Triolák

The musical qualities of Maurer’s art are more than mere analogies. Affinities between the worlds of experimental music and conceptual art were stronger in the 1970s than perhaps at any other time, as Maurer’s creative partnership with Jeney in making Kalah testifies. Perhaps the work that in its attention to displacement comes closes to Reich’s employment of the phase is Maurer’s Triolák – 18 variáció 3 objektívre és énekhangra (Triolák – 18 variations, 3 objectives and a singer), a BBS film made in and around Maurer’s studio in 1980–81. The film is divided into three horizontal bands, each of which features a one-second camera pan in opposite directions. Each pan has been shot with a different lens (standard, wide angle and telephoto), which adds to the sense of multi-perspectival space. The movement of the film camera starts relatively gently and the displacement of the image is minor. Thereafter, the sweep of the pan extends and the camera moves faster. Some of the variations combine elements that feature different viewpoints – looking into and out of the studio, or at Maurer’s face and that of her cameraman. The effect is one of growing perceptual disorientation as the viewer struggles – and fails – to reconcile the three moving images. Each camera pan is accompanied by improvised vocal glissandos by the singer Eszter Póka. Rising and falling as if produced by the movement of the camera (or as if the camera had a voice), these shifting pitches create unexpected and sometimes jarring harmonic effects. Maurer’s work is a remarkable experiment into audio and visual perception.

As Reich’s music makes clear, striking differences can be created from subtle shifts within a framework of repetition. What is required is remarkable focus on the part of those playing the music. In both her resolute individualism and her close and productive relationships with other artists, as well as in the remarkable consistency of her ideas and interests over a wide range of media, the same can be said of Dóra Maurer. Above all, displacement – the concept which she developed more than forty years ago – remains fixed at the centre of her practice as an artist.

 

 

[1] See Dékei Kriszta, ‘A szabadság szele’ in Beszélő (October 2008) – available online at http://beszelo.c3.hu/cikkek/a-szabadsag-szele

[2] See Júlia Klaniczay and Edit Sasvári, eds., Törvénytelen avantgárd. Galántai György balatonboglári kápolnaműterme 1970–1973 (Budapest, 2003)

[3] See Miklós Peternák, Concept.hu. The Influence of Conceptual Art in Hungary (Paks, 2014)

[4] Béla Hap, ‘Halk magyar underground-kiáltvány’, Szétfolyóirat (February 1973) – available online at http://www.artpool.hu/Aczelkor/Hap.html

[5] Miklós Peternák, ‘A Short History of the Avant-Garde in Hungarian Cinema’ in Undercurrent 18, (Autumn, 1989), p.34

[6] Miklós Peternák,’Gábor Bódy. Film and Theory’ in Bódy Gábor, 1946–1985: életműbemutató, exhibition catalogue (Budapest, 1987), p.25

[7] László Moholy-Nagy, Vision in Motion (Chicago, 1947), p.12

[8] Dóra Maurer, ‘Über die ‘5 aus 4’ – Arbeiten (QUAD 1, Maarssen, 1980) cited in Dieter Ronte and Lászlo Beke, Dóra Maurer Arbeiten Munkák Works 1970–1993 (Budapest, 1994), p.116

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