TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT February 1997

LIES, DAMN LIES, AND STATISTICS: THE ART OF CHRISTIAN PHILIPP MÜLLER

The bourgeois wants his art luxurious, his life ascetic. It would make more sense if it were the other way around. . . . What works of art really demand from us is knowledge or, better, a cognitive faculty of judging justly: they want us to become aware of what is true and what is false in them.

—Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory

SCATTERED, ALMOST TEN YEARS of context-specific projects that can be reconstituted only with difficulty; scattering, a body of work that tracks the paths and passages of the art system itself, which today will not hold still long enough to be judged: the fundamental dispersion of Christian Philipp Müller’s installations and performances may explain the relative silence of American critics in the face of his now-extensive series of critical projects. To write about Müller’s work (not to write on it, better to say alongside it) is to experience something akin to his best-known performance, Green Border, staged to accompany an installation in the Austrian Pavilion at the 1993 Venice Biennale. There, Müller organized eight “hikes” during which he illegally crossed the border into the eight countries surrounding Austria, countries that for the most part had formerly been part of its old empire. Poised between the telling superficiality of the tourist’s journey and the inescapable exigencies of a forced migration, Green Border succinctly allegorized the current institutional confinement and the impossible contemporary position of so-called critical art: the performance’s repetitive attempts at escape simply resulted in any number of attractive snapshots; its engagement at once with real historical conditions as well as avant-garde tradition only highlighted their inherent contradiction.

FACT

Adorno might have accused Müller, as he once did Walter Benjamin, of the simple and “wide-eyed presentation of mere facts,” an accusation that rings with Adorno’s typical disdain for the functionalist aesthetic position taken in the ’20s and ’30s by artists from Bertolt Brecht to the Soviet Productivists. As we shall see, however, such disdain would be out of place; Müller seems to be aware of the pitfalls of the functionalist position, even though this legacy is a crucial aspect of his work: facts are the basis, indeed the very substance out of which many of his installations arise. This component of the work became most pronounced at the time of the artist’s 1990 Cologne installation Köln-Düsseldorf, in which Müller attempted a statistical mapping of the age-old rivalry between the two German cities, a rivalry that in the last thirty years has increasingly been registered in the artistic sphere. Displaced from the walls, two untreated canvases printed with the names of the artists living in each respective city hung like curtains on the gallery’s windows, performing the functional task of closing off the space from the outside. Müller also inscribed the names “Köln” and “Düsseldorf” separately on two facing walls and, instead of paintings, hung framed diagrams drawn by a plotter. These bar graphs traced the income and expenditures for each city’s cultural institutions from 1977 to 1989. In front of each wall, like so many copies of Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube, 1963–65, Müller placed a series of transparent Plexiglas “sculptures” directly on the floor, without bases. The comparison with Haacke is not simply fortuitous; similarly calling up Modernist sculpture’s legacy of formal autonomy and its imperative of utter self-reflexivity, these sculptures in fact performed a reversal of any such formal neutrality and structural transparency. Müller had simply realized the last year of his survey in three dimensions; the mere facticity of the bar graph had determined the aesthetic parameters of the sculptures, and any transparency they retained was solely on the level of the instrumental communication of information.

Now other artists have recently resorted to what we might here call the “aestheticization of the statistic”; Felix Gonzalez-Torres, for instance, exhibited framed charts mapping the course of the AIDS epidemic. Müller’s statistical aesthetic, however, differs by the measure of what we might still call its “self-reflexivity” (though the term would need to be redefined). In many projects, this has taken the reflexive form most privileged by artists since the ’60s, namely, site-specificity. Deepening the site-specific paradigm, however—and this is part of what made the Cologne show so successful in the end—the aesthetic presentation of facts in Köln-Düsseldorf corresponded to, mapped itself reflexively within, and thus revealed what we can only call an increasing factualization of the aesthetic sphere at the present (culture’s entrance into the realm of sheer quantification, numbers, profit motives, etc.).

