Interview with Maria Holter, exhibition curator

The ACF London’s current exhibition TIME(LESS) SIGNS: Otto Neurath and Reflections in Austrian Contemporary Art focuses on visual communication and the legacy of design pioneer Otto Neurath. Featuring original Neurath works as well as 30 contemporary artists the exhibition is one of our most comprehensive and ambitious. Find out more about the ideas and motivations behind the exhibition in this interview with curator Maria Christine Holter.

Why did you decide to curate an exhibition about Otto Neurath?

In 2007 the Austrian artist Waltraud Palme approached me with the idea to present her large sized table-object SIGN:TABLE at the Gesellschafts- and Wirtschaftsmuseum (GWM, Social and Economic Museum) in Vienna, a museum that Otto Neurath had established in 1925 and that was originally located in various buildings in the city – the most prominent of which was the giant “Volkshalle” at the Vienna Town Hall, but also the typical Vienna “Gemeindebau”, the social housing projects of the so-called Red Vienna (the social-democratic city government of the 1920s and -30s). Since the 1970s the museum is housed in an old factory in the 5th district and not very well known to the general public.

At that point (2007) I, too, had neither heard of Otto Neurath (except maybe as philosopher of the Vienna Circle), nor about his museum, but I knew that Palme had investigated the meanings of signs and pictograms in her artistic work, realising various interesting projects not only in form of objects, but also as installations in public space. Waltraud had arranged for her SIGN:TABLE, which consists of an archive of over 2700 self-created, though undecipherable pictograms, to be presented at the GWM exactly on Otto Neurath’s 125th birthday and asked me to give an accompanying lecture about her work, focusing on the SIGN:TABLE as an homage to the founder of the museum.

Dealing with Palme’s art at this specific location on that specific day, naturally meant dealing with the pictorial ideas of Otto Neurath, who – in a very simplified sense – can be called “the father of the pictogram”. And that is, how it all began…

G&W-23Why is Neurath’s work relevant today?

First of all it is important to know that Neurath, primarily a social economist, and his team at the GWM did not invent pictograms out of an artistic endeavour, but with a socio-political agenda: Everyone, regardless of social and educational background should be able to understand economic data and other complex matter in order to actively participate in society. For this very reason Otto Neurath, the economist, Marie Neurath (née Reidemeister), the “transformer” (information designer) and Gerd Arntz, the graphic artist, developed a new method of visual statistics – the Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics, which was later developed into ISOTYPE (International System of Typographic Picture Education), a totally new visual language to convey knowledge via simplified pictures of the original subject-matter – “pictograms”. These were and still are applied in every field, also to function in guiding systems throughout our cities, airports and other public spaces where rapid orientation is essential. Many of the pictograms that are in use today, have their roots in the vast collection of ISOTYPE symbols, though they might have been transformed by a contemporary information designer.

Secondly the political aspect of Neurath’s work is so intriguing to me. During the latest revolutions (f. e. in Egypt) I was not surprised to see that banners and posters with pictograms where held up towards the cameras. These simple “sign-messages” can be understood and distributed much faster via the media and social networks than words and speeches.

To my mind our world is not thinkable without signs, pictograms and icons anymore – look at all the apps and the way we communicate via emoticons etc. Our accelerated society has kind of moved backwards – from a word- and letter-oriented culture back to the use of sign-language, the contemporary version of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. Neurath was already very aware of that development shortly before his death in 1945, which is truly astonishing.


The exhibition is a smaller version of a large-scale exhibition held at the Künstlerhaus in 2012. How did you adapt such a comprehensive exhibition for the space of the ACF London?

Naturally I had to reduce the number of artists, but I still intend to show a wide range of artistic solutions and concepts. I realised I could achieve this by choosing the Austrian positions from the more internationally oriented Vienna exhibition, which is fair enough for an exhibition at an Austrian Cultural Forum. Then again I limited the numbers of artworks. Christian Hutzinger, for example, showed 3 large-scale paintings in Vienna, whereas at the ACF London I can only present one from that series. The same goes for Andrea Ressi, whose modular and varying floor installation covered the whole floor of a large room at the Künstlerhaus. Here we will show only 4 to 6 modules in different combinations. In spite of these alterations the “feel” of TIME(LESS) SIGNS will still be there. Plus this condensed version might prove to have certain advantages, because the viewer can concentrate on one or two pieces per artist, compare the individual positions and draw his or her own conclusions more easily at the intimate space of the ACF London compared to the 7 vast rooms at the Vienna Künstlerhaus. And of course, by inviting Chris Burke to co-curate and add original material from The Otto & Marie Neurath Isotype Collection at the University of Reading the exhibition will be very rich.
How did you select artists and artworks for the exhibition?

I guess, I already answered this question for London.
When Barbara Höller, my Vienna co-curator, and I started with our investigations in 2008, we took off from artists we already new would fit the concept – like Waltraud Palme, Hermann Josef Painitz, Peter Weibel, Richard Kriesche and Lena Knilli – artists, whose work (or at least a certain series) relates directly to the visual ideas of Otto Neurath. Then we discovered that many artists, especially younger ones, more or less unconsciously “quote” from Neurath’s achievements in their own visual language. Pictograms and visual statistics have become general knowledge through today’s information design that obviously it is not necessary for contemporary artists to know a lot about Neurath and ISOTYPE to be able to use that language, subvert or further develop it. When we invited the artists to participate in the exhibition, we had had already certain pieces in mind, but some also developed new artworks especially for the exhibition like Wilfried Gerstel, Nikolaus Gansterer or Sito Schwarzenberger. One of the main principals in the selection process of the artworks was that Barbara and I were both were very interested in works which pursue an agenda, make a distinct socio-political statement. Neurath’s work certainly did. In this regard I would like to point out the work of Hazem El Mestikawy, Ilse Chlan,, Christian Rupp and Niko Wahl – to name only a few.

The ratio of male/female artists in the exhibition is rather unbalanced. Did you find that fewer female artists were RESSI_infrastructure landscape_engaging with the subject of visual communication?

Isn’t it ironic that a show originally curated by two women should comprise relatively few female artistic positions? Barbara and I were very aware of that while doing research for the Vienna show, and for London the same is true… I even had to drop a brilliant piece by the Berlin based female artist collective MIGRANTAS, due to my self-inflicted concept of presenting only Austria based artists at the ACF, which truly hurt! You are very right to point that out in our conversation, but I am afraid it is correct to assume that in general fewer female artists deal with that subject-matter. Though a key member of the original design team for Isotype was a pioneering woman in graphic design: Marie Reidemeister. Maybe this exhibition will give rise to more works by contemporary female artists in this respect, at least I hope it will!
How can artists, in addition to designers, help us understand and develop visual communication today?

YANG_revolutions_still03Art as such is visual communication and I do not think that artists need to supply a didactic concept. Art is free and above duties! Therefore there are also examples in the show that are ironic, cryptic and subversive. To my mind it is the goal of designers, like Erwin K. Bauer’s buero bauer and curators like myself to help us understand visual communication and give us orientation in the “jungle” of visual information. Our world undergoes rapid changes and information design has to react to that, whereas the significance of valid signs is timeless – as one can see in the Neurath’s work and hopefully also in this exhibition.

>> The exhibition continues until 9 January 2015 at the Austrian Cultural Forum London (28 Rutland Gate, London SW7 1PQ). Weekdays from 9am to 5pm;


One thought on “Interview with Maria Holter, exhibition curator

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s