Following the Second World War, several artists from Germany wanted to emerge from the dust and rubble with an ideology that was brighter than their surroundings. Otto Piene and Heinz Mack hoped to portray a more positive stance towards the future, which held the promise of technological innovation and industrial growth.
The Zero foundation has been revived at the Martin-Gropius-Bau Museum, which I visited last week in Berlin. The city has changed a lot since Zero came into being. Kreuzberg, where the art gallery is situated, saw students gather together and left-wing radicals voice their opinions. So, what can this exhibition teach those who visit it today?
This revolutionary art movement continues to send a powerful message to all who attend it
Two seemingly unconnected aspects of today’s society are mindfulness and activism. The attitude towards mental health has undergone a vivifying transformation from a patriarchal tool to a fashionable concern. As mindfulness grows in popularity, I am drawn to fantasy novels of my adolescence in which the main character extended his mind out to his surroundings to deepen his understanding of both himself and his environment. Also, the recent UK election witnessed a huge drive to make young people vote amid concerns of political apathy within our generation. By looking at these aspects of society in relation to the Zero exhibition we can see how this revolutionary art movement continues to send a powerful message to all who attend it.
The artworks in Zero produce hyper-objectivity and hyper-subjectivity, the latter especially interesting in the context of mindfulness. The viewer fills the void created by the artworks with a response that is arguably unleashed without a conscious effort, preventing artist-manipulation and liberating the viewer. Slits in creamy textures could turn minds towards yonic imagery, destruction or new perspectives. One notable cream square with dark isosceles triangles of different sizes reminded me of pine trees on a mountain slope, a familiar scene from ski holidays since childhood.
I was conscious that the exhibition had made me focus on how my thoughts took shape
Continuing with the theme of childhood, the instinctive and strong responses to each piece of work felt quite infant-like. The haptic power of the artworks gave me a desire to touch the artworks and feel them, at least for me. The struggle between wanting to touch them and not being able to felt like I was enacting the Freudian process of balancing the instinct with the superego (the part of the mind that absorbs society’s norms), which supposedly happens during childhood. A contributing artist, Yves Klein, aptly describes it as ‘a sensory overload in the best way possible’ and afterwards I was conscious that the exhibition had made me focus on how my thoughts took shape, an exercise which is very much part of mindfulness.
In addition, exploring the artistic process gives an insight into other people’s minds. One review argues that time cannot be actualized in the exhibition, but at the same time these artworks lose their effects when taken out of time since a frozen shot interrupted the movement from artist to artwork to viewer. The wide variety of textures and techniques provoked ample reflection on the construction process, which was accentuated by the simplicity of the colours used. Contemplating the relation between object and its two interactions may help with understanding how you relate to other people and vice versa.
The space sends an invigorating message that activism can come from inward reflection
While mindfulness, a passive process, could be viewed as mutually exclusive from activism, this exhibition demonstrates how the two can work in harmony. By challenging the constraints imposed by post-war artistic standards, the Zero movement was a call to activism: its name does not stem from nihilistic bleakness but claims a new start, free from the limitations of history where art can be reimagined. From Zero, we can explore the idea that internal reflection can push boundaries and understand how to spread them among others. For example, the rapid development of the virtual world has opened new horizons for technology but we must examine and respond to its moral challenges, such as individual privacy threatened by the innocuous-sounding cookies to drones that kill civilians as well as the targets. The gallery of works may not be an explicit nod towards these concerns, but the space sends an invigorating message that activism can come from inward reflection, and this important connection could empower a lot of the population today.
The largely monochrome exhibition is a powerful reminder of the art history following World War Two. It connects the importance of internal reflection with activism, an original and thought-provoking prospect. A growing focus on our mental capacity and the call to activism are hugely resonant today and Zero’s thought-provoking art pieces show that while the exhibition may use mostly black and white, life is still far from that.