Critics’ Picks

Otto Piene, The Proliferation of the Sun (Die Sonne kommt näher), 1966–67, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Berlin

Otto Piene

Neue Nationalgalerie
Potsdamer Straße 50 (closed for renovation)
July 17 - August 31

Deutsche Bank KunstHalle
Unter den Linden 13/15
July 17 - August 31

This retrospective of works by the late Otto Piene, titled “More Sky,” spans two institutions and includes his early drawings and paintings from the 1950s as well as an assembly of rotating light sculptures from the ’60s and ’70s at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle. On July 19, three air sculptures, including Berlin Superstar, 1984, were also launched for one night atop Mies van der Rohe’s austere Neue Nationalgalerie. However, the most impressive of these restagings was Piene’s immersive, twenty-five-minute slide performance, Die Sonne kommt näher (The Proliferation of the Sun),1966–67. Now housed on the ground floor of Mies van der Rohe’s glass-encased structure and screened at night, the work is a vivid digital projection of 1,120 hand-painted color slides onto several large, diaphanous screens clustered in the hall. Speakers placed throughout the space play a recording of a young Piene directing projectionists, with the hum and clang of analog carousel projectors audible in the background. Round, abstract shapes multiply on every visual register with increasing speed and intensity, culminating in his incessant repetition of the words, “the sun, the sun….”

Completed a decade after his 1957 cofounding of ZERO—the German postwar artistic group that sought to carve out a new space for art in the wake of World War II—Piene’s multimedia creation casts the sun as the future. However, it’s a strange reversal of the Russian Futurist’s 1913 opera Victory over the Sun, in which the fiery sphere of light represents the historical past that must be vanquished. One cannot help but wonder if the strict dichotomy the artist sought to introduce between the lights of Allied aircraft and his subsequent technocratic spectacles was ever entirely successful. Despite Piene’s resolute desire to break free from the nation’s history and the legacy of that war, its hold on his practice—exemplified by the unfurling of his 1972 Olympic Rainbow, a 2,400-foot-long, helium-filled air sculpture at the closing of Munich’s Olympic Games shortly after the Black September attacks—would seem inescapable. These odd historical entanglements are what makes this exhibition so timely.