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Colors, Numbers, Facts – Dóra Maurer’s Exhibition

Dalma Eged

Dóra Maurer’s solo exhibition opened at the cultic gallery in White Cube Mason’s Yard in London on May 27. Although the exhibition is not retrospective, the over 20 conceptual paintings, photos, films and installations on show in the halls of the world-famous exhibition space in downtown London cover four decades of the artist’s career, and thus represents the most important issues and turning points in her oeuvre, from several pieces from the 1972 Quantity Table series and the Quod Libet and Overlappings series, through the rather fresh Xs series, to the two wall installations that made their debut at this exhibition.

What could be the case

The works dealing with seriality and the variability of elements in a series are introduced at the exhibition by 3 etudes from the Reversible and Interchangeable Phases of Motion series. Dóra Maurer’s method involves breaking down a seemingly insignificant movement into components and then, by reversing the phases, examining the different ways in which the movement fragments can follow each other. A movement which actually entails only minimal displacement, such as placing a stone into a corner, can thus be broken down into a total of three snapshots: that of the empty corner, that of the hand holding the stone, and that of the stone in the corner. Since the three elements form a finite set, a finite number of the movement’s combinations can come about. If, for example, we read the starting sequence backwards, in a reverse order, then we see the story of the hand reaching for the stone backwards as well. Maurer suggests that if we continue with the variations systematically and take the permutations of the three elements one by one, then, in principle, all the possible stories can be satisfactorily described by interchanging the three elements. By formalizing the movement and making it combinable, the artist suggests an image of the world being describable and systematizable. Furthermore, by outlining the possible outcomes of the events, she creates a sense of the objectively calculable regularities hiding behind them. The recipe-like structure of the series titled Seven Twists (Self-portrait), one of the most famous works at the exhibition, also reinforces this sensation as the continuously developed and re-captured photographs gradually build up into a spiral-like work of art which is recognizably based on the algorithm of a series of numbers.


© Maurer Dóra, fotó © White Cube

Beside world’s orderliness, Dora Maurer’s most powerful inductive argument is the presentable and recognizable nature of number harmonies. For this reason, the endeavor for an empirical demonstration of mathematical regularities can be traced in the exhibited pieces, almost without exception. The artist’s interest in the systems that can be recognized in various natural phenomena is discernible even in her earliest piece showcased at the exhibition, the 1972 Quantity Table 3, whereby the artist spreads out natural substances like straw and sand on a 10×10 raster field, thus locking up the natural elements in a grating structure as an experiment to reconcile the antagonism between the infinite, or the uncountable, and the measurable.

Maurer’s works are based on the unity of order and beauty taken in the ancient sense; the presentation of mathematical sequences is not primarily based on aesthetic criteria, yet the end result, the figure that boasts an aesthetic quality stemming from regularity, always justifies her calculation as an immediate verification of the equation. In an interview the artists commented on the quasi-photo series that “They didn’t represent anything, neither a scene, nor an emotion. They were only frozen frames of stages within a system.” In Hidden Structures, another piece showcased at the exhibition, the artist implements the same thing in a six-piece frottage series with structures created through folding; the squares and triangles folded from rectangles, or vice versa, the ensemble of the rectangles dividing squares, demonstrate the world’s orderliness through the potential for systematization inherent in the work, that is, a state taken out of context.


© Maurer Dóra, fotó © White Cube


The principle of 6 out of 5

The other distinct unit of the exhibition somewhat contradicts the seemingly positivist belief that in works of art it is possible to find a kind of conventional measure – and thus we can recognize regularities that can be regarded as objective. One of the most fundamental conditions in natural sciences is that units of measurement must be accessible by anyone and have to be conventional and constant. Yet, some of Dóra Maurer’s works suggest that she does not use such a consensual measure for establishing regularities behind a series of artworks or for measuring a certain surface.