With Köln-Düsseldorf, Müller betrayed himself specifically as an heir to what has been called the “factographic” tradition within the avant-garde, a lineage that most recently includes the work of Hans Haacke, Martha Rosier, and Allan Sekula.1 Seemingly closest to Haacke among his immediate predecessors, Müller’s didactic presentations appear less black and white than Haacke’s similar investigations: few conclusions are drawn, clear allegiances seem to be postponed, and a certain productive ambivalence is permitted. After all, in Köln-Düsseldorf, one outcome of Müller’s assimilation of sculptural form to the sheer transparency of the quantifiable was the possibility that this information might make little sense to its viewers, and that ultimately the reduction of cultural policy to numbers and monetary figures might serve to make its politics ever more hermetic, rather than clearly accessible.2 And if one of Haacke’s primary interests in his work over the last twenty-five years has been the use of art by international corporate organizations and the ultimate financial support of the artistic sphere by private business interests, Müller shifts his investigations toward the arena in which the cultural sphere can be seen to have become a business in its own right, functioning in complete correspondence to private industry. This tracing of the next step in the “refeudalization” of the cultural sphere—museums as the generators of income through tourism and their adoption of a mode of operation on the model of the corporation—might be seen as a step backward on the part of Müller from Haacke’s more strident connections. But if so, it is a step backward that has been achieved on the larger social level in recent years, and is thus a historical development that Müller’s work closely follows (in both the socially deterministic and the investigative senses of the word).

This story of facts is not quite finished, however, and it gets more complicated, for Müller showed the sculptures from Köln-Düsseldorf on several other occasions. For Fixed Values, installed at the Brussels Palais des Beaux-Arts in 1991, he attempted to auction off the traces of his previous installations (he was successful—almost everything sold), both allegorizing and refusing the myth that site-specific works ultimately resist commodification through their incapacity to circulate or exist beyond their exhibition. The Köln-Düsseldorf sculptures were included among a range of objects encompassing every possible medium, from an ostensible work on paper to video and painting. Fixed Values was itself “site-specific”: to accompany the exhibit, Müller designed an “auction catalogue” corresponding exactly to those produced by the Palais des Beaux-Arts as part of its activities (its contemporary-arts division is funded by proceeds from the institution’s auction house and larger historical exhibitions). Furthermore, Müller used the modes of display from both the auction and historical-exhibition divisions to determine the treatment of his objects. Lighting the sculptures from Köln-Düsseldorf in the same manner as a concurrent exhibition of Portuguese crown jewels in the historical section, Müller went on to borrow a vitrine from the auction house and the auction’s numbering plaques, both elements used by Marcel Broodthaers in his work two decades earlier. Indeed, Müller seemed to want to use “Marcel Broodthaers” as a site-specific element (paradoxically, an economically legitimizing one) of the project as a whole, for the Pa lais des Beaux-Arts was the very institution that Broodthaers had helped occupy in May 1968 and that ultimately led to the development of the Belgian artist’s “museum fiction.” Numbering his own objects like so many eagles in a Broodthaers vitrine, Müller assembled various vestiges of his actions as rare elements for the auction: a pair of shoes worn by Müller in a Jef Cornelis movie became “Pair of very precious men’s shoes”; unsold tickets from a performance were “Very rare entrance tickets”; three clovers from the installation porte bonheur, “Strange pressed cloverleaves.” Out of context, the objects became mute commodities, creating heretofore nonexistent value through their very displacement to the current exhibition. And nothing registered this displacement as completely as the sculptures from Köln-Düsseldorf; here, Müller displayed them as if disassembled for storage, collapsed into their component pieces, flattened like so many fallen cards. Outside their original context-specific installation, the objects became noncommunicative, gave no information, and mapped nothing but their own material condition as Plexiglas plates. It was as if what artist Renée Green has called “the specter of Broodthaers” had settled over Müller’s earlier Haacke-esque explorations, and the artist here registered the (perhaps necessary) risk work such as Haacke’s has always run, a risk embodied in Broodthaers’ own dictum: “The way I see it, there can be no direct connection between art and message, especially if the message is political, without running the risk of being burned by the artifice. Foundering.”3

