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Oskar Schlemmer: Lhomme qui danse (Dancing Man)

Centre Pompidou-Metz
Metz France
October 13th 2016 - January 16th 2017
Published at Hyperallergic as Oskar Schlemmers Prophetic, Dancing Robots

Oskar Schlemmer, Danse des batons (1928) 2016 Oskar Schlemmer, Photo Archive C.
Raman Schlemmer

Even without citing the efficacious theoretical influence of Donna Haraways cyborg-theory, the
flamboyant depictions of machinic post-flesh in German artist Oskar Schlemmers paintings,
drawings, choreography and costume/set design are obvious. Curated by maternal grandson C.
Raman Schlemmer, Oskar Schlemmer: Dancing Man beautifully displays how by inserting his dancers

into svelte geometric-based outfits and their sequenced dance motions into spectacular machinelike repetitions, Schlemmer constructed avant la lettre an android realm.
Writing in his diary on September 2nd, 1915 Schlemmer said, I want to depict the most romantic
idea in the most detached form. This desire for detached romantic form appears to have led to
what Schlemmer theorized as a classical, monumental approach to human form. In so doing, he
began feeling out the distinctive tensions between grubby anthropological narratives and serene
mechanical simulacrums so typical of our periods electronic contours. That personal and
impersonal amalgamate may have even predicted the spectacle of moral aridity we have come to
expect within certain powerful vanity elites today.
Using an intricate interplay of complexity throughout, his paintings and dance works conjoin a
strange trajectory that mixes technological robotics with emotional appeals to a glorious past that
has still not lost its hold. A versatile and multifaceted painter, dancer, choreographer and stage
designer, he also was a utopian with visionary intentions in relationship to the Bauhaus goals of
Walter Gropiuss gesamtkunstwerk total-theatre. But Schlemmers social-political allegiance was to
non-Nazi nationalist ideals that jibed with a conservative romanticism assuming the burden of
cultural renewal. His flair for a non-ironic, romantic, robotic approach to the automated figure
embodies the theorized notion of aesthetic synthesis intended to symbolize social synthesis within
a benevolent emerging techno-society.
Clearly, between 1921 and 1929, when hired as Master of Form at the Bauhaus, Schlemmer
revolutionized and renewed dance as performance art before his career fell victim to Nazi cultural
politics. Publicly labelled a decadent Jew and a Marxist, of which he was neither. Schlemmers
ambition for creating dancing tableaux vivants was to renew the art theories of his time through a
combination of Gropiuss gesamtkunstwerk avant-garde thinking and humanist ideas from the
Renaissance. He attempted to depict the human form in spiritual purity through an abstract
geometric consistency of form in service of a social totality where architecture would endow
unifying ideals to the arts and crafts. This led Schlemmer to create a proto-robotic art by virtue of
a relocation of body/machine/consciousness now commonly known as the post-human condition.
Their theory at the time, as outlined in Gropiuss 1919 text Architecture in the Peoples Free State, was

that new materials, made possible by new technologies, should be used in the design and creation
of both choreography, art and utilitarian objects which in turn would attune to larger architectural
gesamtkunstwerk designs where the arts break their isolation from each other. Following this
theoretical thread, as seen in Schlemmers Tanz Figurinen sketchbook, Schlemmer became modern
dances oracle - pointing dance to an indeterminate zone between the two competing categories of
being today: cyborg sequencing and flowing flesh.

Installation shot by the author

Figurenplan (1919) lithograph, shot by the author

At the center of the exhibition sculpture-costumes invented by Schlemmer are displayed on a large
stage around which gravitates a truly fascinating selection of drawings, paintings, prints, sculptures,
photographs and film clips peppered with work by Giorgio de Chirico, Constantin Brancusi,
Alexandra Exter, Vassily Kandinsky, Lszl Mohoy-Nagy and Paul Klee. One of my favorite
works in the show was Schlemmers extremely delicately drawn lithograph Figurenplan (1919)
that offers up an index of his wild costumes within a grid scenario. As with Schlemmers
choreography of repetitive simple motions, it is a telltale hint at what American Minimalism will
so successfully create in the 1970s with Einstein on the Beach, a four act opera by Philip Glass and
Robert Wilson with task-based choreography by Lucinda Childs. Other standout images are the
photographs of Schlemmers Danse des batons (1928), where a protoplasmic body and mechanic
spatial conceptions are visualized as self-prosthesis, and Oskar Schlemmer tenant un masque et
lment coordonne (1931) in which he depicts his human face as no longer the sole grounds for
subjectivity. With Les signes de lHomme (Dmatrialisation) (1924/1986) we see Schlemmer
raise the hyperreal issue of virtual dematerialization as interface between the human body and the
abstracting, universalizing machine. In the drawing Der Mensch im Ideenkreis / Lhomme dans
le cercle des ides (1928) an effervescent dancers body seems already spliced into the cyberneticmechanomorphic circuit through a dismemberment of traditional narrative subjectivity. Material
flesh is undone here by a conceptual clamor it cannot contain. Likewise, Schlemmers automated
Danses des cerceaux (1927) is made up of two machine figures that rise up and down, created
only by different sized rings. Here the notion of the human body receives a cold, strange, almost
ecstatic, capability through trance-like repetitions. In the drawing Dancing Man: Movements and
Emanations Create an Imaginary Space (1921) and in the brilliant costume Le Ballet triadique,
Figure de fil de fer, Srie noire (1922) for his masterwork The Triadic Ballet, Schlemmer seems
interested in moving robotic-like trans-crystalline bodies in space towards the formational effects
of the web. Indeed, with Figur Raumlineatur / Figure et rseau de lignes dans lespace (1924)
Schlemmer seems to predict and facilitate our networked subjectivity by constructing a space of
imaginative accommodation for an intensely connected circulate. With costume designs such as
Das Triadische Ballett (Le Ballet Triadique) Boule dor, figure (1922), we see his taste for
geometric-centric figurative art that is very suggestive of the mechanomorphic robotic or prosthetic

bodies typical of Marcel Duchamps and Francis Picabias Dada sex-machinist period when they
discovered industrial design as a pictorial source for self-transcendence.
So it appears to me that in a period where many current cultural producers are looking more and
more ethnocentric and anachronistic, Schlemmers technocratic cyborgian philosophy of art
engages contemporary theory today in remarkably apt ways. Certainly Schlemmers visual and
motion propositions, that privileged the sleek and coolly impersonal, point to our current slippery
situation between fleshy embodiment and connective circumvention. By mixing moving bodies
with mechanically repeating geometrics, Schlemmer points us at todays world of work where
automation is everywhere in the transcendent projects of globalizing neo-liberalism. Yet the
smooth, cute and joyous mood of Schlemmers robotic sensibility conveys to today something that
at least temporarily refutes the sour feeling that we are living in an epoch of automated click-bait
robotics fueled by predatory virtual capital, where mostly chatting memes and farcical fragments
of vanity culture keep robotically repeating and repeating before our eyes, ad infinitum.

Joseph Nechvatal