In the rhythmically striated and fluidly undulating contours of Lichtraum (Sandrelief), Heinz Mack captures the fragile balance between stillness and movement, making visible the tension between matter and force. Molecules of sand, their colour imperceptibly shivering between modulations of gold and amber, flow over an elongated surface, stretching over a metre long. Abandoning the precepts of traditional composition, Mack manipulates the grains into a structure of parallel ridges and furrows. Within this ordered configuration, each element is minutely different: perpendiculars waver, peaks grow closer together, sandy valleys become progressively shallower. For Mack, this arrangement, simultaneously apprehended both as a unified Gestalt form and as an interplay of components, sets up the dynamic visual vibrations which underpin his practice. ‘”[S]tructure” in the sense of “unity”, overall form, is destructible, but its elements remain in their unadulterated diversity,’ Mack described the effect he sought. ‘To me such an element of structure is, for instance, a number of parallel straight lines in a horizontal or vertical arrangement. The pattern of such lines is infinitely variable; the principle involved is the simultaneous and recurring sequence of the lines. […] Individual parallel zones gradually transform themselves from zone to zone, while at the same time they retain their distinct but mutual character – in this way they are brought into vibration’ (H. Mack, quoted in ZERO, exh. cat., Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam 2015, p. 371).
Executed in 1958, Lichtraum (Sandrelief) marks a key moment in the artist’s practice. The previous year, Mack, together with the artist Otto Piene, had founded the avant-garde Zero group, which sought to transmute art by refracting it through light, space and energy. These principles were epitomised in Mack’s most ambitious work of this time, the Sahara Project. Detailed in the third edition of the Zero journal in 1961, and embarked upon in the African desert a year later, the Sahara Project played on the artist’s mind since at least 1959. Mack envisioned a fusion of the new dimension of art with an immeasurable, otherworldly expanse: a series of installations in the desert would make manifest its elemental energy. The blazing Saharan light was to be concentrated in mirrored walls and towering steles; immense artificial suns would rotate in perpetual motion; immaterial, reflective membranes would float in the sky. Among these proposals was one for a delimiting passe-partout zone, made up of surfaces upon which sand would accumulate, their form determined by the interaction of static electricity and restless wind: ‘These reliefs are the labyrinths of the wind, which carries the sand through the air. A series of glass sheets is arranged in the sand. Because of their resistance, the flying sand forms artificial structures and modulations, seen in their full plasticity in the light of the sinking sun’ (H. Mack, quoted in ZERO, exh. cat., Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam 2015, p. 377). Crystallising this utopian moment in its modulated, vibrating form, Lichtraum (Sandrelief) foreshadows Mack’s later investigations into the intangible forces of the universe.