Matti Braun

The theme of the recent show by German artist Matti Braun was succinctly illustrated by Untitled (Sarabhai) (all works 2007), six black-and-white photographs illustrating the life and work of Vikram Sarabhai, an Indian physicist responsible for his country’s first satellite. The images show the satellite itself, a portrait of the scientist in traditional dress, his bust sculpted in bronze, a family photo (with the poet Tagore at the center and, among the others, the scientist’s sister, who was an assistant to John Cage), the family home designed by Le Corbusier, and a drawing by Cage. Sarabhai belonged to a well-to-do, cultivated, and cosmopolitan family for whom the fusion of Indian culture and that of the West was part of daily life. This fusion was, in a sense, the general theme of the exhibition, the modernist “look” the show’s stylistic hallmark.

On the large front and left side walls, visible from the window overlooking the street, were two unstretched canvases, almost as large as the walls themselves. Untitled (Rhomboid) is made up of oblique lines that form a series of rhomboid shapes. Untitled (Stripes), which is larger, consists of short, alternating white-and-black vertical strips running in horizontal bands; they create a slight flickering effect that recalls Op art, a style intended as an emblem of scientific and rational modernity, an art for the age of space satellites and “machines for living.” However, the geometric schemes of the canvases, which were painted by a set designer to the artist’s specifications, are not perfectly regular, and they reveal the imperfections of the hand, without which their visual impact would be diminished. The aseptic rationality of the design, Braun seems to be saying, must be able to coexist with its complement: the tactile, the psychological, the organic. An untitled sculpture in cement—the material Le Corbusier favored for his work in India—tall and narrow like a barrier and grooved vertically in angled modules, repeats on its surface the rhomboid shapes of the smaller canvas.

For some time, Braun has focused on work that has been defined as “transcultural,” in which geopolitically different cultural worlds are compared, the artist bringing out points of contact and intermingling. In the smaller room of the gallery, six color photographs, each titled The Alien (London), depicted views of a theatrical performance. The set picks up the black-and-white geometric schemes of the large canvases, while the extremely simple costumes are characterized by their bright colors. These are photographs of a theater piece that Braun himself wrote, based on The Alien, a 1967 screenplay by another important figure in twentieth-century Indian culture, the director and writer Satyajit Ray. Having received international acclaim, Ray was set to make the film in Hollywood, starring Marlon Brando and Peter Sellers, but the project was never realized; Ray later came to believe that elements of his script had been stolen and worked into Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster E.T. (1982). Braun’s theatrical adaptation of The Alien has been performed in various European cities since 2005; it tells the story of an extraterrestrial that has fallen into a pond in an Indian village, and the havoc he creates in the small community that takes him in. Next to the photos, four untitled sculptures in black blown glass, spherical or ovoid in form, rested on a shelf; they seemed like stones from an alien world, shiny and studded within by little white bubbles, like strange, fossilized organisms.

Giorgio Verzotti

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore