“I AM NOT A NUMBER!” ~The Prisoner, 1967
It’s funny where your mind goes when you see a piece of art. The Guggenheim featured some incredible images of “White Balloon” by the late Otto Piene. The piece is installed in the Guggenheim’s rotunda as part of “Zero: Countdown to Tomorrow”, the museum’s latest exhibition exploring the Zero movement. When I saw White Balloon I immediately thought of the mysterious white Orb from the old British TV show, “The Prisoner”. My association with this was purely superficial, but little did I know this 1960’s philosophical, psychological sci-fi series shared some powerful themes with the work created by the artists in the Zero network.
The Zero movement emerged from a collective of German post-war artists struggling to reconcile their the darkness of the past while finding light in their creative voice. The artists in the Zero network eventually expanded internationally creating art that eschewed figurative art and abstract expressionism in favor of conceptual, kinetic, and minimal work. The “White Balloon” encapsulates all three of these artistic monikers and beautifully plays with the luminosity of light.
The “Zero” represents the culmination of a countdown preceding the blast off of a rocket or spaceship. Symbolically, Zero represents that transitional, disruptive moment between old and new, when innovation is born. The work emanating from this movement embodied a rebellious, rule breaking spirit that was the impetus behind the artists charting new pathways in art. Strong themes of existentialism were present in this work as artists attempted to make sense of their artistic identity amidst the chaos of their past and their environment.
“I AM NOT A NUMBER!”
This popular refrain came from the protagonist behind one of the most interesting Television shows I’ve ever seen. “The Prisoner” was a short run British television show from the late ’60’s that tackled themes of individualism, identity, power and freedom. The main character is a secret agent who unceremoniously resigns from his post and through nefarious reprisals he is pursued, rendered unconscious and wakes up on a mysterious island. The island village is actually a blissfully happy place, but in reality it hides sinister secrets (kind of like Disneyland), and the utopia quickly becomes a physical and mental prison from which he cannot escape.
The agent’s identity is defined by a simple number, which he learns is a means for ranking the island’s inhabitants, thereby keeping them in check. The island’s community is a homogeneous group devoid of individuality and the show’s protagonist fights to distinguish himself through rebellion by asserting his individualism (hence, I AM NOT A NUMBER). He eventually learns that the island village is ruled by #2 but all power is with #1 (who is never revealed in the show). The agent uses cunning political and psychological maneuvers to become #2 in hopes of unlocking the secret behind this mysterious prison community.
Meanwhile, he looks for any opportunity to escape, and every time he does so he is lured back to his life of subjugation by a mysterious white orb. In a nutshell the show is a study in existentialism, individuality and complete freedom. The floating orb in the show symbolizes the one truly free presence on the island.
(And the floating orb is really creepy… It’s one of those things you don’t forget if you have ever seen the show.)
This is why I quickly associated the orb with the beautiful, kinetic, luminous “White Balloon”. The parallels between the themes of the Prisoner and what I’ve learned about Zero is not just a matter of conceptual serendipity; it’s representative of what true innovation and disruption require: asserting a unique voice, challenging the status quo, blasting into unchartered territory, delivering something distinctive, and being a light that emerges from darkness.
For more on ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow at the Guggenheim:
For the jazzy and slightly bizarre intro to The Prisoner (including the creepy orb):