Metamorphic Animation: Light, Plasticity and Legibility in Bauhaus Performances

This project examines Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer’s performances of light in relation to Etienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotography, considering them in a lineage of “metamorphic” animation (Gunning). Schlemmer’s Ring and Stick Dance in the late 20s present seemingly dematerialized figures in the darkness apart from the illuminated contour of the body and tools. Like his contemporary László Moholy-Nagy, Schlemmer employed light, shadow, and reflection in the conception of the figure and movement. The trajectory of geometric shapes in motion animates light, raising questions of figuration, representation, and legibility as anticipated in Marey’s motion studies. I advance that Schlemmer’s kinetic stage, torn between abstraction and the Constructivist tendency toward taylorized motion, reenacts the process of perception itself, recalling Marey’s emphasis on instantaneity and archivability. Through the figural malleability and hyper-visibility of the markers of its motion, the actual (the visible body) slides into the virtual (the unseen), such that what is perceived is the imperceptible making itself felt.

I consider Schlemmer’s performances as live motion studies of the body and light and further probe them in terms of ‘plasticity’ in the discussion of animation. I engage Elie Faure’s notion of “cinéplasticité” and his view of cinema as foremost plastic art, closer to dance or rhythmic procession rather than theatrical illusion. I argue that the notion of ‘plasticity’ that emerges during the mechanical-industrial age of the 20s (including Eisenstein’s “plasmaticness”) contributes to a productive reflection on the materiality of light, as well as to a reconsideration of animation in the lineage of metamorphic motion rather than photo-indexical formats. Schlemmer’s luminous figures are “moving architecture” in Faure’s sense, in dialogue with the surrounding stage that approaches an “architectonic-spatial organism” (Schlemmer). I demonstrate that ‘plasticity’ of light is to be understood as both a form of matter as well as formation: it is the process of becoming, or the tension in figural transformations.

Jungmin Lee is a doctoral candidate in Film and Visual Studies at Harvard University. She probes projection practices in European avant-garde movements of the 20s and contemporary media installations in the 60s and today, with a focus on performativity, kinetics, materiality, and space. She holds a dual bachelors degree with Honors in Modern Culture and Media and French Civilization from Brown University, attending Université Paris 1 Panthéon- Sorbonne and Paris VIII. She has worked in the curatorial department at Centre Pompidou in France and the EYE Film Institute in the Netherlands.