A view From the Bridge

Thomas Bayrle: mesmerising machines

Posted on behalf of Lisa Vincenz-Donnelly

Rosenkranz (mixed media: VW engine, electric drive, sound), 2009.

Rosenkranz (mixed media: VW engine, electric drive, sound), 2009.

Private Collection, Vienna. Photo: Werner Kaligofsky, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016

In the 1950s, when the German Pop Art pioneer Thomas Bayrle first trained as a weaver, he says he was “put into a state of trance by the loud and monotonous noise of the machines — until they began to sing”. His more recent artworks, currently on display at an exhibition of wall pieces, light projections, videos and electronically driven sculptures at the Kunstbau gallery in Munich, have a similar mesmeric effect. The ‘continuous-loop’ animations and smoothly moving sculptures, accompanied by monotonous sounds, are hypnotic portrayals of mass production and the complexities of society.

In 1958, Bayrle moved on from textiles to become one of Germany’s most important post-war artists. Since the 1970s, he has famously engaged with subjects such as motorways, car and airplane engines and the nexus of humans and technology in a range of media — including silkscreen, lithography and etching – and in works such as Flugzeug (not in the exhibition). This huge collage of an airplane is made up of many thousands of depictions of airplanes. Bayrle was among the first in Germany to adopt Pop Art in the 1960s, and to create computer-generated art in the 1970s.

Thomas Bayrle with Autobahn, 2016.

Thomas Bayrle with Autobahn, 2016.

Kunstbau gallery, Munich/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

The unusually long Kunstbau gallery space is located at a metro station, in the underground mezzanine storey directly above the tracks. Bayrle, now 79, was inspired by the “architectural brutality” of the space to create an immense wall sculpture 30 metres long, Autobahn (which he describes as his ‘last Autobahn’ — true to his love of repetition, he has created many similar sculptures). It’s a massive grey construction of intertwined angular loops, echoing the never-ending movement of traffic. Bayrle sees motorways as the centre of humanity’s gigantic cycle of production, distribution and consumption — a dynamic that has now evolved into the main surveillance body of human mobility, the information highway.

One of the most impressive pieces, a 16-millimetre film of montages of black and white stills, Autobahnkopf, appears at first glance to be an image of an anatomical human head turning its face in all directions. A closer look reveals the image as constructed from many loops of footage of busy highways.

Monstranz, 2010 (mixed media: radial engine, electric drive, sound)

Monstranz, 2010 (mixed media: radial engine, electric drive, sound), with Autobahn (mixed media) in the background.

© Thomas Bayrle and Museum Ludwig, Köln VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016.

Most compelling are sculptures created from scrap automobile parts, such as engines. Bayrle restores their working parts, exposing their solemn beauty in action, and supplies each with a unique soundtrack mixing the sound of the original machine with recordings of prayer groups. Bayrle first noticed parallels between religion and machines during his childhood. He used to live near a church, where a group of housewives stopped every Thursday to rattle off rosaries in a monotonous, yet powerful, manner. To Bayre, the rosary is like a type of machine – one that you power yourself as you work your way through its beads. And as he has noted, Tibetan prayer wheels mesh religion with machinery. In Monstranz, a nine-cylinder radial engine that once powered various utility aircrafts rotates to heavy hissing and grinding noises, merged with the recording of a church service from Cologne Cathedral. A Citroën car engine is matched to the chants of French prayer groups. The words blend into a multi-layered, repetitive, soothing soundtrack. In some pieces, the machines take on a life of their own: a Vespa engine seems to sing; a pair of windscreen wipers appears to wave.

In these extraordinary works, Bayrle captures the never-ending circle of production, distribution and consumption. As individuals, we come together in multitudes to form this massive system – like the threads that make up a fabric.

Lisa Vincenz-Donnelly is an editorial intern at Nature in Munich. She studied biochemistry in Galway, Ireland, and completed a doctoral degree at the Max-Planck-Institute of Biochemistry in Martinsried near Munich.  

 Thomas Bayrle runs at the Kunstbau, Munich to 5 March. A concurrent show, Thomas Bayrle, runs at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, Florida, to 26 March.


For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.


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