Essay: Artistic work of Dora Maurer

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  • Subject area(s): Photography and arts essays
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  • Published on: March 18, 2018
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I intend to closely observe and evaluate, how the artistic work of Dora Maurer exploring both spatial and bodily languages translated through photography can be reinterpreted within a contemporary context. As a starting point for my research, I used the work called Parallel Lines, Analyses 1977 by Dora Maurer – the work is currently on show at Tate Modern. What intrigued me in this particular artwork was her analytical yet easily digestible and comprehensible approach towards translating everyday bodily movements in space.

In order to gain deeper understanding into her work and into the contemporary and conceptual art of the 1970’s, I have further researched artists, such as John Cage, Mel Bochner, Sol Lewitt, Allan Kaprow and so on whose works explore similar themes. Closely studying these artists, one can observe recurring themes and similarities amongst, such as the use of chance, systems, sequences, seriality, performance, events, happenings, movement, body, time and space as a concept throughout their art. This sort of approach was the status quo of the 60’s and 70’s where being political and highly critical was nearly unavoidable.

Artists who had actively worked in this era were using systems-art and behavioural thinking to explore the anthropological disruption of space. Play and chance were a common concept that unfold within a defined place. The interactive conversation between body and space sparked my interest to further explore how objects and movement disrupt the flow and continuity of space.

Observing space within contemporary context, we can draw connections between the utopia in the radical thinking of Superstudio and Archizoom, and the urban scenery of now – the rising era of digital nomads in an ever-shifting landscape of temporary spaces.

In the further investigation of both photographic and architectural space, my aim is to characterise frame as a scheme of interpretation in which events and activities are being realised(1986).[REF:55] If space is the container of body, an enclosed, framed dwelling, place is the space that has been made familiar. Further themes I aim to explore throughout this dissertation would be the body and its relation to space, movement and its experience, body as a tool of measuring space and its spatial abilities. By understanding how bodies navigate through spaces we could introduce objects and implement ideas such as chance and play to understand interactions and human behavioural patterns – which Dora Maurer used as a starting argument for creating her artworks. An other objective is to examine how different types of spaces alter our spatial navigation and behaviour, I am going to further investigate how the white space, the empty gallery space affects the participant, the visitor by reverting their awareness back on themselves. Looking at space as a system we can discover social relations and spatial orders which inherently give a political undertone to the works that are created in a similar manner.

1. Art in the 1970s: Dora Maurer And the Hungarian Neo Avant-Garde

1.1. Political Control Over Space: The Historical Background of Hungary (Eastern-Europe)

In 1970s post-war communist Hungary, art was somewhat invisible, a mere movement of the underground. While conceptual art in the 1960s and 70s are systematically documented in the West, in contrast, East- and Central Europe is somewhat missing from the map. As a consequence of the political differences, the definition of conceptual art in the Eastern Block is different from the well-known West. One would think the cities of Hungary were the main hub for artists to gather and connect, however the state controlled the freedom of speech, spaces, events; basically everything, especially in the centralised areas such as Budapest. Artists were pushed to the countryside, constantly struggling to find a place for representation and recognition. The neo avant-garde movement of the ‘70s took place quietly in the background.

A close group of Hungarian artists created an unofficial art scene – a political one, that directly criticised the system, and worked outside the boundaries of the highly censured authoritarian regime. There were no galleries or museums to exhibit their works so they gathered in local apartments of fellow artists and friends or even chapels to present their work to their contemporaries. These artists struggled to display their art beyond the borders of the country, and thus remained largely invisible to an international audience until recent years, when more and more exhibitions were organised around the re-exploration of their artistic work. Two of the latest international group exhibitions were at Austin Desmond Gallery in London, titled Last Year’s Snow: The Hungarian Neo-Avant-Garde In The 1970s & 80s (2015) and at the Elizabeth Dee Gallery in New York, which was called With the Eyes of Others: Hungarian Artists of the Sixties and Seventies (2017). The latter was organized by the New York-based guest curator András Szántó, and presents over hundreds of works by thirty artists who have been an active part of the Hungarian neo avant-garde. The beauty in the work of these artists were in their diversity of practice, yet they came together as one collective. They did not restrict themselves to a single genre or artistic medium, rather they embraced the diversity amongst them, utilising photography, film, performance, site-specific installations and paintings.

Hungarian artists had to adapt to a strongly censured authoritarian political control – it was a reality that was predetermined for them – so they had no choice but to adapt and work within the boundaries of the system so they created their temporary counter-reality of artistic freedom within the walls of the Chapel Gallery.

