Nicolas Schšffer

Espace EDF Electra, Paris

Reviewed by Joseph Nechvatal for Thing.Net







If one discounts the existence of L‡szl— Moholy-NagyÕs Bauhaus Light Space Modulator (1923-30) (rebuilt in 1970 and now in the collection of Harvard University's Busch-Reisinger Museum) Š a visionary multimedia artwork that helped inaugurate the artistic dialogue between machines, light, shadow and motion - there is something to the claim that the Hungarian-born French artist Nicolas Schšffer (1912-1992) is 'the Father of Cybernetic Art'. At the very least this premise may now be entertained while viewing actual work (mostly mobile sculpture under theatrical lighting effects) and an incredible amount of documentation now on view in Paris at the museum of the French electricity company Espace EDF Electra.


What is immediately evident in this exceptional historic presentation is that SchšfferÕs career touched on painting, kinetic sculpture, architecture, urbanism, film, TV, and even music (he collaborated with Pierre Henry) Š all in the pursuit of a dynamism in art which was originally initiated by the Cubo-Futurists and then intensified and solidified by the Russian Constructivists such as Naum Gabo, Anton Pevsner, Moholy-Nagy and Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack. All were concerned with opening up the static three-dimensional sculptural form to a fourth dimension of time and motion, and this was SchšfferÕs intention as well. Schšffer however, coming well after, benefited pleasingly from cybernetic theories (theories of feedback systems (interactivity) primarily based on the ideas of Norbert Wiener (1894-1964)) in that they suggested to him artistic processes in terms of the organization of the system manifesting it (e.g., the circular causality of feedback-loops). For Schšffer, this enabled cybernetics to elucidate complex artistic relationships from within the work itself.


His CYSP 1, from 1956, is considered the first cybernetic sculpture in art history in that it made use of electronic computations as developed by the Philips Company. The sculpture is set on a base mounted on four rollers, which contains the mechanism and the electronic brain. The plates are operated by small motors located under their axis. Photo-electric cells and a microphone built into the sculpture catch all the variations in the fields of color, light intensity and sound intensity. All these changes occasion reactions on the part of the sculpture.




Consequently SchšfferÕs kinetic sculptural compositions were able to parallel Warren McCulloch's adaptation of cybernetics in formulating a creative epistemology concerned with the self-communication within an observer's psyche and between the psyche and the surrounding environment. This is cyberneticsÕ primary usefulness in studying the supposed subject/object polarity in terms of artistic experience. That is the theoretical premise, at least.


In actuality we are treated here to dramatic light shows (some on the trippy side) that come whirling out of his spinning mechanical metal sculptures. Colored lights bounce off revolving polished metal towers - casting ever-changing lights and shadows onto huge wall screens and into our eyes. There also is a very basic interactive room consisting of a group of smaller whirling sculptures which respond to the presence of a viewer and a large prismatic triangle structure containing infinity views. This work brought to mind Lucas Samaras, Room 2 and other mirrored immersive works such as Getulio AlvaniÕs Cubic Environment and Luc Peire's Environment Š all of which similarly offered the viewer a pervasive reflective arrangement where mirrored surfaces rebound amplitude to an indefinite degree.


In SchšfferÕs triangular structure, my image was being ceaselessly mixed and reflected within spinning lights as I was made to feel an integral part of an exploding expanse. In general, this infinity experience bided me to view myself in infinity and so to feel space not in the traditional passive Euclidean custom - but in a conceptually operative and viractual (viractive) manner.


In addition, the exhibition demonstrates SchšfferÕs three period styles. First is his Ņspatio-dynamicÓ constructions from 1948 on: attempts at a synthesis of spatial and dynamic elements. Next come the Ņlumo-dynamicÓ constructions of 1957, which connect light projections to music. In his Ņchrono-dynamicÓ works of 1959, word and tone, movement and space, light and color form together a totality of space-time.


Also well documented is SchšfferÕs 52 metres high ŅCybernetic TowerÓ from 1961, which was constructed in Liege with 66 revolving mirrors.


Given the period-piece nature of the exhibition, I found it stylistically engaging - and not overly retro looking. Indeed, the show surprisingly did not appear that dated, even though of course it recalled the early Paris 60Õs and the futuristic 'space age' designs of Paco Rabanne which involved the use of moving metallic discs or plates. Yet my subject/object polarity never shifted much.


But given that, shouldnÕt Nicolas Schšffer work be considered something other than an art object per se? Perhaps it is more appropriate to think of it as a means of transforming static perspective vision into a luminous motion study. We might just as well consider it then as stage props. Or better, an apparatus for painting with light. With his video works of 1961, Schšffer is additionally regarded as an early representative of video art Š so perhaps it all funnels into special effects broadcast TV (which he did).


For me, the final interest of this show (which I have seen three times now) is in its allowing me to better position Schšffer in a certain art-tech artist-engineer intellectual history Š a living history which has not yet exhausted itself. Indeed it is touching to consider that L‡szl— Moholy-NagyÕs Light Space Modulator Š which was driven by a motor and equipped with 128 electric bulbs in different colors - was finally demonstrated at the 1930 Paris Werkbund exhibition. So we see Nicolas Schšffer here not only as a pioneer of cybernetic art, kinetic sculptor, town planner, architect and theoretician of art - but as a key player in the middle of the art-tech intellectual narration Š a narration which increasingly defines artistic achievement in the beginning of the 21st century.