‘Focusing Room’: Nine Minutes with Bettina Ruhrberg

Launching a new art platform, ArtCircle presents ‘Focusing Room’, a pop-up exhibition running for two weeks at 48 Albemarle Street. The show centres on artists including Adolf Luther, Heinz Mack, and Alberto Biasi, all part of the Zero movement which fostered new artistic environments unconstrained by convention, a debut for ArtCircle which seems entirely pertinent given their philosophy to redefine approaches to staging exhibitions. Ahead of opening night, After Nyne talk with art historian and curator of ‘Focusing Room’ Bettina Ruhrberg.

What first attracted you to ArtCircle’s concept of a pop-up gallery format, and how did your collaboration with them come about?

‘I liked the concept of a pop-up show with artists of historical importance. Visitors have the chance to see an intimate museum-quality show concentrated on a special subject. This format is interesting for an art public which likes smaller shows as well as for collectors looking for established art works or young collectors to whom these shows can give an orientation.

‘My collaboration with ArtCircle came about through the gallerist Volker Diehl from Berlin. He founded this new format of a curator-led pop-up art platform together with Natalia Chagoubatova and Elena Sereda.’

How and why was it decided ArtCircle’s first exhibition would be focused on the Zero movement? 

‘We do not show only artists form the Zero movement, but also others from groups like ‘Gruppo N’ or the group ‘MID’. There were a lot of groups at the beginning of the 60s all over Europe which were interested in the act of perception. All together are known also under the label of Op art and Kinetic art. Light, space and movement were one of their basic themes. The knew each other and established a vigorous network of collaboration and exchange. As they were all interested in a non-subjective art, they wanted to eliminate personal handwriting of the artist. Instead the the viewer himself became part of the work. His participation accomplishes the work. This was absolutely revolutionary at this time. And today we have a renaissance of art positions with the participation of the spectator. To show the historical importance of Zero and other groups of this time for the art of our days was the reason to choose them for the first show.’

Can you give us a brief introduction to Zero and their manifesto/ ideals?

‘At the beginning of the economic boom and the adventure of space flights at the end of the 50s, beginning 60s, many artists wanted to overcome the existentialistic skepticism of the years after the war. They wanted to start from “Zero” again. The word “zero” expressed ‘a zone of silence and of pure possibilities for a new beginning.’ In opposition to the painters of Tachisme and Informel the artists of the Zero group invented a new type of painting on the base of reduced, rhythmic structures with sensitive light and shadow effects. Trough slight changes in parallel raster sequences the surface began to vibrate, it gets into movement. And the painting had no more fore- and background, the structures were absolutely non-hierarchic. So Zero was from the beginning on a dynamic art form which lead the artists later to leave also the canvas and to work with the light and space itself and to integrate the viewer into the art work. That’s what we show in the exhibition.’ 

Would you say Zero redefined the conventions of the gallery space with their exhibitions of the late 50’s/ 60’s?

‘Not only Zero, there were other artists who left the two-dimensional static picture and experimented with movement and space, for example the ‘Nouveaux Réalistes’. Yves Kleins exhibition ‘Le vide’ (1958) in the gallery of Iris Clert in Paris for example was a pioneer exhibition regarding totally new, unconventional exhibitions. There was nothing to see beside white walls. It was a very exciting time where artists all of the world tried to link art and life together.’

What can visitors expect to encounter in this new curation of Zero artists?

‘I wouldn’t say that it is a new curation, but we wanted that the visitor could feel the experimental spirit of these artists. Their fresh way of thinking, their use of new materials, and their absolutely modern and social ideas about society. Many of them made not only art works, but had plans for future cities, like Nicolas Schoeffer for example. And we hope that it will be a pleasure to walk through the exhibition because the light and colour effects will be sublime. Many of the works have also ruminant dimensions.’ 
Tell us more about Adolf Luther’s ‘Der Fokussierender Raum’ (‘The Focusing Room’), from which the exhibition takes its’ name, and how this will be restaged at 48 Albemarle Street…

‘The interrelationship between light and matter is one of the main themes in the work of Adolf Luther (1912-1990). In the 1960s, Luther experimented intensively with glass, mirrors and lenses in an attempt to render light visible as an autonomous, matter-less medium.
 
‘In 1968 he succeeded impressively with the installation Focussing Space (Fokussierender Raum) in which the artist included a medium that would be inconceivable in an exhibition space today: cigarette smoke. The idea was for smoking viewers to cause the otherwise invisible beams of light above the top-lit concave mirrors to become visible, thereby generating an immaterial form set in space. “What emerges is an energetic sculpture. It is an ethereal manifestation of mutability and transience” (Adolf Luther). Today the cigarette smoke is simulated by a fog machine, but this spectacular installation has lost none of its power to enthral. The ‘Focusing Room’ is at the centre of the exhibition in 48 Albemarle Street. It will be presented in the middle of two connecting rooms.’

In your opinion, what have been the lasting impressions of Zero and contemporaneous movements on art today?

‘All these artists abandoned the traditional pictorial space and integrated practically the whole sensory apparatus into their artistic concepts. Using industrial materials such as mirrors, fluorescent tubes, aluminium and Perspex, they made beholders and their movements integral components of the artwork. This art set out to surprise, involve, overwhelm and appropriate the beholder. The extent to which the physical and psychological space was conquered influenced many artists until today. For example a work like the one of Olaf Eliasson is based on experiments of these movements.’

 

Laura Frances Green

 

‘Focusing Room’ runs from 20th May – 9th June @ 48 Albemarle Street 

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