1.2. Occupying the Chapel: Artistic Movements in the 1970s Hungary

During the late ‘60s the rebellious spirit and the shifting status quo made artists question everything they had previously believed in. Due to influences from western countries, new artistic styles started to emerge. The new avant-garde extended the boundaries of what was accepted as ‘art’ before, which lead to the incorporation of music, literature, philosophy and linguistics to be merged within the visual arts. [REF:31] From minimal art through kinetic art to conceptual art, a wide variety of genres were explored by the group of artists, who then with the lead of Gyorgy Galantai acquired a chapel near Balatonboglar in 1970. This chapel served as the not so legal base for these artists to create, collaborate, self-publish and exhibit their work to the public. Dora Maurer, Laszlo Beke, Miklos Erdely, Tamas Szentjobi, Endre Toth and Galantai were the core members of this group. Three years and several exhibitions later Galantai and his peers began to get in trouble with the local authorities and the chapel got shut down – due to the pirate and guerrilla activities and unauthorised occupation of space – by the police force in 1973. During the operational years, 35 exhibitions, happenings, events, performances, poetry nights and so on were held by both Hungarian as well as international artists. [REF:38]

Shortly after, Galantai carried his idea forward, in a somewhat more legitimate way, under the name of Artpool. His newest organisation focused on collecting contemporary art from a diverse artistic perspective and preserving, archiving these works, and bring new works forward as well to provide legal space that can facilitate exhibitions. His vision was to run a venue for artists that is free of social, political and economic constraints. The Hungarian paradigm shift – in art – started with these events at the Chapel Gallery. [REF:46]

The members of the Hungarian unofficial art scene were keen to break the conventions of concrete art, fluxus, conceptual art and even pop art, as established in the West, by combining them in their unique visual language. What evolved was a radical new approach to conceptualism, underpinned by a highly political reaction to the denial of freedom in the practice of art. (Austindesmond.com, 2017)

Recent interest in Dóra Maurer, whose work was on show at the MoMA in New York, at the White Cube and Tate in London, served as one of the key points of inspiration to discover the hidden conceptual art of the 70s. Through analysing the work of these artists who had to operate within the framework of an authoritarian state, one could notice the differences between their work and works from Western Europe or from North America. The main driving force behind the recent popularity in the Hungarian neo avant-garde is the ever changing and evolving work of Dora Maurer. ‘As one of the leading artists of the avant-garde since the 1970s, as a teacher, and as a curator, Maurer has been decisive in shaping contemporary art in Hungary. And she continues to shape it today.’ (Rappolt, 2017)

1.1. Representation of the politics of space, body and movement through the work of Dora Maurer


Maurer’s work received initial recognition around the early 1970s when she had managed to smuggle art of her own and contemporaries beyond the borders of the communist Hungary. Being one of the leader artists of the 1970’s avant-garde, she now – at the age of 80 – still is a teacher, professor and curator of contemporary art.

‘The bases of Dora Maurer’s works are not solely to be found in her geometrical systems, or in the explorations of the aspects of movement, colour, the surface and space that she performs in precisely such systems, but rather in the principles of the conceptual per se.’ (REF:13,p.13)

Her conceptual work is mainly based on subtle changes and chance yet it seems precisely calculated owing to her analytical approach, which encourages the creation of sequences and systems of interpretation. The resulting outcome is incredibly geometric, mathematical and conceptual at the same time. Many of Maurer’s works are based around numbers, simple mathematics and a number of options and variations one could possibly result or do. These types of works are all featuring movement within space. She is showing simple, everyday movements, usually in a white space and analyses how these bodily interactions could vary over time. Similar to her artistic outcome, Dora Maurer uses a creative process that is linear in nature. One idea generates the other just as efficiently as she creates a new artwork from her last one to the one that follows. Maurer explores several themes as she proceeds within her work over time which generates continuity throughout her career. The works she produces, are clean cut, conceptual, mathematical, systematic, analytical.

Maurer’s series called Tracing Space, 1979 features a long strip of film mounted on cardboard. The generating force behind this work was a hand-drawn map – an architectural framing – of her studio where she had carefully planned and marked up both her own body’s and the camera’s movement, angle and position within her studio space. Her intent was to analyse the relationship between space and movement (navigation of space, spatial abilities) by applying variations, structures and improvisation to some extent. Maurer uses the body as an object, connected to the camera, thus reducing the notion of the subjective body to a mere tool of function.

