Installation view of “res.o.nant,” 2017–19, Jewish Museum, Berlin. Photo: Ladislav Zajac/Archive Mischa Kuball, Düsseldorf/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017, © Jewish Museum Berlin

Illuminating Histories: A Conversation with Mischa Kuball

For over 40 years, Mischa Kuball, who lives and works in Düsseldorf, has worked with various sites: tall buildings in Wuppertal, Düsseldorf, and Toronto; Jewish museums; a synagogue, a mosque in Baku, and the baptistery at Cologne Cathedral; a tram running through a Polish city; bridges in Berlin and Tokushima, Japan; abandoned stores in Montevideo, Uruguay; a car park in Detroit; the streets of Hamburg, Thessaloniki, Helsinki, Belgrade, and Christchurch; a deep basement under his studio; and the Amalienborg Palace in Copenhagen. Regardless of the sort of place in which Kuball finds himself, his interventions—many of them involving light—focus on the various historical layers and sociopolitical contexts specific to that location. These “public prepositions,” as he describes this group of interventions, projects, and performances, seek to expand our idea of the public realm and our perceptions of familiar institutional settings and environments.

Robert Preece: How do you typically go about making a site-specific work? Is it “site first,” or do you develop an idea and then look for a site, or something else?
Mischa Kuball:
Most of the time, I am fascinated with or driven by revealing various layers of history—the stories surrounding the sites. For the most part, the sociopolitical dimension plays the initial role. I like to place all of these interventions under the umbrella of public prepositions.” The sculptural aspect, and the idea of an intervention, is complemented by the aspect of time, which in many cases also means history.

Refraction house, 1994. View of light installation at Synagoge Stommeln, Pulheim, Germany. Photo: Hubertus Birkner, Köln, © Archive Mischa Kuball, Düsseldorf/VG Bild- Kunst, Bonn 2019, Courtesy Daniel Marzona, Berlin/Germany

RP: Are these interventions always understood as you intended?
MK: There was my idea for the city of Katowice in Silesia in the south of Poland. I noticed that the streetcar was one of the most popular transportation systems in the country, connecting cities and workers, linking homes to workplaces. I was eager to transform an everyday object into a work of art through an intervention of sorts. The result was Ghost Tram (2013). I wanted to operate an unpredictable transport system at night—a tram painted white, without any kind of information or advertising whatsoever. The destination on the front of the tram read “Nowhere” in Polish. This strange tram didn’t stop at any stations and didn’t accept any passengers. There was no regular timetable. Olga, the driver, drove randomly through the city, as well as to other cities. People were genuinely irritated, standing at the stations and waiting for the tram to stop—but it never did. It was dysfunctional, yet it appeared to be a functional object. It was quite a paradox. We were aware that it might cause some critical reaction—but we were not prepared for comments linking Ghost Tram to the Holocaust and concentration camps in Auschwitz, which is less than 60 kilometers away from Katowice.

RP: How did you approach the site of non_lieux – vier, fünf (Nicht-)Orte in Marl (Dys(u)topia) (2017)?
MK: I visited the city of Marl several times. I looked at different sites and settled on the municipal office of labor. The unemployment rate in Marl was quite high, so this office building in the middle of the city had become a site of sorrow and grief for many residents. Although they registered there, they knew full well that there were no jobs available in the area. It was this disastrous situation that ultimately led to the idea behind Dys(u)topia.

