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"Tune the World: Sound sculptures - Pictures - Drawings"
2002-10-18 until 2003-06-01
Haus der Kunst
Munich, , DE Germany

The works of the American Stephan von Huene (1932-2000) - sometimes called machines by the artist - cast their spell over the viewer at first glance. It takes more than just visual or acoustic reception to understand them, for they are synaesthetic works, appealing simultaneously to the visual, acoustic and physical perceptions of the viewer and captivating in their precision. The works reflect Stephan von Huene’s idea of the “animation of the machine as a mirror of self-knowledge“ (Horst Bredekamp).

Stephan von Huene was born in Los Angeles in 1932 as the son of Baltic-German emigrants. He studied free art and art history at the University of California Los Angeles and the Chouinard Art Institute, among other places. In 1971 began his long teaching activity at the California Institute of the Arts, Los Angeles; from 1979, he accepted numerous lectureships at European art academies, and in 1980 he moved to Germany.

In the early 1960s, Huene produced his first assemblage-type pictures, which were followed in the years 1963-66 by grotesque sculptures such as Persistent Yet Unsuccessful Swordsman or Your, Your Daughters. Characteristic of this work phase are sculptures consisting of isolated body parts, such as arms or legs made of bread, wood and leather; references to surrealist sculpture of the 1930s are evident. At this time, Huene also produced his first audio-kinetic sculptures, in which precisely calculated sound processes are combined with spectacular curiosity.

In the years 1964 to 1970, Huene then devoted himself exclusively to acoustic examinations of musical instruments, mechanical pianos and organs. In 1967, he produced his first audio-kinetic object, Kaleidophonic Dog. This was followed in the same year by Rosebud Annunciator, Washboard Band and Tap Dancer, which for the time being was the last of the series of acoustic-kinetic objects. These four works, also known as the First Four, demonstrate Stephan von Huene’s love of experimenting and are a kind of symbiosis of music and technology. A sophisticated, complicated system controls the kinetics, and the combination of vacuum pumps and computers produces sounds and music.

Kaleidophonic Dog is one of Stephan von Huene’s most eccentric works. On a high, box-like plinth rises a complex visual and musical spectacle. It is dominated by a scurrilous dog lying on its back, its rear end tapering out into wavelike organ pipes. Its head, the front legs and the mouth are moved by a concealed pneumatic device, and the body twitches to sounds of a montage consisting of a xylophone, percussion and organ pipes. Rosebud-Annunciator is without doubt the artist’s most spectacular early work. The triptych-like format of its severe composition reminds one of a modern altar: the precisely worked wood and leather are crowned by the portrayal of a flower made of white goatskin; it tautens and loosens like a muscle when the machine is started. Washboard Band combines the eccentricity of Kaleidophonic Dog with the technical precision of Rosebud-Annunciator.

The arrangement makes one think of a one-man band: the drumsticks scrape like two hands over a washboard and produce sounds that remind one of street music. With Tap Dancer, von Huene to some extent returns to his isolated and stylized body parts: elegantly clothed legs and shoes start to do a tap dance, but the sound comes not, as expected, from the rhythmic movement of the feet, but is produced by concealed wooden blocks, which are activated by a pneumatic device.

In 1969-70, Stephan von Huene developed a particular interest for organ pipes - their aesthetics, the materials and their mechanics. He produced the series of five Totem Tones - sculptures reminding us of musical instruments, and whose sound completely dominates the exhibition rooms. A program specially composed for each Totem Tone controls the organ bellows. The outer form of the Totem Tones and their sound impressively reflect Stephan von Huene’s conviction that there are analogies between visual and acoustic impressions. From 1979-82, he produced Text Tones - white, minimalist cases with aluminum, which have a more neutral appearance. Text Tones is closely related to the sounds in the exhibition room. Voices and sounds are registered by sensors, recorded by microphones, and then selected and played back with a time offset by a computer. A network of sounds and noises beyond our listening habits is created and surrounds the viewer or listener who is involved in creating the sounds. Text Tones demonstrates impressively the principle of resonance: on the one hand, each work of art triggers off a resonance in the viewer; on the other, the viewer is needed as a work of art, to be perceived as a work of art. As Huene said, “Works of art can fall silent, like Text Tones, if nobody goes near them.” The viewer becomes a kind of creator of art.

In 1976-80, Huene devoted himself more and more to examining the specific sound properties of an object. He used his research into sound to produce Erweiterter Schwitters (Extended Schwitters), which was presented at documenta 8 in 1987. This is based on the original sonata by Kurt Schwitters, and in this construction, a jointed doll moves to synthetic sounds and reveals itself as a fragmented conception of man. This work was followed in 1988 by the large installation called Tischtänzer (Table Dancers), which was presented at the hundredth Venice Biennale in 1995. The installation continues the idea of Tap-Dancer, for both installations are based on the same concept. “Tischtänzer as an exhibition ensemble consists of four sculptures and a series of large-format drawings in a quasi animated style, fashion drawings showing poses that signal sex-related communication,” as von Huene put it. Acoustic impulses of political speeches control the mechanical movement of three lower body halves in men’s underpants, while a naked figure moves at an exposed position to the music of Bizet’s “Pearlfishers” and Händel’s “Rinaldo”.

Until his death in 2000, Stephan von Huene lived and worked in Hamburg. The Haus der Kunst is now showing for the first time a comprehensive retrospective of the artistic creation of this internationally famous intermedia artist, including some of his early, unmoved sculptures plus a cycle of early pen-and-ink drawings. From these early drawings up to the kinetic sculptures, Stephan von Huene mastered all varieties of the genre and used all his media in a well-balanced mixture of seriousness and playfulness. The works loaned come from renowned collections and museums such as the Museum Ludwig Köln, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the estate of Stephan von Huene.

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