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July 2004

Artistic Threedom

Three exhibitions showing in Munich this summer

Industrial design and manufacture has revolutionized both the way we view art today and our preception of what constitutes art and beautiful objects. Gone are the days when fine artistic production was bound by classical materials like paint and canvas, wood, stone and clay, and printmaking tools. As the products of industrial manufacture have evolved over the decades, so have art and aesthetics. Three exhibitions showing in Munich over the summer reflect this dynamic transformation of modern aesthetics.

These days it’s nearly impossible to find a stretch of the horizon that isn’t marked by some sort of industrial construction. A landscape artist from the 18th or early 19th century, if transported to the present day, would likely be incensed by what he might call a “mutilation of nature.” German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, however, have chosen to celebrate such additions to the earth’s surface with images of what they call “anonymous sculpture.” The exhibition “Typologies of Industrial Buildings” at the Haus der Kunst is dedicated to the Bechers’ photo documentation of industrial and domestic structures, which they have been working on since the 1960s. The Bechers’ painstakingly detailed black-and-white photographs document archetypal monuments of the industrial era, many of which have in the meantime been demolished or have succumbed to the destructive forces of weather and time. The mutely eloquent images of soaring towers, blast furnaces, framework houses and other steel, iron and wooden structures attempt to blend reality with poetry, revealing to the viewer the latent beauty of these structures.

The advent of industrial manufacture and architecture has altered not only the artist’s understanding of landscape but also the artistic engagement with one of the most elemental components of existence: light. Through his systematic employment of light and industrial light fixtures, New York-born artist Dan Flavin redefined sculpture in the 1960s. Along with his contemporaries Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt, Flavin was a progenitor of the Minimalist movement. His works, in the artist’s own words, “are as mute and undistinguished as the run of our architecture.… They are constructed concentrations celebrating barren rooms.” The barren room that Flavin’s Untitled (For Ksenia) will celebrate beginning on the 10th of this month will be installed in the Kunstbau exhibition space of the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus. It is actually a reinstallation, so to speak, of a light construction Flavin built specially for the Kunstbau ten years ago to mark its opening. Luminous lines of red, yellow, green and blue run the 110-meter length of the space, conforming to its curvatures, thereby drawing attention to the space’s unique shape—that of a subway station.

Of course the best place in Munich to get an overview of the evolution of industrial production is at the Deutsches Museum. And even if you’ve already been there before, a new temporary exhibition on view there until October 31 provides an incentive to revisit this impressive institution. At the end of the snake-like corridors of the chemistry wing you’ll be surprised to walk in to a room filled with Art Deco jewelry. You might ask what 120 necklaces, bracelets, brooches and hair accessories from the 1920s and 1930s are doing in these hallowed halls of scientific innovation. Well, what appears to be coral, onyx, amber and jade is in fact a man-made substance known as galalith. Galalith (deriving from the Greek words for milk and stone) was invented in Germany in 1897 and is produced by mixing a special milk protein with formaldehyde. At the turn of the century jewelry made from synthetic materials like galalith were hastily dismissed as fake and tasteless. But in the 1920s German manufacturer Jakob Bengal capitalized on the growing public taste for Bauhaus aesthetics—which consisted essentially of practical geometrical forms—and began producing affordable, stylish jewelry made from chrome and galalith. Soon women from all social strata began donning Bengal’s wares to accessorize everything from simple skirts and blouses to the latest Chanel dresses. And although the affinity for artificial jewelry never again reached the heights of that period, its popularity has endured to this day, as Bengal and Bakelite pieces continue to fetch relatively high prices in antique stores.

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