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Otto Piene’s ‘Light Ballet’ dazzles at MIT

Mysteries and marvels to be found in a revelatory installation at MIT

Otto Piene’s “Lichtballett’’ or “Light Ballet’’ installation at MIT List Visual Arts Center.Gunter Thorn

Hands down the most beautiful room in Greater Boston right now is a gallery in the MIT List Visual Arts Center. The gallery is just a small, windowless room. It’s dark, too - or it would be if it were not for an astonishing and constantly changing arrangement of patterned light orchestrated by 83-year-old artist Otto Piene.

The light seems to be coming from all directions. It plays across one wall and wanders onto the next, morphing in scale and clarity as it moves. The patterns come and go according to rhythms of their own, but they also work together in unison.


At the piece’s zenith, as it were, the room is filled with light from multiple sources, creating the sense that one has been thrust into the center of a boxed-in Milky Way - or a very trippy disco. At its nadir, the room is plunged in darkness.

In between, effects of projected light that now resemble tumbleweed, now mysterious deep sea creatures, and now shuttlecocks slowly creep and fan across the room. The sources of these projections are not all easy to discern, but there is, for instance, a false wall perforated by hundreds of holes forming concentric circles, with moving light sources behind it. A black box inside the room is similarly perforated, and again, emits light from a rotating source within.

In the end, however, the mechanics of the piece, which the German-born Piene aptly calls “Lichtballett,’’ or “Light Ballet,’’ are not the point. It’s enough to know - and one senses it straight away - that the mechanics are fairly straightforward (moving light projected through perforated screens) and even transparent. The simplicity redoubles the enchantment.

“Lichtballett’’ is a remake, of sorts. Piene first started projecting light from torches and hand-operated lamps through perforated stencils in 1959. This was shortly after he and fellow artist Heinz Mack established Group ZERO, a loose affiliation of artists, eventually including Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely, Piero Manzoni, and Lucio Fontana, exploring new forms of kinetic, unbounded, and oftentimes immaterial art.


Piene experimented, for instance, with smoke and fire, making “paintings’’ that captured some of the elemental force and poetic resonance of these natural phenomena.

Over the next decade, inspired in part by the light-and-shadow-play of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s kinetic sculptures from three decades earlier, Piene expanded and honed his “light ballets.’’ He took to using rotating discs operated by electric switchboards to create shifting environments of patterned light, and installed the works in a number of galleries and museums.

The first US showing of “Light Ballet’’ was in 1965 at New York’s Howard Wise Gallery. That exhibition also featured a sculpture “Electric Rose,’’ an aluminum sphere on a stand (like a rose on a stem) covered with spike-like neon bulbs that light up in sequenced phases. The work, which is in the List’s collection, has been carefully restored, and is being shown here for the first time in two decades.

“Lichtballett’’ is the last in a series of revelatory recent exhibitions the List has devoted to pioneers of contemporary art associated with MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies. (The pretext for this backward look is that all this year the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been celebrating its 150th anniversary.)

CAVS was set up in 1967 by Gyorgy Kepes, with a view to encouraging experimentation and the spread of art into new spheres. Piene became its first fellow in 1968, and, after a stint as professor of environmental art at the university, he took over from Kepes as director of CAVS in 1974, serving in that post until 1993.


He is an uneven but in so many ways an extraordinary artist. In the 1960s, he moved from experiments with light, smoke, and fire into “sky art,’’ which involved such outlandish escapades as inflating 2,000-foot-long colored tubes with helium and extending them high into the air.

Piene’s work featured prominently at the 1972 Munich Olympics and has appeared subsequently in biennials worldwide. It featured most recently in the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum biennial last year, and earlier this year at MIT’s FAST Festival, when one of Piene’s “Sky Events’’ was suspended over the Charles River. (Those interested to know more should seek out a hefty recent monograph by Ante Glibota, published by Delight Edition.)

The outdoor public work sounds, and often has been, impressive. But there’s something about the present incarnation of “Lichtballett’’ that is, by contrast, intimate, and ineffably moving.

It suggests a respect for light - as a phenomenon - that takes one away from the realm of strenuous ideas and public statements and straight back to first principles: Left alone in the room, you get to thinking that God’s first injunction - “Let there be light!’’ - might not have been a matter of flicking a switch (or igniting the sun) so much as staging a flickering magic show in a tentative world still engulfed in darkness.


It is poignant to learn that Piene’s early experiments with light were inspired by the experience of seeing, as a 17-year-old just released from Germany’s disbanded Labor Corps Infantry Division in 1945, patterned light “sparkling like quicksilver,’’ as he put it, off the “glass smooth’’ North Sea.

The vision seemed to Piene a “counter-picture’’ of his “immediately earlier experiences’’: nighttime detonations and tracers drawing “hectically beautiful’’ lines in the night sky during the Allies’ aerial bombardment.

In the war, for Piene, “fear came before beauty; seeing was aiming.’’ “Lichtballett’’ is an antidote to all this.

The patterning in the work created by perforations reminded me of nothing so much as the latticed screens and slitted wall hangings from North Africa and the Middle East that so inspired Matisse.

Given the work’s title, it would be remiss of me not to point out its serendipitous connections with several other dance- and light-related exhibitions around Boston. The most obvious connection, perhaps, is with “Dance/Draw’’ at the Institute of Contemporary Art, a superb group show that traces the movement of drawing (by means other than the hand) off the page and into three-dimensional space, transforming itself into movement and dance.

Piene’s work, which is drawing at its simplest, its most transient and kinetic, could easily have made it into that show.

But “Lichtballett’’ also relates to the deCordova’s wonderful “Temporary Structures: Performing Architecture in Contemporary Art.’’ That show might have a dull title, but it is all about the joys of colonizing, altering, and otherwise undermining the rigidities of architecture with choreographed or improvised movement.


For me, though, the most perfect complement to “Lichtballett’’ is a film by Bruce Conner, currently showing at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, called “EVE-RAY-FOREVER.’’ I have written about this piece elsewhere in the Globe; but Conner’s ecstatic collage of fast-moving imagery (including of a female dancer) in crisp black and white chimes so well with the adagio light show that is “Lichtballett’’ that it would be a shame not to try to see them both on the same day.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.