As you go up through each floor at the Tate Modern, the footfall drops dramatically. Daunted by the concept of 10(!) storeys in just one of its two buildings, tourists and casual visitors rarely venture beyond the 2nd or 3rdfloors, by which time they will have already covered Picasso, Gormley, Lichtenstein and Rothko, and will be ready to head home. Hidden away on the 4th floor, however, is a subtle and little-advertised yearlong exhibition displaying much of the life work of Hungarian artist Dóra Maurer. A key player in the relatively unknown (yet surprisingly influential) Budapest art scene of the 1960s and 70s, her’s is almost an anti-art, utilising the “visual” in order to explore and communicate mathematical and systematic ideas. A film where the camera follows a swinging lamp in a dark room, a set of photographs documenting the process of throwing and catching a ball, and detailed sketches and plans for the most idle and spontaneous of actions. In a way, it might all seem quite simplistic, but Maurer’s ideas, as well as her presentation, are genuine and refreshing.
“I never wanted to be an artist,” she says in an interview with the Tate, “I wanted to be a gardener, or [someone] working in the forest.” At 82, Maurer is still active, and although her work has calmed down to some extent, it’s clear that she was in fact meant for the art world, even if only to be slightly removed from it, engaging with it with an almost functionalist attitude. Through the exhibition, we see her work develop step by step, from a young woman to the present day, constantly evolving and changing, but remaining true to a few, core ideas. The mediums vary wildly, going from film, printmaking and photography to performance, drawing and sound (and back again), but the changes are seamless, and even though the graphic-like paintings that have dominated her later years are initially unrecognisable from her early work, there is clearly the same thread running through it all. The same attitudes to form and movement, just looked at in a different way.
In fact, Maurer’s work displays a fascinating, and in some ways quite healthy (as well as startlingly modern), relationship with art. Her ideas act as a base, and the mediums act as tools with which she can express them. In her youth, before she had access to the right equipment, she planned out extensive ideas for films and projects, only to come back to them years later. A simple piece of film, for example, of folding a sheet in half multiple times, conveys a visual idea which arguably cannot be expressed any other way. Of course, it is only through a relationship and familiarity with a medium that certain ideas can form, and it is not to say that Maurer simply picked up a camera for one piece and put it down for the next (she actually stayed loyal to certain techniques for years at a time), but her wild experimentation only goes to show how deep rooted her ideas were, and it was in fact a case of exploring how each format could convey them.
Perhaps the best example of her process lies in Parallel Lines, Analyses, a 1977 work in which she and a friend photographed each other racing along the opposite balconies on the inside of a Budapest apartment building. Although seemingly unstructured, and many of the pictures featuring blurry or rushing figures, this action was meticulously planned, and subsequently analysed (hence the title) by Maurer. Each photograph is taken in a set place, displaying a third of the scene from the previous picture, and the images mirror each other exactly, despite the figures in them being at various points and in different positions. Here we see a staple of Maurer’s work – the containment, deconstruction and reproduction of spontaneous events. She is exploring space, time and relativity all in one simple experiment, and by displaying her workings and notes (another indicative feature of her practice), she invites us, the audience, to indulge in and comprehend her ideas fully.
As I’ve said, Maurer has turned to 2D, painted work in later life, focussing on bold graphic pieces which appear almost digital. Painted entirely by hand, they are very much a 20th Century artist’s take on modern ideas; there is a certain solemnness to them, not necessarily in the paintings themselves but in terms of the process – they feel like a study, rather than a raw creative force. Dynamic, certainly, but also calm, reflective and contained. Throughout her life, Dóra Maurer has consistently produced original and exciting work, using a transdisciplinary approach in order to examine and understand the world around her, and she’s showing no sign of stopping.
The Dòra Maurer exhibition is free and runs at the Tate Modern until 5th July 2020.
Words, Joseph Hewlett-Hall
Images, Dóra Maurer and Tate Modern