The installation was placed on a truck, which drove from one place to another, stopping in between and getting people involved in a very direct way. The illuminated text alternated—mutated—between “DYSTOPIA” and “UTOPIA,” all the while interacting with the whole scenario of the city, including abandoned industrial buildings, empty houses, and the city hall, which was in need of major renovation. It thus interacted with daily life and the situation at the time, but also with the history of the city. The work transformed Marl into a kind of blueprint for how cities in a similar situation or condition can become activated through artistic interventions.

non_lieux – vier, fünf (Nicht-)Orte in Marl (Dys(u)topia), from the project series “public preposition,” 2017. View of light installation at Urban Lights Ruhr, Germany. Photo: Studio Mischa Kuball, Düsseldorf/DE, © Archive Mischa Kuball, Düsseldorf/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018

RP: Lichtbrücke (Light Bridge, 1992) at the Bauhaus in Dessau intervened in a completely different kind of site with emotion of a different kind. How did you go about approaching it?
MK: The Bauhaus was founded in Weimar in 1919 but had to leave because of increasingly right-wing sentiments in the city. After its time in Dessau (1925–32), it moved once again and was ultimately closed permanently by the Nazi regime in 1933. I had the opportunity to activate the entire iconic building in Dessau, including the historical components, with the help of the Lichtbrücke. I used three light projectors to interact with the geometrical forms of Johannes Itten and Josef Albers, both masters at the Bauhaus, projecting geometrical forms on the façade and thus creating an interplay with the architectural design. In doing so, I strove to make the achievements of the Bauhaus legible and tangible to people in the city.

RP: You did another light bridge for the city of Metz in France. How did that come about?
MK: The French government had set up a competition between seven cities to determine the location for new branch of the Centre Pompidou. Metz won, and the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban was hired to design the new museum. I was invited to participate in the inaugural exhibition, introducing it, the site, and the city itself to an international audience. I did two interventions there: one was a light bridge, with which I activated a passage publique, and I also built another bridge, entrée publique, illuminated with lights and a red carpet to give VIP status to the general public.

Lichtbrücke, 1992. 3 slide projectors, each containing 81 slides, view of installation at Bauhaus, Dessau. Photo: Kelly Kellerhoff, Berlin, © Archive Mischa Kuball, Düsseldorf/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018

RP: You like working with the idea of bridges.
Yes, the bridge is an important symbol for me. I have worked with bridges in Berlin, as well as in Tokushima in the south of Japan. The Shinmachi Bridge is loaded with historical importance, connecting Tokushima with the mountains. I knew that the city was planning to build a concert hall for classical music, so my permanent installation, LightMatrix (2010–13), became a prelude to a kind of public melody for the future. I see it as an operetta in white LED light.

These bridges connect the past with the future. Many of my other works also have a strong historical component, such as Hitler’s Cabinet (1990), which was born out of reading Siegfried Kracauer’s critical analysis From Caligari to Hitler (1947). Kracauer worked in the Film Department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he was living in exile after fleeing the Nazi regime. I had already developed the installation in the studio when the curator Norman Kleeblatt “discovered” it and featured it in the exhibition “Mirroring Evil” at the Jewish Museum in 2002. In this case, the site—New York’s Jewish Museum—and the theme of the exhibition charged and contextualized the work in a very specific way. The show was widely criticized, especially because of its timing—exactly six months after 9/11. Maybe the people of New York were not quite ready to take in such an exhibition. At the same time, it was probably one of the most successful exhibitions that the Jewish Museum ever organized.

RP: Your installation for the Jewish Museum in Berlin is very different.
MK: This project involves an even more complex historical context. The museum, which is dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, incorporates the remarkable architecture of Daniel Libeskind. It is a challenge for any artist to get involved in and work with that architecture, especially the 24-meter-high voids. I opted to focus on the architecture. res.o.nant involves light projections, rotating mirrors, and red lights glowing in different corners—along with 60-second sound files (skits) of 220 compositions by international musicians, including John Zorn and Roedelius. The architecture of the museum is thus simultaneously a container and an integral, sculptural component of the work.

These works, as well as the installation in the synagogue in Stommeln, Refraction house (1994), reflect my conviction that it is my responsibility as an artist to ensure that this part of German history—what happened between 1933 and 1945—will never be forgotten. This is very important to me and a very significant aspect of my work.

But it’s not always political. In some cases, my approach is more sociological. For example, MetaLicht (2012), a permanent installation, was intended to send a signal—via light—from the campus of the University of Wuppertal to the city and its population. The university celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2012, and my goal was to connect it to the city. The challenge was to convert the invisible productivity and creativity of the university into a meta-language, a kind of code, and make them visible to the people of Wuppertal—through light. Here again, light serves as a kind of bridge.