FICTION

From the time of his first major intervention, the performance Kleiner Führer durch die Ehem. Kurfürstliche Gemäldegalerie, 1986, Müller has shown as strong an interest in constructing elaborate site-determined fictions as in mapping mere factual parameters. For the 1986 performance, Müller donned the outfit of a museum guard, printed mock-historical pamphlets, and offered daily tours of the annual student exhibition at the Kunst Akademie Düsseldorf. With a gesture that only highlighted the outmodedness of his fellow students’ productions (mostly paintings), Müller pointed out the student works to visitors but spoke instead about paintings from the collection of the Elector Johann Wilhelm, paintings that had for the most part long since been removed from this site to Munich. Playing on his visitors’ trust in the authority of his uniform, Müller constructed complex scenarios regarding the supposed imminent return of these historical works to Düsseldorf. His action here forecast at least two recurrent concerns of his subsequent work: the deployment of a fictional scenario to reconnect to a moment of historical loss (in this case, of a collection) and the tracing of affiliations between the uses of culture and concepts of identity (here, playing on a perceived lack of civic identity due to the real loss of an art collection to Munich).

The motivation for such a strategy is clearly linked to Broodthaers; it was Broodthaers, after all, who once explained his own elaborate fictions as a type of ideological critique: “Fiction enables us,” as he put it, “to grasp reality and at the same time that which is veiled by reality.” And so Müller would follow the Düsseldorf performance with a similar one providing a tour of a nonexistent royal garden; two years later, in 1988, he would cast himself as a Dutch king greeting the people for an installation in a private artist’s club founded in nineteenth-century Amsterdam. Rather than a Beuysian affirmation of unlimited creativity, Müller’s assumption of fictional roles seems clearly delimited by the contemporary parameters and real conditions of artistic production: its repressed origins (in aristocratic privilege), current functionaries and mediators (museum guards, civic tour leaders), and potential future destinies (cultural tourism). Allegorizing the last possibility in a recent installation mapping all the institutions that show contemporary art in Switzerland (Tour de Suisse, 1994), Müller acted out the role of cultural tourist, making a film of his peregrinations from institution to institution. Müller offered his viewers the option of acting out a role as well: more delimited in alternatives than ever, visitors could choose to wear caps labeled with only a fixed number of occupations: “artist,” “critic,” “spectator,” “patron,” “collector,” “dealer,” and so on.

Aside from using his fictions to map the structural conditions of artistic production, Müller has also (as in the 1986 performances) positioned these fictions to open up a dialogue with history, specifically the manifestations of the historical and neo-avant-gardes. In the 1993 Austrian border-crossing performance—documented in the Biennale catalogue in the form of a tourist guidebook, along with nineteenth-century landscape drawings and literary representations of the same—Müller essentially took on the identity of the two great adversarial figures of the avant-garde: the outlaw and the flaneur.4 Indeed, the flaneur as outlaw has a great lineage in recent art-one need only think back to Vito Acconci’s 1969 Following Piece. But here, Müller retooled the sublime, apolitical nature of flânerie into a political critique of the national; and to be outside the law in this case was not to engage in anarchistic transgression but to insist on the outmodedness of the national and to locate its spatial determinations. Engaging these historical forms of avant-garde activity in order to deconstruct them, Müller discovered new content in the old (the true mark of the historical materialist) and endowed an avant-garde myth with definitive use-value. With this action, Müller brought his factual and fictional investigations full-circle; and when on one of the crossings he was apprehended by the border police, fact and fiction had become very close indeed.

FUNCTION

Disguising the facts and real conditions of contemporary experience with reconciliatory fictions, while simultaneously materializing baseless fictions as naturalized facts: such is the very work—indeed the most basic definition—of ideology. Müller’s strongest projects set themselves up to interfere within the circuits of ideological transformation, taking the ideology of the aesthetic, as well as the aesthetic as ideology (the purpose served by its modern conceptualization as a space of disinterested, purposeless pleasure and contemplation), as their main targets. Such was the contribution of Müller’s piece, entitled Library Bus, for the 1991 “Tabula Rasa” exhibition in Biel, Switzerland, where artists were invited to contribute public monuments for sites of their own choosing within the city. Müller’s “sculpture” consisted of arranging for an out-of-use school bus to travel between the public schools in Biel, parking in front of them at predetermined times during the day. Positioning itself in a dialogue with the architecture of the different schools while still managing to evade public sculpture’s traditional purpose as a fixed ornament, Müller’s bus seemed both to negate and to expand the very category of monumental sculpture itself. Müller also altered the interior of the bus, placing a copy machine and two worktables inside, posting pedagogical citations, and stocking a bookshelf with publications on art chosen from those available to students in their school libraries. To be used as a space for reading, meetings, and discussions on art and teaching, Müller’s object inserted itself into one of the key locations where aesthetic ideology is first inculcated—the public schools—with a view toward exposing the material sites of its production (the library books) and providing at least the possibility of a space where this inculcation could be critically examined.5

