Three’s Company

Suzanne Buchan on Oskar Fischinger’s Raumlichtkunst

Oskar Fischinger, Raumlichtkunst, 1926/2012. Three-screen projection comprising three 35-mm films transferred to HD video, black-and-white and color. © Center for Visual Music. Installation view, Whitney Museum of American Art, 2012.

IN TATE MODERN’S recently opened Structure and Clarity Collections, a passage off to the side of the light, expansive gallery space leads to a large, pitch-black room. Here, visitors can immerse themselves in Oskar Fischinger’s Raumlichtkunst, ca. 1926/2012, a film performance recently acquired by the Tate. The latest iteration is a re-creation produced by the Center for Visual Music in Los Angeles; the work comprises three ten-minute-long reels that are variably looped to make ever-new combinations. The Center took original nitrate and transferred it to 35-mm film and then to high-definition video, digitally restoring the color in the process, and also added a new percussive accompaniment—a track by Edgard Varèse and another by John Cage and Lou Harrison—derived from details of the original film events.

While all three projections offer evidence of a variety of methods, each screen is nonetheless dominated by a single technique familiar from Fischinger’s “visual music” animations. On the left, orchestrated groups of long rectangular forms push upward and sideways in ripples and forceful, angular thrusts. The right screen demonstrates his wax slicing technique (Wax Experiments, 1921–26), which uses methods redolent of those used to make murrine and millefiori glass to create liquid swirls. The subsequent vertigo effect draws viewers into a colored maelstrom, which, when it reverses, suggests infinite cosmic space. The center screen uses a combination of the other two and adds fluid graphic forms and celestial depth.

Fischinger’s creative philosophy was bent toward generating emotion through non-naturalistic, abstract, “absolute” form, color, and music. He was a filmmaker who also painted, and with Raumlichtkunst (a compound German word that translates as “space-light-art”) the variety of his experimentation can be experienced in one work. While Fischinger is still best known for his “visual music,” this three-ring circus of an installation is an occasion to revisit the given histories of expanded animation. REWIND, an important British genealogical project researching and archiving electronic media arts, includes Fischinger’s Bauhaus contemporaries (Theo van Doesburg, László Moholy-Nagy) in its history of expanded cinema, but makes no mention of Fischinger. This latest iteration of Raumlichtkunst offers undeniable evidence that he was an early pioneer of the canon.

Oskar Fischinger’s Raumlichtkunst is on display through October 28 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and through May 12, 2013, at Tate Modern in London.