‘Spatial thinking, the feeling of space, is something quite fundamental and normal for everybody. Visual art is always dealing with space. Spatiality is not just a fundamental feature of sculpture, but also of painting [and photography], which is often concerned after all with the illusion of space.’ [REF:13, p.56]

Thus, the creation of the map includes pre-set instructions for the camera-body on how to navigate the given space. The organisation of the final piece resembles a panoramic photograph with fractions and overlaps, using the rule of thirds; fractions, that are created by dodging objects and other obstacles present in her studio. The repetition in which Maurer is moving around and turning by 15-30 degrees at each photograph creates a rhythm, like counting in music or dancing to a choreography. ‘Everywhere where there is interaction between a place, a time and an expenditure of energy [movement], there is a rhythm.’ [REF:51 p.15] The rhythmic and repetitive turning and moving of Maurer’s body through space becomes a measure of time that has gone by. Repetition is like the everyday, where time non-calculative (subjective), but lived. Cartesian geometry is a reductive way of understanding space, just as the measuring of time is reductive. [REF:51] The serial organisation applied to both time and space does not just capture fragments of moments but evokes movement through the medium of photography and still image at the same time. The use of seriality and its principles suggest a radical, democratic approach. [REF:36]

A slightly different series of work by Maurer explores basic, simple movements through seriality and reversibility to create variety using mathematical processes and chance. Chance is used in works of art where the rules are already set, yet it allows some degree of spontaneity by letting the event of creation unfold spontaneously in the moment. The series called Reversible and Changeable Phases of Movement, 1972 were mounted on a board and uses 4 or 5 photographs – each allocated with a letter from the alphabet – that depicts a single phase in movement. Changes and movement are an essential part of her work which is a necessary part of life. Everything has a set program and is in constant flux and her aim was to capture this continuum through still imagery. As Dora Maurer summarised in an interview with Darren Flook, it is her endless hope that things are constantly changing, and it is not just physical. (pdf Art Changes) Phases of movements seemingly linear were dissected into frames, flipped, reversed and made interchangeable. Movement is an unbroken cycle (one way) that is represented here in a grid-like (two way) manner, rejecting the sequential reading through a strip of photographic film, annotated by an action-map. One could ask is it the catching or throwing of the ball? The illusion of choice and opportunities were created by reversibility. The grid system applied here, is a structuralist mode of spatial organisation, a sort of infrastructure for its reading. The grid can also be interpreted as the symbol of fabrication, a grid of social structures. The series of studies discussed above, is one similar to John Baldessari’s work Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line, 1973. Several works focused on play, chance and seriality had been created around the 1970’s by artists such as Jan Dibbets, Sol Levitt, Charles Ray, Dan Graham, Klaus Rinke and so on, were profoundly concerned with space and its relationship to body, movement and interaction within the social and political structuring of space. Even though her work might seem inhuman, cold and stereotypically masculine, Dora Maurer’s conceptual art is based around the human, bodily motion. A single image is dismissible; but a sequence permits you to trace locomotion and human intent. It is understandable why to investigate such issues when considering the political background and reasons behind her minimalist aesthetic choices. ‘Art was a force by which the mind could impose its rational order on things, but the one thing that art definitely was not, according to Minimalism, was self-expression.’ [REF:47, p.245] As a common (yet false) stereotype, architecture is a male oriented field, therefore to use clean minimalist aesthetics will inherently convey a male produced look which is rather logical as opposed to emotional explanation of the circumstances. If ‘spatial organisation is a product of social structure’ then it makes absolute sense that Maurer was investigating ‘space’ through the photographic medium, thus critiquing the social and political order of the 1970’s Hungary. A white, sterile, internal space encloses and controls. Space is politically controlled – that is how Maurer expressed her gender biased oppression as a female artist in an anti-feminist climate, wherein art was strictly censored. ‘Her work do not just simply describe a movement but encourages the viewer to read it as movement’ (Art Review) Her most openly political creation was called What Can One Do With A Paving Stone?, 1971.

“A paving stone is a material of fights – street fighting and so on – and what can you do with a paving stone? Here I made some examples of what I can do with the paving stone. It is ambivalent. You can consider it as political.” (Art Review pdf)

One of the most well-known work by Maurer is currently on show at Tate Modern, titled Parallel Lines, Analyses, 1977, is described as a photographic interaction for two people which she performed with Zoltan Labas, a pupil from her art class. The resulting photographs are organised in a grid-like manner.

‘The grid is, in relation to this reading a re-representation of everything that separates the work of art from the world, from ambient space and from objects. The grid is an introjection of the boundaries of the world into the interior of the work; it is a mapping of the space inside the frame onto itself. It is a mode of repetition, the content of which is the conventional nature of art itself.’ (REF:44 p.18-19)

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