Installation view of “res.o.nant,” 2017–19, Jewish Museum, Berlin. Photo: Ladislav Zajac/Archive Mischa Kuball, Düsseldorf/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017, © Jewish Museum Berlin

RP: You also placed an installation in the baptistery of Cologne Cathedral. That must have been a very challenging proposal.
MK: It definitely was, with a lot of things to consider. They wanted to make the space more accessible. Here, my task was different than in other site-specific works, since I was invited to create an autonomous artwork that also left the space open for many different purposes. A special space was created by the Munich-based architectural team of Allmann Sattler Wappner, and I was invited to interact with it. The result was the light installation zwei, drei Szenen für das Baptisterium (2, 3 Scenarios for the Baptistery, 2016), which operates like a kind of staging with a program of varying light projections and reflections. The space is thus constantly changing.

Historical components and geometry played a major role in developing the work. An image of the ground plan of the basin—an octagonal structure—is projected from a large chandelier. I also used the alpha and the omega (A and Ω), the beginning and end, which serve as a symbol of Christ. The baptistery has various historical aspects—it speaks about the Catholic Church before it was divided by the Reformation 500 years ago, but it’s also about the history of Cologne, which was founded by the Romans, and it was the Romans who installed such basins in their homes. At some point, this private site became the site of a small church, which over the centuries eventually became the now world-famous Cologne Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

zwei, drei Szenen für das Baptisterium, 2016. View of permanent light installation in Cologne Cathedral baptistery, Cologne, Germany. Photo: Achim Kukulies, Düsseldorf, © Archive Mischa Kuball, Düsseldorf/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018

RP: rotating_mirror_rotating (2018) seems a very different kind of work for you. Could you explain it?
MK: I was invited by the Gerisch Foundation in Neumünster in northern Germany to create an installation for a public park, which also serves as a sculpture garden. I discovered a wonderful path there, a controlled space behind walls, which acts like a kind of sluice, a threshold between the public street and the park. I positioned a Minimalist column of slowly rotating vertical mirrors that proposes a reflection of the collection itself; the column directly mirrors Mimmo Paladino’s Warrior of Peace (2003) on the patio. The experience, I think, is quite irritating; viewers have to figure out what is actually seen. rotating_mirror_rotating aims to alter our usual way of seeing, our perspective.

RP: Have you been offered sites that you ultimately decided would not work?
There have been many over the years. My problems start when there is no historical content involved, or if there’s nothing that can address an unprepared audience. In such cases, I’d rather turn down an offer. It’s not at all about formalism—I want and need to address something specific, which sometimes only emerges after I’ve done deeper research into the site. Once you find something to grasp, it becomes much easier to develop the work, which then takes on a life of its own.

rotating_mirror_rotating, 2018. Mirrors and steel, 250 cm. high x 35–70 cm. wide. View of permanent installation at the Herbert Gerisch-Stiftung, Neumünster. Photo: Jens Sauerbrey, © Archive Mischa Kuball, Düsseldorf/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018

RP: What have you learned over the course of these site-specific explorations?
MK: After more than 40 years of project-based and site-specific research, I have discovered that I can only gain experience through the practice of delving deeply into the historical components of a particular space, or site, in order to understand its different layers. And when I work with people in public spaces or involve the local community, it takes more time and extra patience and sensitive concentration to understand what they are actually saying. It’s not one history—there are numerous histories. I connect this to the Czech media philosopher Vilém Flusser, who argued that there are always different layers to historical research.

For me, it’s also important that I record what I am doing. I operate an archive of sorts, in which all the projects are documented, perhaps for publication, but especially because I work with ephemeral media such as light, sound, and performative interventions. Good documentation might help to make things more accessible for the future. In any event, I have to address every new project as though it is the first; it deserves and demands all my curiosity and attention.