by Sukanya GargJul 25, 2019
In the summer of 2017, I was in Berlin for an art residency when one afternoon, walking through the city streets exploring art, I chanced upon the Jewish Museum. As I walked into the space designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, an area of the museum designated to an exhibit caught my attention with a blinking crimson light, mimicking an SOS signal.
My first tryst with German artist Mischa Kuball’s work was through res-o-nant, a site-specific light and sound installation giving expression to the void created in the aftermath of the Holocaust. The feeling of absence evoked by his installation was impressionable to say the least, as I saw myself revisiting images of the work even after a year. Later, writing about the work was my first encounter, albeit digital, with the artist himself.
Mischa Kuball, a Düsseldorf-based conceptual light artist, has been working on public projects like res-o-nant, Five Planets and DYS(U)TOPIA since 2019, exploring light and architectural spaces, creating a silent communication between the artist, the work, the viewer, and the space. The ability of light to penetrate material is what intrigues the artist, inspiring his practice in which he explores this form and formlessness of light in connection to things, people and spaces.
Talking about what a day in his life looks like, Kuball describes he wakes up at six in the morning, prepares coffee for his wife and himself, and then goes running for about 13 km across the museum, old town and the river in Düsseldorf. Running for him is what energises his day and routine, inspiring clarity of thought and action. Post this, he goes to the studio where he ideates and creates new works with his team. Describing his studio, Kuball says, “In the basement we have a light control space of about 350 sqm to present and experiment on installations”.
Being a conceptual artist, the synchronisation of the visual aesthetic of light with the underlying concept is crucial. Further, since a lot of the work is created in public spaces, the process involves a rather high degree of negotiation with the local municipality or administration of the city.
The work DYS(U)TOPIA, which was the winning entry in the STIR UP 2020 contest, was initially rejected in Germany. Kuball explains how “the right-wing political government took over the northern federal states of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern where the project was proposed. Subsequently, I developed this idea of putting it on a truck and moving it from one place to another. I think this will increase public visibility even more”.
In the installation then, a light work is installed on a truck, a moving light system subsequently changes the letters and syllables, which consequently changes the meaning of the work. Through the work, Kuball is drawing attention to the social, economic, political or even ecological utopias and dystopias we oscillate between, urging us to rethink the collective future of society, especially in this turbulent climate of COVID-19.
Through this work as with others, Kuball aims to provoke. His work operates in the areas of “irritation and confrontation” as he puts it. Further explaining the effect of DYS(U)TOPIA on people, he says, “It’s distracting as when you look at it once, it says Utopia, or Topia, or Dystopia, or Dys, because it is a moving light system, so people are kind of attracted or conflicted. When I was exhibiting it for the first time in the small city of Marl, people were really confronting me”. He explains how in the city people accused him that the budget to create such a work could be used for other societal projects instead. However, he maintains that a traveling work like this has the ability to create an impact in a much larger context with bigger social implications than merely in a local context.
Delving further into the impact of his works, he talks about another project MetaLicht in which he created a light art installation on the towers of the Grifflenberg campus for the University of Wuppertal’s 40th birthday celebrations. While the changing configurations of the installation outlined the university’s skyline, the project had larger implications for not just promoting art in the city, but also in exploring renewable energy sources towards creating art. The work which “included 900 meters of LED structures was electrified by wind energy,” states Kuball. In fact, energy conservation is key to many of his projects. Even with DYS(U)TOPIA, Kuball intends to introduce solar panels to power the installation at its next site.
The enthusiasm in Kuball’s voice as he describes his work is infectious. For him, the idea of change is key; in fact, utopia for him is the equivalent of change. He says, “The equilibrium of the world is based on movement and development. Without the dynamic of changing, without the dynamic of moving, the world would collapse and simply disappear”.
Inspired by the likes of artists such as Joseph Beuys, Kuball explains his fascination with using art as a tool for change. Beuys, as Kuball describes, “was one of the founders of the ‘Green’ party. When he was doing it, people said it was a joke that an artist wants to be a part of the political system. Today we require artists to make statements about the social and political situations of our times”. It is no surprise then that Kuball uses “public space as a stage to transform and transmit. The artwork is the expression”.
While the work DYS(U)TOPIA was created much before the outbreak of the coronavirus, pandemic, the work is especially relevant in the current climate. As an increasing number of people fall prey to the virus each day, human civilisation is forced to question the choices that has led to this dystopia, as reiterated by Kuball in the video above.
Even as utopia might remain an illusion, perhaps the place we need to begin from resembles the one that lies between the shifting letters in DYS(U)TOPIA.