When it was founded in 1864, Vienna’s Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) was called the Museum of Art and Industry. So it remained until 1938, when, following Austria’s annexation by Nazi Germany, it became the State Arts and Crafts Museum, a name that was then dropped in 1947 in favour of MAK, a better reflection of the institution’s collections of industrial and graphic design, furniture, tapestries and decorative arts. Today, it owns the archive of the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop) design community, has a permanent display of fin-de-siècle industrial and graphic design and, in 2015, became the first museum to purchase an artwork with bitcoin.
How to explore a 19th century museum and its collection from a contemporary standpoint? This was the question that MAK posed to Thomas Bayrle, an artist whose work reflects on industrial production and represents contemporary tools. His response, the solo exhibition ‘If It’s Too Long – Make It Longer’, comprises a selection of works old and new, all of which relate to the museum’s collection and history in different ways. It includes his ‘superforms’ works, in which pictures are compiled from multiple small images, like pictograms. A sculpture of a cup, an early example of standardized plastic production, is made from an assortment of cups (Cup of Cups, 1969), while a series of portraits (such as Christel from the Post Office, 1970, depicting the artist’s mother) are composed of bank deposit slips, eyeglass subscriptions and graphics of rotary phones. Sculptures and paintings in relief depict cars and highways, like $ (Dollar) (1980), a dollar sign-shaped overpass assembled from cardboard and miniature cars.
Much of Bayrle’s work relates to economy and commerce (it’s roads, banks, industrial design and fashion) and, having been born in Germany in 1937, his understanding of such thematics is closely related to the Wirtschaftswunder: the ‘economic miracle’ that West Germany and Austria experienced after World War II. While the lasting effects of this period of low inflation and rapid industrial growth remain visible in certain areas of Germany (and across the EU), manufacturing is currently undergoing immense change in contemporary society, where the product sold is consciously and consistently separated from its process of production. A number of Bayrle’s new works depict a commodity that has become emblematic of the above process: the iPhone. For the vast iPhone Meets Japan (2017), laid flat on the floor of MAK’s columned main hall, he uses small images of iPhones to reconstruct a work from the institution’s collection collection: a study for an erotic painting from c.1720 by Nishikawa Sukenobu. There is also iPhone Pietà (2017), a tapestry that was handmade by traditional weavers in the south of France and uses the same repeating image to reproduce Michelangelo’s famous Pietà (c.1499), which sits in St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
In 2016, Apple sold the billionth iPhone. It’s a product that, in its ten years of existence, has grown to symbolize a cultural and societal shift in the way we communicate and consume information. It’s also a symbol of the human rights violations involved in its production. Though Bayrle’s works do not reference these conditions directly, they bring them into the context of his broad interest in the systems of global economy, while also presenting them to the institution, itself a space for critical debate on the history, effect and impact of industry. Bayrle’s practice moves across imagery, from modernism back to religious iconography, through decorative arts and up to technology. As these come together in his work, he reflects on lasting images and the conditions of their production: the very same thing that the museum aims to do.
Main image: Thomas Bayrle, Börsenbericht, (Stock Exchange Report, detail), 1972/73, portfolio of six silk screens on paper, 64 x 51 cm each. Courtesy: the artist