© Maurer Dóra, fotó © White Cube

In her ten-minute video titled Proportions the artist compartmentalizes a multiplication of her own height into quarters and puts the measurements on a roll of paper, and then superposes her arm width, the length of her lower arm, shoulder width, etc. on this distance, placing them next to each other. She divides a particular section into equal measurements, with the unit – the length of the artist’s body parts – being irreproducible by others. The unit of X length thus calculated remains impossible to imagine, since it means that the artist’s shoulder width, the length of her lower arm, etc. fit perfectly into the multiplication of the artist’s body height X times. The question of private units of measurement points to the fact that a given space can be divided in different ways, on the basis of different regularities and proportions, and if we do not have anything to adjust the one to, then the same length can simultaneously consist of five units, or from six units if looked at from another point of view.

The title piece of the exhibition, the work titled 6 out of 5, is a good example for this. Viewed from a certain angle, the work consisting of six equal-sized rectangular canvases and 5 black bar-line-like horizontal lines drawn at regular intervals builds up to six canvases, and if you look at them from another angle (at the sections divided with black horizontal lines) you get 5 units. The work divides the surface of the gallery wall according to several rules: on the one hand, if you take the canvases, it is divided into six parts, while on the other hand, if you look at the bar-lines, you get five sections. Similarly, the size of the gaps between the canvases, the color dynamics and the proportions of the canvas and the columns also demonstrate regularities. The significance of the bar lines is well-demonstrated by the fact that they always override the location of the canvases: if they fall on the canvas, they bisect it – with the two halves going under different color fields -, but if they fall to a free slot, they will be painted on the gallery wall. The measure is, therefore, not applied to the work based on objective standards, but can be read from the proportions of its own parts, which means that the algorithm building it up can be inferred from the regularities of the parts involved. If we look at the size of the gaps between the canvases, we can conclude that the unit, the first gap, equals the width of the black column, and as we go on to the next pieces in the series, the value first doubles, and then it increases according to the values in the Fibonacci sequence: it becomes 3, 5, and then 8 units wide (the different sequences of numbers and the presentation of the Fibonacci sequence with other number sequences is one of Dora Maurer’s favorite themes).


© Maurer Dóra, fotó © White Cube


Colors meet each other

The installations titled Stage 2 and Stage 3 made their debut at the exhibition and resemble undulating fields that are in collision with each other. The installations are basically pure extracts of the problem behind the works titled Quod Libet and Overlappings, and can also be regarded as the next step in the recent Xs series. The wall installations comment on a problem Maurer often discusses: what happens when the colors of planes twisted in different ways meet and collide with each other? The rule of the game is the same as in the case of the series mentioned above: the artist bends the stable fields at one point, thrusts them against each other, and then looks at how the colors of the planes with a translucent surface and slid onto each other behave and interact. The colors are determined by the curvature of the particular field – despite the field being homogeneous, the colors are added up in this case – and the union created through the two differently colored surfaces being telescoped onto each other, with the colors doubling with each layer. Perhaps, the object titled Overlappings (Irregular) 4 and exhibited on the floor below is a prototype of these debuting installations inasmuch as its colors also interact with each other at the intersection of the five bent squares hanged behind each other, and since from a hypothetical point of view the elements fit each other perfectly, it creates the illusion that all the fields are positioned on the same curved plane.

The other exhibited pieces in the Overlappings series also appear as color fields that add up to a section of a sphere. A good example for this is the work titled Overlappings 33, which is also showcased at the exhibition. Its three superposed planes, together with the bent frame structure pulled up to the wall, not only makes the picture look curved, but also covers and deforms the walls of the world-famous exhibition space. Maurer used a similar method in the case of the rather fresh Xs: in a given space she makes several planes of opposite directions collide with each other along a common intersection line, and then observes what new relations are established among colors in the multilayered zones, and what new colors are created through the blending.

The exhibition in London well-illustrates the duality that characterizes Dóra Maurer’s works: the reliance on systemic foundations, the thinking in terms of systems, and the search for opportunities to step out from them; the experimental attitude stemming from an almost scientific interest with which she starts working on an art piece, paired up with a sort of distancing.


May 27 – July 9, 2016

White Cube, Mason’s Yard, London