Staged in July this year, it started out like any other performance of contemporary classical music, with the four members of Ensemble Chronophonie emerging onto a low stage at Karlsruhe’s Centre for Art and Media (ZKM). Pacing back and forth, forming groups and drifting apart, they proceeded to create a fissured musical landscape using flute, trumpet, oboe, percussion, glasses, tin cans and electronic sounds. Projected behind them was a display of slowly shifting combinations of circles, octagons and numbers: the artwork Architectonic Score (1970) by Czech artist Milan Grygar.
From the mid-1960s, Grygar – who was born in 1926 – began exploring the interface between image and sound. Taking the standard, modernist route from figuration via abstraction to inter- or transmedia practices, following World War II, Grygar developed an ear for what he felt were the sublime sounds of scratching and scraping produced while drawing and painting. Grygar recorded these sounds on tape, in the form of ‘acoustic drawings’ (for instance, Acoustic Drawing, Steps, 1971) or as ‘scores’ (such as Landscape Score, E. Karkoschka, 1971). As open notations, these works invite performers to re-create a visual process via acoustic means. They define temporal and spatial parameters but do not dictate a specific realization – the use of particular instruments, for example. In essence, they rely on controlled contingency.
Grygar also made ‘motoric drawings’ (such as Motor Driven Drawing, 1977), which traced bodily movements, and ‘haptic drawings’ (such as Haptic Drawing, 1969), in which drawing has a performative dimension. The production of these works was captured in sound recordings, films and photographs, a selection of which were on display in the exhibition. In one piece, Grygar sits behind a paper sheet and then breaks through it with his arms and legs, before miming a choreography using objects dipped in ink. In contrast with German and American fluxus artists, who were confidently taking on the society of the spectacle, Grygar retained the distinct, experimental impulse of the avant-gardes – though his work doesn’t exhibit the same ideological undertones.
Like Grygar’s practice itself, this retrospective at ZKM was focused and unsentimental, presenting only a fraction of the work detailed in the catalogue. Curated by Noemi Smolik, the exhibition avoided falling into the recent trend for ‘rediscovering’ artists by taking a historical perspective, with Grygar’s oeuvre demonstrating the lasting impact of the Iron Curtain. Sound and multi-media art are often associated with John Cage, fluxus and – in the realm of avant-pop – David Bowie. But this perspective reinforces geopolitical power structures and cultural-centrism that, in today’s multipolar world, have long been untenable.
The former Eastern Bloc countries, Poland and Czech Republic in particular, produced a host of leading artists in almost all strands of 20th-century avant-gardist and neo-avant-gardist movements. Yet, in spite of epochal exhibitions such as ‘Europa, Europa’ (staged at the Bundeskunsthalle, Bonn, in 1994) – which investigated avant-garde art from the region – and the recent explosion of interest in Eastern European art, this fact is still far too often ignored. ‘When I started making my acoustic drawings, I was not aware of Cage,’ Grygar said in 2011. He was, however, familiar with László Moholy-Nagy (who by then had collaborated with Cage), with Luigi Rossolo’s futurist manifesto The Art of Noise (1913) and the Black Mountain College. Like so many artists behind the Iron Curtain, Grygar was in the thick of it, if not quite part of it. The complex history of Central and Eastern Europe over the past two centuries, marked by the endless shifting of political, cultural, linguistic and religious borders, constitutes a European ‘globalization at home’ – for which Grygar’s work, in all its modesty, provides a fitting audio-visual soundtrack.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell. Main image: Milan Grygar, 'Sound and Paper', exhibition view at ZKM Karlsruhe, 2016.