Müller’s most recent work seems to have partially abandoned the somewhat agitprop nature of this early project; in fact, his preferred tactic today seems to stress the countering of aesthetic ideology not only through a simple functionalization of his objects, but also through putting to critical use the “purposeless” spaces of art themselves—rendering them critical, we could say, by making them “dysfunctional.” Far from the rather naive redeployment of various Fluxus strategies we see today in artists like Rirkrit Tiravanija, Müller no longer seems to be satisfied with simply inserting an object of use into the normally aestheticized spaces of the gallery or museum; instead such objects are imported into the art space in such a way as to highlight the intrinsic alterations (and deformations) that the space performs upon the function of the object, and vice versa. For example, in his contribution to the 1995 site-specific project Platzwechsel (organized by Müller and including work by Ursula Biemann, Tom Burr, and Mark Dion) dealing with Zurich’s recent “reclamation” and redesign of the Platzspitz park, a space famous for both drug abuse and cruising, Müller constructed a mock monument inside the Zurich Kunsthalle.6 On a copy of the plinth for a well-known permanent monument in the park, Müller placed a simulation of a temporary architectural structure currently in the Platzspitz, a surveillance booth used by security guards (one of the only visible manifestations of any aspect of the park’s recent past). Within the space of the art institution, the use-value of the surveillance booth was destroyed (it became a monument), and the design of the booth was such that visitors who entered had their heads positioned so that they would appear to outside spectators as a sculptural “bust.” Working with the reifying operations of the art space, Mailer had turned a tool for surveillance into an object of display (bringing the disciplinary functions of public architecture into view); to the extent that this became visible, the critique was also reversed, revealing how art institutions can turn even the tools of domination into “sculpture” (insisting here on the perpetual dysfunction of the museum—and putting this to use as such).

The attempt to use the aesthetic to re-create real social life was one of the great failed projects of Modernism; more often than not, art merely serves (even—perhaps especially—today) purposes of cosmetic amelioration and collective distraction. The dangers stemming from this condition are perhaps greater for those art works that do not take their (an)aestheticizing function as a given, for those artists who purport to be “critical”—institutionally or otherwise. And thus we have today all the neo-academies of “institutional critique,” the PR work of artistic “site-specificity,” the use of Dan Flavin sculptures as light-bulbs. Artistic projects that believe in the simple criticality and immediate functionality of their effects are usually fraudulent in the extreme, often importing the appearance of critique, to much art-world applause, in the absence of anything but mere surface effects. This is not a call on my part for artistic passivity, but for projects that take account of the dangers of what Hal Foster has for a long time been calling the “conventionality of the critical” (the transformation of “political” art into a fashion of its own), and for work that marks the contradictions and limitations of its position while struggling against them all the same. In my view, Müller’s work accomplishes this task (although it is a task that can never be completed and must always be renewed); his attempts to actualize political and artistic functions while working with and thus acknowledging art’s continued dysfunctionality is a case in point.7 To allegorize the current impossibility of transforming reality through artistic means is in the present to retain the future possibility that such transformation can be accomplished; Müller’s work attempts to activate this critical consciousness. Such a project is hardly futile: as the artist himself has put it, “Becoming aware is a step of its own; perhaps someday we will be smart enough to be able to do more than just take note.”8 Refusing until that time to cover over any of its contradictions, Christian Philipp Müller’s work continues to call upon our own faculties of judgment, providing us with facts that we can only hope one day to prove false, elaborating tales that—for the moment—ring all too true.

