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The modern man

Jam-packed tribute to Lászlò Moholy-Nagy celebrates the groundbreaking artist's insight and influence

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Sensing the Future, which opened at Plug In ICA early last month, examines the remarkable prescience and enduring impact of early modernist polymath Lászlò Moholy-Nagy, a pivotal figure in 20th-century art. A pioneer in media that weren't even named until years after his death in 1946, Moholy-Nagy was among the first artists to apprehend, respond to and ultimately embrace the sensory onslaught that would come to characterize life in the age of mass media and high-speed communications.

Esthetically, Moholy-Nagy's output is a product of its time, reflecting the spare geometric abstraction favoured by painters sculptors and architects of the European avant-garde and by the Bauhaus school, where he was a professor. At the same time, the exhibition shows the work's conceptual underpinnings and formal innovations -- chiefly its embrace of technology and the unstable influence of light, movement, perspective and sensory experience -- to be strikingly contemporary.

Part exhibition, part archive, Sensing the Future runs the gamut of Moholy-Nagy's overwhelmingly diverse practice, showcasing experiments in photography, filmmaking, "expanded cinema" (what we might call "new media installation" now), sculpture, interior architecture, painting and industrial design. These are supplemented by gallery-length vitrines overflowing with historical documents, books and texts by exhibition curator Oliver Botar, among other contributors. The show also features recent works by more than a dozen artists, architects, filmmakers, designers and collaborative teams working today, each of whom cites Moholy-Nagy as a crucial influence.

It's a lot of material to sift through, and I can't say I've ever personally shared Botar's unmistakable enthusiasm for the Hungarian-born renaissance man. That said, Sensing the Future's broad focus and innovative treatment do a great deal to elevate the work from "historically significant" to "actually interesting," even if it takes considerable effort on the viewer's part to get there.

Many of the contemporary contributions are among the exhibition's highlights, expanding on ideas and forms that Moholy-Nagy began exploring early in the last century. Kinetic sculpture predominates, with several works directly inspired by Moholy-Nagy's 1930 Light Prop for an Electric Stage, a mechanical whirligig of gears and mirrored surfaces designed to produce an unpredictable play of light and shadow.

Winnipeg-based artist-architects Lancelot Coar and Patrick Harrop craft an engrossing, high-tech installation of motorized lights, laser-cut mechanics and sheer fabric. Ken Gregory offers a delightfully janky, homebrew counterpoint with his Electric Light Machine for a Modern Room, a contraption that raises and lowers a twirling disco ball while making noises that suggest it might break down or catch fire at any moment.

Contemporary dancer and performance artist Freya Olafson bridges technological and historical divides with characteristic oddness in Threshold, an otherworldly webcam performance shot with Photo Booth's "X-ray" filter in front of the original Light Prop. Between the video's low resolution and aggressive processing, Olafson is reduced to an undulating spectre of light and shadow shuddering in concert with Moholy-Nagy's sculpture.

Ultimately, these and other notable works -- Olafur Eliasson's transfixing mirrored globe, Erika Lincoln's twitchy, meteorological cloud of laser-cut arrows, American tech-artist Eduardo Kac's book of "scent poems" -- attest to the breadth and prescience of Moholy-Nagy's practice. Sensing the Future offers a fascinating (if exhausting) view of an artist dazzled by the world, by technology and by his own senses, one that yields new connections and provocations with repeated visits. The exhibition closes June 1.

Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 10, 2014 C14

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