The Capricious Sky / Group Zero (1964)

Organized by Whitney-Lauder Curatorial Fellow Liz Park
The original text appeared here.

It is with great sadness that we hear of the passing of Otto Piene on July 17, 2014. We are grateful to have had the recent opportunity to interview Mr. Piene about the historic exhibition that he organized at ICA fifty years ago.

ICA@50 ends with a reverse countdown to the organization’s very beginnings: the “zero zone” described by Otto Piene as a “zone of silence and pure possibilities for a new beginning.” A film by Korean artist Jeamin Cha accompanies this archival reflection on ICA’s Group ZERO exhibition.

A small catalogue and a few photographs are all that remain in the files for the historic Group ZERO exhibition at ICA. In an effort to rebuild the institute’s archive, I visited Otto Piene (b. 1928, Baad Laasphe, Germany; lives Groton, Massachusetts) at his residence to speak with him about his experience of organizing the show fifty years ago at the fledgling art museum. This interview is available for viewing in the gallery and on ICA’s website where select clips act as prompts for a collaborative text written with the artist Sreshta Rit Premnath (b. 1979, Bangalore, India; lives New York). Artist and editor of Shifter magazine, Premnath recently presented a solo exhibition Knot Not Nought, which explored the concept of the zero knot in mathematical, poetic, and philosophical terms. On view in the following pages, the text explores how Group ZERO’s and Piene’s interests remain relevant today.


Without Ground

Otto Piene: One day in May, World War II—although no one wanted to believe it—was over… Most of my contemporaries didn’t think we would survive the war… My friends said artists should stay away from politics. After World War II, no more politics ever! Well, that’s not the way it goes.

Liz Park: Drawing from my own biography, it seems that war is a persistent state of mind. Coming from Korea, a divided state in armistice, I, like many other Koreans both in Korea itself and in diasporic communities throughout the world, have had to live with the threat of active conflict. Whether or not we directly engage with politics through activism or cultural expression, we always bear the war in our psyche.

Sreshta Rit Premnath: I don’t think that this state of perpetual war is purely psychological. Having lived in the US for over fifteen years now, I find myself in a country that is constantly at war elsewhere. In such a situation, inaction is tantamount to our complicity with war at a distance. These wars are fought because of American “interests” in other countries, and we cannot opt out of global politics. We are bound to the factory worker in China through our cellphones, the textile worker in Bangladesh through our clothes, and the oil-worker in Iraq through our cars. Inaction stems from two sources: the first is our inability to feel the violence of war at a distance; the second is a deep disenchantment with the democratic process that leaves the electorate feeling powerless and apathetic.

Visual art, and cultural production in general, may either function as a barometer of the psychological state of a society, or as the progressive force which serves as a harbinger of cultural transformation. Assuming that we are not satisfied with the former–reflected in contemporary art that simply guesses or follows fashions–how do we envision the artist’s political role?

LP: Let’s not forget the shifting scale of culture and politics. The introspection of a young soldier during World War II is an example of how world-scale conflicts and politics leave a real imprint on individuals on the ground. When it feels like that ground is pulled out from beneath us, we begin to question the arbitrary and unstable nature of the construction of our society, and of nation-states in general. One of the ways we can ground ourselves again is to construct a space of our own (real or virtual) in which to take refuge, even if only temporarily. Maybe that is the impulse behind the work of Otto Piene’s generation of artists.

If we look beyond the immediate safety of our home here in the United States, the world is not any less violent today than during World War II. We have sophisticated means of distancing ourselves from the violence; and disenchantment with the democratic process, as you say, is rampant. The overwhelming sense of despair, however, should not automatically lead to apathy. When it feels like we’re being dwarfed by something entirely out of our control, like the large expanse of the sky, should we not shift our gaze towards the grains of sand at our feet?

Artists are tricksters of perception. They can make us look hard: here, there, and elsewhere. The practice of looking itself should be coupled with the practice of questioning our own perception, so we can look at the details and zoom out simultaneously. Maybe then we will be able to appreciate the immensity of the ground and the sky without feeling paralyzed.

