Christian Meyer seems to use the past to rewrite the present. Born in 1976 in Sigmaringen in southern Germany and now living in Vienna, he often begins with historical episodes and events that have left their mark on the structure of society. With great precision, he brings different (popular) cultural, political and social contexts together in charming and visually intense tableaux. Systematically, step by step, he reorders reality and gives it a new unexpected script.
A good example is the exhibition ‘flotsam and jetsam’ which took place in Galerie Mezzanin in Vienna in 2007 and came across as a pastiche of Biedermeier sentimentality and Brazil’s colonialization. It was about taste and exoticism, fashion and adventure, science and emotions. Mayer’s interpretation of the panoramic wallpaper Les Vues du Brésil (Views of Brazil, 2007) cast an overwhelming silhouette of an exotic landscape across the gallery’s main wall. The motif – a view of Guanabara Bay – was manufactured in 1829 by the Alsatian company Zuber & Cie and once gave a wordly flair to Biedermeier interiors. Mayer exorcised the romantic content from this tropical illusion by replacing the original’s opulent colours with austere black.
The series of C-Type prints ‘Les Vues du Brésil à Vienne’ (Veiws of Brazil in Vienna, 2007) was made at the Hofmobiliendepot Möbel Museum Wien ( the Imperial Furniture Collection at the Vienna Furniture Museum), a collection that dates from the time of the Habsburg monarchy. Mayer arranged unusual pieces of furniture with peculiar names such as ‘giraffe grand piano’ against the actual wallpaper that is displayed on the museum walls. The theme of the audio-slide installation Zwei Jahre, ein Monat und zwei Tage (Two years, one month and two days, 2007) was a find from the same museum: To the sound of twittering canaries, viewers could admire a slide of Bibi and Büberl, Francis II’s mascots, stuffed and mounted on a plinth. The songbirds are supposed to have reminded the Emperor of his daughter Leopoldine whom he had married off – in true Habsburg style – to the Brazilian regent Dom Pedro, never to see her again.
Finally, Mayer put a large number of potted plants – Monstera Deliciosa, universally dreaded by interior designers under its nom de guerre Philodendron – throughout ‘flotsam and jetsam’ and thus referenced the potted Palms in Marcel Broodthaer’s installation Un Jardin d’hiver (A Conservatory, 1974) along with the link already featured in Broodthaer’s work between the colonial thirst for knowledge and museum classification.
Mayer’s storyboards fuse loose connections while allowing the Viewer to follow individual narrative strands. An example is Resolute Desk (2008), a faithful replica of the desk which has been used by many American presidents in the Oval Office, including Barack Obama. The original was created at the request of Queen Victoria out of wood from HMS Resolute: The British navy ship got stuck in pack ice while trying to sail the Northwest Passage in 1855 and drifted in the Atlantic as a ghost ship the following summer until it was captured by American whalers and sent back to the queen. After the ship was retired, the queen had the desk made as a diplomatic gift in 1880. Mayer picked up on the transatlantic transformation in his installation by adding quotations from George W. Bush and current reports on exploiting mineral resources in the Arctic Ocean, which were placed on the desk. Fragments of the familiar and the unknown combine in Mayer’s work to form parables of memory and perception.
In ‘Gizmo’ his 2009 show at Mezzanin about the end of Polaroid film production, the artist focused on the theme of disappearance. Mayer is the lucky owner of a Type 55 film from the last production run in 2008. The photographs in the seven part series ‘Threshold and Inertia’ (2009) owe their existence to the legendary American landscape photographer Anselm Adams who worked as a an advisor to Polaroid in the 1960’s and who carried out exposure tests with hand-woven Navajo rugs. Mayer’s appropriation, on elegant barite paper, celebrates the only Polaroid film to have offered not only a short-lived instant positive, but also a robust negative for darkroom use.
Links between Polaroid and the paranormal are suggested by a more than bizarre film sequence found by Mayer in a Berlin archive (Gizmo, 2009). The one-minute video loop shows Ted Serios, an American hotel porter who achieved dubious fame in the 1960’s with his ‘thoughtographs’. Supported by his agent, the psychiatrist Jule Eisenbud, Serios performed in public, and claimed he could ‘think’ pictures onto Polaroid film by a kind of psycho-kinesis. It was remarkable how Serios saw his number through, his face contorted with pain, his body convulsing, his eyes staring through a rolled up piece of photographic paper – the ‘gizmo’ – into the lens of the Polaroid camera. Imaginatively, Eisenbud identified the blurry results of his thought photography as Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter.
With In the instant of memory, everything was swirling and dissolving (2009), Mayer combines material dissolution, real loss and differing interpretations of visual information with in a collection of 450 Polaroids. They were taken during the filming of Roland Joffé’s The Mission (1986), the drama about a Jesuit mission in South America in the mid-18th century. After picking them up on eBay, Mayer arranged them in ten frames in such a way that all of the Polaroids containing evidence of the presence of the film crew in the jungle are turned face down, while the images of the native population remain visible. With this simple intervention, Mayer placed the film’s construction of reality in a strange state of suspension between tangibility and intangibility.
This spring, Mayer showed new works under the title ‘Scenic’ at Christian Nagl gallery in Berlin. Here, the history of photography and the topos of the ‘great American landscape’ met: Rugs, Kodachrome films and a national park in Utah constituted the frame of reference for several free-standing objects which resembled information boards at a tourist fair. Mayer is still at work on his new script for reality…
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
Frieze d/e Sommer Summer 2011 s.106 - 108