What happens when artists have an inspiration? Do they create their works from the depths of their being? Recently the art critic John Berger made an acerbic rejection of this type of »genius concept« of artistic creativity in an interview with the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. He compared the writer to a postman because it is certainly not a matter of inventing stories, since we are continuously surrounded by (hi)stories. Observing them, taking them up and passing them on to the reader undamaged – therein lies the mission.
Many works by young artist Christian Mayer, who lives in Vienna, assume a similar attitude and take up historical presentations, like in Gizmo (2009), a video made up of film material found by the artist in the Berliner Rundfunk archives. It documents an experiment by Ted Serios in the broadcast studio of the »Freies Berlin« in 1968. Ted Serios was a hotel employee from Chicago who became known in the USA for his »thoughtographs«. These photographs were mostly made in cooperation with his supporter, the psychoanalyst Jule Eisenbud, and often in a state of drunkenness. Serios con- centrated on creating an image on Polaroid camera film with nothing but the light from his mental skills. The only aid he used was his »gizmo«, a piece of photographic paper rolled into a cylinder. The rapid, hermetic photographic process- ing of the Polaroid film, permitting no interventions, was important for the photographs, which are reminiscent of distorted, badly lit, blurred excerpts from postcard images of very distant places, for this brought together both the con- firmation of the reality of Serios’s assertions and the witnessing of supernatural forces. In the video one sees a looped sequence of Serios with a distorted face, as if in pain, fiddling around jerkily with his gizmo, until after a few minutes he gives up, without succeeding.
The third law of the science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, which states that no adequately progressive technology can be distinguished from magic, applies especially to photography and even more to Polaroid photos, where the image appears practically from nowhere. But in a time when the Polaroid camera is disappearing in favour of digital cameras, the reverse argument also seems reasonable: hardly have they vanished from everyday life when such obsolete technologies again seem to be full of magic, it makes no difference if they involve photos or porcelain, which was believed to be a by-product in the alchemistic attempts to turn base metals into gold. This is the topic of the work Black Basalt (2009), which alludes to a tableware series made by the famous Wedgwood porcelain manufacturer. The founder, Josiah Wedgwood, who is seen as the main figure in the industrialisation of the potter’s craft, developed the particularly fine-grained black stoneware in the 18th century, said to be as sturdy as basalt. He based it on the surface appearance and workmanship found in Etruscan vases, which had recently been discovered, renouncing the taste of the time for luxurious decoration and putting his stake in elegant, simple forms, because industrially, they were much easier to manufacture.
His son, Thomas, was an important pioneer of photography and perhaps the first who succeeded in producing photographic images with sunlight on leather and paper coated with silver nitrate. The descriptions he published in an article in 1802 served Mayer as a guide for producing his own »sun pictures«, as Wedgwood called them. But since this development process is very hard to control, no picture resembled another. As his motif he took a selection of the Wedgwood objects from the collection of the Düsseldorf ceramics museum, where they were exhibited together with the »sun pictures«.
Charles Darwin was, in turn, a grandson of the company founder and presumably it was only because he married within the family that he was in a position to fund his own investigations, which brought about a fundamental change in man’s image of himself. Mayer’s exhibition in 2009 coincided with the bankruptcy of the Wedgwood company, while at the same time, Darwin’s 200th birthday was being celebrated all over the world. This was reason enough for the artist to travel to the English town of Stoke-on-Trent in order to search for connections between Darwin and his grandfa- ther, which could be found in the dreary town only in the form of trashy souvenirs. »When you find yourself in such a town, you can’t throw off the feeling that you have come at the wrong time, either to late or too soon«, said the artist about such once-flourishing industrial towns, which significantly defined the consumerist world of capitalism with their industrial products and artistic handicrafts.
More recently, Mayer addressed a similar problem of identity in Pori, in South-west Finland. Under the heading „Tools from a Workshop, 1960–2010“ he exhibited an ensemble that he found in the former town hall of the neighbouring town of Noormarkku in the local art museum. He made the discovery as he was looking for a tapestry by painter Unto Pusa (1913–1973) entitled Tools from a Workshop. The work was produced by the famous rug and tapestry manufacturer Aubusson, where Picasso, Matisse, Léger and other great artists of the time also had works produced. Maire Gullichsen was the initiator and founder of the museum; Mayer’s intervention was minimal. He brought not only the tapestry up out of obscurity but also its surroundings where it had been slumbering for almost half a century, the scruffy indoor plants, wooden chairs emanating brittle bureaucratic charm and a table, covered with magazines and journals, which announced, though with means quite unlike those of the Cubist painter, the immanent rise of the promising town of Noormarrku. Today both of these small towns have depressingly come to resemble international standards (and each other); the old architecture has given way to boring prefabricated high-rises; the little markets at the town centres are now interchangeable shopping centres.
What unfolds is less a network of obscure points of contact than a spiral-shaped narrative line that lures the viewer deeper and deeper into a more and more complex story, for Mrs. Gullichsen even turned up in person at the opening, embodied by an actress in an elegant dark-blue 60’s style suit, a lady of the world – also noticeable in her speech, the very one she had given when she presented the work to the authorities in 1960. Her description of the link between international exchange and the importance of handicraft for a country’s cultural development drew a picture of a modernity in which handicraft and industrial production complement and mutually supported each other: »In future the products of Noormarkku will perhaps be ranked among the best in the world.« Not much is left of this hope; melancholy sets in. »What happens when this work is made visible again in the new temporal contexts? What happens when the speech is re-staged fifty years later?« asks the artist. »The gap between interests me, the time registered, what one associates with an object or artwork and projects onto it, and the way it changes when the whole thing is brought back into the light of the public view at a different point in time.« A second work in the museum rounded off the project: the artist presented a densely crowded selection of plants, which he had found in public and semi-public places, such as the town hall, the municipal library, the theatre, the hospital and the Bingo hall. A kind of domesticated jungle and, at the same time, a condensation of the decorative efforts of their owners to beautify their sterile workplaces. Since the individual plants originally came from a wide range of countries and regions around the world, grouping them resulted less in a collective portrait of their owners than in a kind of mashed-up cluster of flora of the most diverse species, connecting Pori with various exotic parts of the world. Loose white strips of paper hung on the walls, which were otherwise covered with printed floral motifs by the oldest still existing wallpaper firm in Finland, and which satisfy the same kind of longing as the indoor plants. Of course the »international style« propagated by Gullichsen represented a revolt against the very excess of decoration celebrated in the – here visually excluded – wall-
paper motifs. Mayer is a clever »postman«, and not only because he
negotiates on an equal level with both decoration and desolation in his work, but because in the play between such poles he finds the strands of »his« history, which he pursues and develops right through places, times and ideologies until the viewer thinks he can understand and explain everything – only then to notice that they have only just entered the workshop where the world is made and where the tools are hanging – unused.
ANDREAS SCHLAEGEL is a writer and a member of the Art Critics Orchestra. He lives in Berlin
Published in: Spike #25, Autumn 2010