George Baker is a New York–based writer.

NOTES

1. The work of Benjamin H. D. Buchloh has been instrumental in defining and tracing such a lineage; see, e.g., his “From Faktura to Factography,” October 30 (Fall 1984), “Since Realism there was . . . (on the current conditions of factographic art),” Art & Ideology, ed. Marcia Tucker (New York: New Museum, 1984), and “Hans Haacke: Memory and Instrumental Reason,” Art in America 76 (February 1988).

2. This reading of the work was courted by Müller in later installations of the sculptures. In a group show in Hamburg, for instance, he again displayed the Köln-Düsseldorf Plexiglas boxes, but this time on bases—each of which were exactly the same volume and measurements as the transparent box above, but completely opaque, figuring aesthetically the dialectic of opacity and transparency that Müller seemed to be dealing with in the political-cultural sphere.

3. Marcel Broodthaers, “Ten Thousand Francs Reward,” in Broodthaers: Writings, Interviews, Photographs, ed. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1987), p. 42. On Fixed Values, see Isabelle Graw’s interview with Müller: “Preisgestaltung,” Artis: Zeitschrift für neue Kunst (March 1992), pp. 22–27. Green discusses the “specter of Broodthaers” in her “Open Letter No. 1: On Influence,” Texte zur Kunst 7 (October 1992).

4. Green Border is one of the most complex of Müller’s many installations. Its historical references are dense: citing Michael Asher or Gordon Matta-Clark’s technique of revealing relations through architectural withdrawal, Müller removed part of the back wall of the Austrian Pavilion’s garden, opening it to the Biennale Garden surrounding it. In league with the border-crossing performance, the work took up the troubled relations between earth art and a certain type of institutionally critical Conceptual art (most famously, Daniel Buren, who dismissed the former as so many “landscapists”). The rest of the installation read like a variation on Marcel Broodthaers’ 1974 Un Jardin d’Hiver; Müller instead constructed what he called an “Orangerie of the North.” Replete with the same objects (potted plants, a self-monitoring video camera, nineteenth-century prints), Broodthaers’ use of elements from the last century dealing with captivity to approach the issue of artistic decontextualization was dialectically reversed by Müller’s use of artistic elements to deal with the issue of decontextualization on the national scale. A more complete account of the work would also have to compare Müller’s intentionally hermetic project to the contemporaneous installation by Hans Haacke exploring—in a very direct, unequivocal manner—the fascist history of the German Pavilion at the same biennale.

5. Again, to grasp the full ramifications of Müller’s proposal, this project should be historicized by comparison to two similar works by Michael Asher and Hans Haacke. In 1977, for a nineteen-week sculpture exhibition sponsored by the Westfälisches Landesmuseum in Münster, Asher parked a trailer at nineteen different areas in the city and its suburbs. During the first half of the exhibition, the trailer moved progressively further away from the museum; during the second half it worked its way back toward the institution, allegorizing along the way the ultimate dependence of the project on the museum in order to contextualize the work as “art.” Ten years later, and for the same city, Haacke proposed his (rejected) Hippokratie, a project for a bus design that would have made visible the links between the Mercedes Corporation and South African repression (Mercedes engines were installed not only in German buses but also in a vehicle called a “hippo,” used by the South African police against the black population).

6. See Christian Philipp Müller, “What You Don’t See is O.K.,” Platzwechsel (Zurich: Kunsthalle Zurich, 1995), pp. 110–25. For the parameters of all the contributions, see James Meyer’s “The Functional Site,” ibid., pp. 24–39.

7. Müller’s series of exhibitions in New York—especially the most recent—take this logic to an extreme: in his last show (1995), Müller created objects designed for the display of gifts or news publications—for the duration of the show, however, they remained empty, performing no function, calling up instead the formal legacy of Minimal sculpture, turning the gallery again into a space of dysfunction.The objects could be used for displaying other objects—fulfilling their functional purpose—only upon being sold by the gallery.

8. Müller, “Preisgestaltung,” p. 26. I would like to thank Judd Stitziel for his assistance in translating sections of this key interview.

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