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Bauhaus: Radical materials and revolutionary politics

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Photo by Cethegus (Wikimedia Commons)

Park Hill is a fitting location for a show about the birth of the modern movement, as it's in the uncompromising architecture of the 1960s that modernist ideas reached their apex.

Radical Materials, which runs until 20 April at S1 Artspace, focuses on the practical and even commercial aspects of the Bauhaus's teachings.

The school, whose teachers included the architect Walter Gropius and the designer Marianne Brandt, existed in Germany from 1919 until 1933, when it was pressured into closing by the Nazis.

The show features new responses to the Bauhaus by local artists but also original metal tableware designed by Brandt.

Modernism was born out of radical politics

Her interpretations of office furniture are barely recognisable as a paperweight, a desk set and a coaster holder. Brandt dispenses with the ornamentation and gilding of 19th-century design, allowing form to follow function.

For leftists, an uncomfortable contradiction lies at the heart of 20th-century modernism.

Modernism was born out of radical politics. Constructivism, one of its most influential strands, emerged under the patronage of the early USSR, which wanted new forms to suit a new society.

The writer Jonathan Meades says that: "there was no such thing as architectural modernism. There were modernisms, plural."

And it was the cool and technocratic strain of modernism pioneered at the Bauhaus that became the house style of corporate capitalism.

Joseph Cutts' video 'Configure Crude Complexities' shows the white heat of metalwork close up, allowing us to see how objects are put together.

Cutts' film echoes the revolutionary ideas of the school. To show how a building or household object was put together now seems commonplace, but this was a rebellious act in 1919.

Invented at the Bauhaus, the idea of a 'design factory' that mass produces products for everyday use is now best seen in the retail behemoth Ikea. This is a company not otherwise known for its contribution to class struggle.

Ironically for the communists among its staff and students, the technical innovations of the school may even have hastened the spread of mass consumer culture in America.

Radical Materials touches on this contradiction. Peter Martin and Jon Cannon's video work 'Night Screen' shows imagined Facebook and Twitter pages, with text hoping that we: "Have a good night's sleep!"

Martin and Cannon imagine an alternate world where social networks shut down overnight to give respite to weary eyes. As with the Bauhaus, 'Night Screen' shows that technological innovation can be used for good rather than the pursuit of profit.

Another work juxtaposes a photo of an Ikea big-box store with the clean lines of Gropius's Bauhaus building in Dessau, now a World Heritage Site.

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But S1's show also sheds light on a more mystical side of the Bauhaus that contradicts the dominant associations with clean lines and rectilinear forms.

As depicted in Philip Hensher's 'The Emperor Waltz', early students were encouraged to follow Mazdaznanism, a religious sect which mandated shaved heads, quasi-monastic robes, and a vegetarian diet that consisted of "uncooked mush smothered in garlic."

The school's teachers were dismissed as cranks by the residents of Weimar, where the school was based until it was forced to move to Dessau.

New work by Emily Musgrave, 'Shift Work' and 'Control', captures the counterbalance between the rigour of modernism and this sense of quasi-mystical expression.

Inspired by Brandt's work, Musgrave explores what happens to materials when they are subject to a series of processes. "The works are repeatedly cleaned, painted, stripped and repainted in an investigation into the labour of making," reads the description of 'Shift Work'.

Despite the brilliance of Wassily Kandinsky's paintings, the school's main influence is found in its contribution to 20th-century manufacturing.

The ubiquity of lowest common denominator design, aided by mass production, means that it's harder than ever to find meaning in the objects that surround us. In that sense, the carefully crafted objects and buildings of the Bauhaus still looks like the future.

Sam Gregory

Construction House: Radical Materials runs at S1 Artspace until 20 April. Entry is free.

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