The Dark Optimism of Otto Piene and Zero


Detail of Otto Piene's Neon Medusa (1969).

Yes, I dream of a better world.

Should I dream of a worse?


Yes, I desire a wider world.

Should I desire a narrower? 

- Otto Piene, 1961

A dark gallery space is illuminated by a single ochre neon bulb, which initiates a choreographed lighting sequence comprising 449 additional bulbs, each attached with metallic arms to a central chrome orb. Neon Medusa (1969) by Otto Piene (1928-2014) evokes Sputnik and networks of cables, Cold War technological development and military communication and control, while also calling to mind constellations, Vegas casinos, and illuminated communities dotting a shiny globe. Its seeming exuberance seems incongruous with the anxieties of the nuclear age, and with the title—Medusa being the famously hideous woman of myth, who turned onlookers to stone if they stared into her face. Where the Medusa of Greek myth is the terrifying, deadly Other, Piene's piece is a different kind of Other, a technological Other, that invites our steady gaze.