Without Sky

OP: If you’re a young 15-year-old flack soldier, you spend a lot of time staring at the sky… As the sky became the field of dread and threat, it also revealed its incredible beauty… The sky is so beautiful that it’s overpowering even in the dread and the threat of war…

SRP: Liz, your feeling that Otto Piene and his contemporaries had to reinvent a ground from which to work pinpoints the importance of the sky for them. The sublime experience that Piene recounts, of looking at the sky, would provide a way out of the political particularity of where–or on whose ground–one is standing. By surrendering oneself to light and to the sky stretching over land and water, oblivious of the boundaries of nation-states, the artist finds a zero point from which to begin. However, it seems to have been important to Piene, and it certainly is for me, that this sublime invocation of zero not elide or conceal politics.  

I am echoing your desire to practice looking while also being mindful of how one looks. Piene’s absorption in the sky is always disturbed by the threat of bombers. What I wonder is how to use the sky to mobilize my political sentiments. Is it possible to feel the threat of drones while sitting in New York City?

LP: I am skeptical of the mobilization of the sky in global politics. Recalling past conversations I have had with you and many others about the commodification of air space in New York City, and’s attempts to make drone delivery a reality in the near future, it seems, by no stretch of imagination, that the sky is the new frontier in late capitalism, and that economic interests will motivate intense political battles over air space. The sublime and transcendent beauty of the sky can be so easily instrumentalized by people on any side of the political spectrum, so the question of how to use the sky to mobilize your political sentiments, which I assume are much aligned with mine, feels urgent.

SRP: We have already grown accustomed to aerial advertisements interrupting our enchantment with the sky. Proposals for moon publicity may some day become a reality, at which time even our “heavenly bodies” would be reduced to surfaces that promote our profit-driven world.  

What if we think of the sky not as the space above our heads but, instead, as that which lies beyond? The sky is the literal emptiness that fills the universe, stretching between stars and within atoms. Our recognition of the sky in this sense would give rise to the fundamental question of metaphysics, stated by Heidegger as: “Why are there beings instead of nothing?” Could an engagement with the world that transcends worldly problems establish a new politics of consciousness and attention? Or, are metaphysical considerations incompatible with political life?

LP: I would like to hold fast to the idea that metaphysical reflections ought to make us question the fundamental nature of being, not so we can equate transcendence with escapism, but so that we can become better grounded in our own reality. If we think of the sky as that which lies beyond, then the ground is that which is within. One cannot exist without the other, and both are equally expansive spaces of exploration and questioning.

Without Form

LP: Many of Piene’s works such as the light ballet performances and sky art events evoke the space somewhere between the ground and the sky, making use of that space as a medium of suspension.

OP: The balloon as a border-defying, innocent, lightweight, lighter-than-air thing took on a slightly political role in all of this.

SRP: I would like to think of the balloon as empty space given a temporary form. The border that Piene speaks about could then refer to both the terrestrial boundary that this floating orb adamantly ignores, and also the subtle skin that separates the inside and the outside of the balloon.

LP: As a symbolic object, the balloon epitomizes the transcendence of man-made borders. Perhaps like a message in a bottle, it’s a proposition to an unknown receiver. It can be so rife with symbolism and interpretation that I think at a certain point we also need to acknowledge that a balloon is just a balloon.

As a physical form, the balloon is the thin membrane as well as the spaces within and without. Therefore besides being a discrete object, it points to an ecology of invisible forces that hold and embrace it. These forces sway us this way and that, much as they sway the balloon.

This discussion makes me mindful of the porosity of my skin and the perviousness of my being. We can look at this permeability of boundaries politically. Circling back to the beginning of our conversation, we are connected to those far away from us to whom we owe our material comfort–our computers, phones, clothes, cars, etc.

SRP: Perhaps it’s the sensitivity of the membrane that mediates the inside and the outside that counts. The co-constitutive zones of the personal and the political must be nurtured by remaining receptive, like a weather balloon, to relations with distant others. However, I don’t think we need to dispense with the metaphysical connotations of the balloon in order to engage with its political metaphors. While the balloon is a literal means of dispersing information, whether it be political fliers or advertisements, it is also a metaphor for the social forces that shape us. And finally, the balloon as a work of art allows us to consider being itself, floating untethered by material and social constraints.