Mischa Kuball interview: The powerful emotion of light (2008)
artdesigncafé - art | 15 September 2009
This interview was previously published in Sculpture, 27(6), pp. 42-7.
Mischa Kuball interview
Artists, like other professionals, sometimes hit key turning points in the development of their work. Such is the case right now for Mischa Kuball, who has built an impressive practice by “generating a certain awareness about streams of interaction in terms of a psychological dimension in urban space and structure.” Working with visual properties of light and manipulations of space, Kuball creates works that, beneath their coolness and academically oriented phrasing, are driven by the heart. His recent projects reveal a need to promote social and political change via “the powerful emotion of light,” best exemplified by the emotion-packed Refraction House (1994).
Within this framing, Mischa Kuball’s works span a continuum of emotion, with subjects ranging from hot social-political topics to cooler, restrained political commentaries, to those that are more formally driven. Plus, he’s now bringing brain scans into his art portfolio. No matter the emotional temperature of Kuball’s works, they all engage in a clear investigation of form.
Mischa Kuball art: Refraction house, (1994). Spotlights and scaffolding, each scaffold 5 x 3 m. Installation at Projekt Synagoge Stommeln, Germany.
R. J. Preece: In an earlier interview, you identified Refraction House (1994) as your favorite work. Why this project?
Mischa Kuball: Refraction House was a breakthrough work for me. What you see is a synagogue that had been out of service from 1937 until 1991, when it was converted into the Projekt Synagoge Stommeln, an art space that invites and commissions artists to propose projects and installations in the interior. Instead of placing something inside the building, I proposed to use light to magnify the presence of the former synagogue, which partly connected to my ongoing work featuring the element of light at night. So, with Refraction House, the former synagogue could be seen from a distance, glowing, projecting a strong presence with its symbolism.
R. J. Preece: There is still concern about the neo-Nazi element in Germany, and there are reports about neo-Nazi activity. I was recently speaking to Berliners who said that certain areas outside the city center are no-go areas for them as foreigners. This extremism is in direct contrast to the attitude of most Germans.
Mischa Kuball: Yes, our country’s history makes most of us entirely aware of the threat and its signs, perhaps more so than in other places, where people have not fully experienced the threats from within their own societies.
R. J. Preece: Some artists, while feeling compelled to do this sort of work, would have opted out. Even some writers would steer clear of it. What sorts of risks/fears did you and the organizers have?
Mischa Kuball: The organizers behind the two-month-long project, Angelika Schallenberg and Gerhard Dornseifer, did indeed take a great risk. It was a greater risk for them as selectors than for me as an artist. But this site is also near Cologne, a very liberal city and a city of the arts. I invited the people living near the site to get acquainted with the idea and the possible “side effects,” such as the strong possibility of violent attacks by neo-Nazis at night, when the synagogue was highly visible. I was pleased that the people of Stommeln created what I’d call “an energetic ring of solidarity” around the work, which was stronger than any kind of aggression.
R. J. Preece: Did anything negative happen during the installation?
Mischa Kuball: We were shocked when we learned that the old synagogue in Essen, 50 kilometers from Stommeln, had been attacked with stones and left with smashed windows. But this was not connected to our specific installation. Stommeln was left in peace at all times— arts and general media coverage (TV, radio, and print) supported the neighborhood’s protection of the site.
R. J. Preece: Compared to your other work, your Bauhaus installation (1992) is more of a precedent for Refraction House, but in this context, you were working with a less controversial site, the Modernist aesthetic temple, located in the former East Germany.
Mischa Kuball: Yes, I did that project in 1992, three years after reunification. It aimed to revitalize the energies there, with reference to the importance of the Bauhaus school. In essence, I wanted to symbolize its new possibilities, bringing it back into the world after a long, dark period. It was a kind of mission. There was no budget, no people behind it, but I felt that I had to do it.
I used light, projecting symbols taken from Josef Albers’s classic Bauhaus course. With this installation, I essentially intended to re-initiate communication of the ideas within the building that had been stopped after the Nazi takeover in 1933. It wasn’t until 1978 that the Bauhaus restarted its activities, but this was within a Communist context. The projections placed the ideas outside the building, into its context, beginning to communicate again with the community.
Mischa Kuball art: Public square, (2007). View of performance in Hamburg.
R. J. Preece: Public Square, your project-performance in Hamburg (2007), refers to Black Square (1913–15) by Kazimir Malevich. This work complemented a thematic group exhibition, “Black Square,” inside the Kunsthalle, which paid homage to and raised questions about the classic work and the artist’s approach to public space. Could you explain the concept?
Mischa Kuball: I decided on Public Square as a way to make a statement and complement the show. The idea was to use the structure of Malevich’s work but re-present it as a parade-like performance-painting with more than 500 participants. The structure of the “painting” was constantly changing in the performance and— with its placement in relatively capitalistic Germany— the square changed into a rectangle, and so on. The performance aimed to show the amorphousness of a tolerant society. Public Square commented on and critiqued Suprematism (Malevich and others) and its desire to conquer urban space and daily life, or at least impose an order, which didn’t really work in the long run.