View of “Dóra Maurer,” 2015. Foreground: Four From Three, 1976. Background: Inter-Images 1–3, 1980–90. Photo: Ondřej Polak.

View of “Dóra Maurer,” 2015. Foreground: Four From Three, 1976. Background: Inter-Images 1–3, 1980–90. Photo: Ondřej Polak.

Dóra Maurer

View of “Dóra Maurer,” 2015. Foreground: Four From Three, 1976. Background: Inter-Images 1–3, 1980–90. Photo: Ondřej Polak.

I first encountered Dóra Maurer’s films at a 2012 symposium on aspects of Central European art at the Sächsische Akademie der Künste in Dresden, and I still have a vivid recollection of watching them as though in thrall; their power drew me in. Starting in the 1970s, the artist, who was born in Budapest in 1937 and still lives in the Hungarian capital, undertook a searching examination of change through experimental films, photographs, paintings, collages, and drawings. How can an image embody change? Any change implies movement, so one can always analyze it, break it down into component images, as Eadweard Muybridge did. Yet change is always more than merely the sum of still frames.

For an example of the precision with which Maurer addressed these questions, consider the early photographic series “Reversible & Changeable Phases of Movement,” 1972–75. It shows actions decomposed into three or five pictures arranged such that they may be read forward or backward. Étude 1, 1972, consists of three photographs: one of an empty corner, one of a hand holding a rock, and one in which a rock rests in a corner. Read the sequence one way, and the rock is being placed; read it the other way, and it is being removed. The whole thing is simple enough, and yet how apposite: Any change is twofold, as something is gained and something else, inevitably, is lost. “I did not regard these photos as images,” Maurer noted at the time, in 1975, “but as signals that can easily be interpreted.”

No less spellbinding than the films I’d seen in Dresden, Maurer’s recent exhibition “Parallel Systems,” curated by Barnabás Bencsik, consisted of three 16-mm color films dated 1989–90 and projected side by side on a wall of the gallery’s central room. The first, Retardation, opened with a one-second shot of a woman’s head in slow rotation. The take was then dismantled into twenty-five elements that flashed up individually while the rest of the picture was dark; the matrix underlying this dissection was controlled by an algorithm that also generated the sounds that could be heard as each field lit up. The middle film, Streams of Balance, showed a man’s body from different angles as it turned leisurely, almost sluggishly; it emerges, vanishes, reappears, captured in alternating shots that track not the body’s movement but horizontal and vertical lines in accordance with predetermined sequences. The third film, Anti-Zoetrope, turned the principle of the zoetrope, a proto-cinematic contraption that uses rotation to produce the illusion of movement, on its head. Instead of images located on the inside of the gyrating cylindrical wall, it featured two boxers fighting at the center of the scene, visible through narrow slits in the wall. Yet the men seemed static, their movements frozen in a sequence of stills accompanied by repetitive sounds—strangely reminiscent of minimal techno music—made by the camera’s tracking movement. As each image—or rather, a sort of signal—flashed momentarily, one’s cognitive apparatus faltered, remembered images began to mingle with the pictures moving before the eye, and visual impulses no longer coincided with perception—an effect that was heightened by the row of mirrors in different sizes suspended from the ceiling throughout the room, multiplying the images flickering on the wall. Strikingly, this mirror installation, Four From Three, was created in 1976, long before algorithm-driven proliferations of digital images posed a daily challenge to our perceptual capacity, and yet it reflected that challenge with uncanny accuracy. Maurer was ahead of her time with these experiments; no wonder she had to wait so long for her well-deserved critical acclaim.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.