Josiah Mcelheny. The Ornament Museum

27 Apr 2016 – 2 Apr 2017

Regular hours

10:00 – 18:00
10:00 – 18:00
10:00 – 18:00
10:00 – 18:00
10:00 – 18:00
10:00 – 18:00

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The Ornament Museum, Josiah McElheny’s installation—developed especially for the MAK—reinterprets the historical design language of Viennese Modernism, finding within it a set of new questions about art and psychology.


The New York-based artist, well known for his use of glass with other materials, has created a museumwithin-a-museum—installed in relation to the MAK’s permanent collection of Viennese objects from around 1900.

The pavilion was designed in collaboration with Chicago architect and exhibition designer John Vinci. Its structure and proportion recall Josef Hoffmann’s design for the Austrian pavilion at the Exposition internationale des Arts décoratifs et industriels modernes (Paris, 1925), which helped to spark a new modernist vision. The overall aim of Hoffmann’s pavilion was to point towards his ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk [total work of art] a concept in strong opposition to the purely functional evolution of design.

In McElheny’s pavilion, we are invited to enter and look out through the landscapes created by the ornamental motifs on its windows. Produced in collaboration with a specialized glass school using a traditional silkscreen printing technique, these delicate black drawings attempt to translate a number of Koloman Moser’s studies for ornamental form, as in the editionFlächenschmuck [Ornament for flat surfaces], published in Die Quelle [The Source], in 1902. Their ornamental geometry achieves a unique quality by the interplay of graphic shapes and the virtually invisible, shimmering glass surfaces.

With his artistic interest in the use of glass in architecture, McElheny places himself in relation to historical narratives, but also in connection to our current obsession with transparency. In early 1920s avantgarde circles, glass was seen to offer a poetic ephemerality and inspired structures based on crystalline forms intended as utopian models of the future.

The title of the exhibition is borrowed from Paul Scheerbart’s poetic fable about an ornament museum, published in the magazine Die Gegenwart (Berlin, 1911). While inspired by the intensive debates on the aesthetics and meaning of ornament involving Adolf Loos, Josef Hoffmann, and Koloman Moser as well as the art historian Alois Riegl, the project’s dreams are about a different historical confluence as well.

McElheny also hopes to demonstrate a connection to the development of modern psychology in Vienna by Sigmund Freud and others. The ornament of Viennese Modernism was superimposed onto all types of surfaces and media, such as paper, textiles, jewelry, furniture, walls, and architectural elements. As such, it represented the psychology of the society at that time, but it also changed the psychological state of the people inhabiting these almost psychedelic rooms.

The exhibition speaks about the underlying psychology of modern ornament. This language is brought to life through performances in which the actress Susanne Sachsse, as the curator of ornament, offers individual tours of the pavilion, pointing out the hidden visceral meanings of the patterns. The performer wears a fantastical dress, a reconstruction of a 1908 design by Emilie Louise Flöge, the dress becoming an animated ornament itself, connecting the performer’s body, the architecture and multiple, overlapping forms of ornament. This performative approach reflects McElheny’s dynamic ideas about the body’s relationship to looking and to objects, as well as his notion that physical perception is a kind of narration.

Curator: Bärbel Vischer, Curator, MAK Contemporary Art Collection

Exhibiting artists

Josiah Mcelheny


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