Elementary forces

Otto Piene plays with fire

The use of fire was one of the first major steps in the evolution of mankind. Fire gave heat, was a source of energy, offered protection from wild animals and brightened cold, dark nights. The discovery of fire formed the basis of our present civilisation. When the artist Otto Piene began creating his "Fire Paintings", the foundations of this very same civilisation had just been rocked - the Nazis had just systematically murdered six million people in the greatest crime in human history. After the Allied liberation, Germany lay in ruins. Bridges to the past were destroyed and people spoke of the "zero hour". Thirteen years of Nazi terror had transformed the country forever.

Elementary forces - the "Light Spirits" installation, TEMOCA, Teheran, Mahnaz Sahaf © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015
Elementary forces - the "Light Spirits" installation, TEMOCA, Teheran, Mahnaz Sahaf © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015
Piene smeared canvases with flammable paint and set fire to it in order to create his "Fire Pictures" © Maren Heyne
Piene smeared canvases with flammable paint and set fire to it in order to create his "Fire Pictures" © Maren Heyne

The end and the beginning

While large parts of the population focused their attention on the economic miracle, a small group of artists started to deal with the question of a new cultural identity. Even the world of art should have a zero hour to help throw off the historical yoke of a tainted cultural understanding. These artists met in Dusseldorf in 1958 and the ZERO artist group was born.

One of the co-founders was Otto Piene. Like his fellow artists Heinz Mack and Günther Uecker, his search for a fresh start took him back to the roots – and back to nature, where he finally found his inspiration. Piene worked with the elementary forces - light, air, energy and especially fire, which shaped his paintings and his installations. He smeared canvases with flammable paint, set fire to it and simply let the fire paint the picture. With his light installations he created "light spaces", "light spirits" or "light ballets". During the Munich Olympic Games in 1972, he built a huge loop in the form of a rainbow that rose up into the sky.

Looking for beginnings - the "Origin of Fire" spatial installation, LWL / Hanna Neander © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015
Looking for beginnings - the "Origin of Fire" spatial installation, LWL / Hanna Neander © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015
A "burnt" Fire Picture, Olaf Bergmann, Witten © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015
A "burnt" Fire Picture, Olaf Bergmann, Witten © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015

Between science and art

ZERO was dissolved in 1966 and Piene then went to America. He took over the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston in 1974 and led the media laboratory for artistic-optical experiments for the next 20 years. With his research, in which he combined art with science and natural phenomena with technical innovations, he influenced a whole generations of artists.

Piene broke new ground with many of his works. He was central to the development of new forms of expression, which now find themselves in the repertoire of many artists and which can be seen in countless media installations or methods of performance art. Examples include the "Silver Frequency" project, which Piene displayed on the facade of the Museum of Art and Culture in Münster, or the "History of Fire" light space.

One of the most famous followers of Piene is probably Ólafur Elíasson. Similar to Piene, the Dane operates at the limits of science and art and the role of Piene as a forerunner can clearly be seen in his works. Whilst the art of Elíasson naturally suits the modern day, Piene's projects still constitute a radical break with the present. Otto Piene once said that he wanted to create something that "was good for the spiritual understanding of people." Whoever looks at the modern fascination with the works of Elíasson will very soon see that this target has been achieved.

The "Silver Frequency" light installation on the facade of the LWL Museum of Art and Culture in Münster, © LWL / Hanna Neander
The "Silver Frequency" light installation on the facade of the LWL Museum of Art and Culture in Münster, © LWL / Hanna Neander

The "Otto Piene.Licht" exhibition will be on display in the LWL Museum of Art and Culture in Münster until 20. September. The focus is on the light installations of Piene, with 70 exhibits over 1000 square metres offering a fascinating insight into the myriad of lighting effects and experiments found in his work.