This exhibition focusing on the Austrian American Friedrich (Frederick) Kiesler (1890–1965) was the latest in a series at the MAK devoted to protagonists of the Wiener Moderne; it followed exhibitions on Josef Frank and on the relationship between Josef Hoffmann and Adolf Loos.1 Kiesler has become a familiar figure in the Viennese museum scene. In 1997 his estate was purchased by the Austrian state and the city of Vienna. The same year saw the establishment of the Austrian Friedrich and Lilian Kiesler Foundation, which has since undertaken exemplary research, resulting in exhibitions and a growing awareness of Kiesler's relevance to contemporary discourse. The last significant exhibition, The Scenery Explodes—Frederick Kiesler, Architect and Visionary Theater Designer, was mounted by the Austrian Theater Museum in 2012–13.2 In 2015, Birkhäuser published Endless Kiesler, a comprehensive account of Kiesler's spatial innovations.3 Thanks to the foundation's efforts, Kiesler is now one of the best-known figures of Viennese modernism.
The curators of the exhibition at the MAK, Dieter Bogner, Maria Lind, and Bärbel Vischer, set themselves the challenge of developing a new approach to Kiesler's career. Using a transdisciplinary methodology, they made Kiesler's transgression of boundaries their focus. Specifically, they stressed the interaction Kiesler achieved between aesthetic and empirical-scientific practices and their reflection of the environment and lifeworld (Lebenswelt). The Lebenswelten of the exhibition title refer to a central concept from Edmund Husserl's phenomenology, aimed at the undermining of the tendency within modern science to objectify daily life. The Lebenswelt—which Husserl sets in opposition to positivism—is a pretheoretical, subjective world of experience, tending toward the antirational, and developed further by Husserl into a phenomenological “universal philosophy.”4
Transdisciplinary frameworks have been popular for a number of years now, and the curators interpreted Kiesler's work as a contribution to the solution of concrete social problems through collaboration across various disciplines. But they undermined this ambitious approach by beginning the exhibition with an auratic object, the posthumously published 1966 book Inside the Endless House.5 With its evocative photograph of Kiesler by Duane Michals on the black front cover, the book, in which Kiesler reflects back on his artistic life, not only embodied Kiesler as talented dramaturge of his own self-image but also set the tone for an exhibition that was in fact monographic in the narrative it constructed and monocausal in its interpretive impulse. The work of Kiesler the “visionary” was shown in its full material variety; the 560 objects presented were almost exclusively from the Kiesler Foundation, and visitors were acquainted with Kiesler's lifework by way of eight thematic threads.6 The first section addressed Kiesler's preoccupation with the Gesamtkunstwerk by introducing his designs from the 1920s for the “electro-mechanical” stage set for Karel Čapek's play R.U.R. (W.U.R) and his design for an exhibit at the 1924 International Exhibition of New Theater Technology in Vienna. The objects were reanimated by being presented on a 1:1 reconstruction of the system of planes and supports that Kiesler conceived for the 1924 exhibition (a design that cemented his position in the history of exhibition display techniques). Giving visitors the lived experience of these innovative presentation techniques was a major contribution of the MAK exhibition. The reenactment of his design for the Austrian contribution to the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris was a high point. In contrast to its use in Paris, the floating structure functioned here not as a support for models or plans; rather, it rendered visible Kiesler's idea of a floating Raumstadt. The radicalness and elegance of the design still enchants, though the spell was broken by the projection onto part of the structure of a video by the artist Lili Reynaud-Dewar, who filmed herself moving around the structure while wearing the Endless House (Figure 1).7 The exhibition also featured interventions from five other artists—Leonor Antunes, Céline Condorelli, Verena Dengler, Apolonija Šušteršič, and Rirkrit Tiravanija—engaging in dialogue with Kiesler.
Confronting historical themes with contemporary positions—and thus offering a presentist interpretation of historical sources—is a feature of today's curatorial practice. But it is also evident in the shift (which has been happening for some time now) toward seeing Kiesler's architectural work in an art context. His life with and in art, which was evident from the 1930s onward in his use of a biomorphic vocabulary, culminated in the Art of This Century gallery designed for the collector Peggy Guggenheim. However, Kiesler's intensive engagement with the phenomenon of perception, his study of human physiognomy and modes of behavior, and his interest in new materials and technologies (pursued in the Laboratory for Design Correlation, among other places) cannot be explained only as an artistic fascination with technological innovations or as an outcome of his interest in universalizing concepts of life. If we break out of monocausal interpretations and place his work in a social and political context, new questions emerge. During World War II, new university-based research units were established that cofinanced future-oriented research, a development that continued into the Cold War years. In 1961, Kiesler received a grant from the Ford Foundation for the development of an ideal theater. After 1945, through its philanthropy, the Ford Foundation pursued political goals in the competitive context of the Cold War. Alongside future-oriented research, it supported behaviorist approaches in the social sciences that could prepare Western societies and democracies for rapid technical and social change. Kiesler, like his colleagues Bernard Rudofsky, Ray and Charles Eames, and George Nelson, was deployed by American governmental agencies to propagandize for the “American way of life.” Objects and documents from Kiesler's design for the 1945 Moscow exhibition U.S. Housing in War and Peace, organized by the National Council of American–Soviet Friendship, were shown in the exhibition, but minimal effort was made to offer a critical contextualization of his work in its sociopolitical milieu or alongside the activities of his contemporaries.
It is misleading to see Kiesler's engagement with new constructional and spatial concepts as an isolated phenomenon. Included in the exhibition was an interview for the CBS program Camera Three, in which Kiesler was asked about his conception of the Endless House. The interviewer was comfortable connecting the design with four contemporary buildings: Le Corbusier's Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp, Le Corbusier and Iannis Xenakis's Philips Pavilion, Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum, and Eero Saarinen's TWA terminal. These connections remain unexplored. The curators of Friedrich Kiesler: Lebenswelten/Life Visions succeeded in presenting a panorama of Kiesler's multilayered work, but the task of liberating the architect, artist, designer, stage designer, and theorist from his role as “visionary” remains.