PRINT January 2009


Tris Vonna-Michell, Papierstau (Paper Jam), 2007–2008. Performance view, Kunstverein Braunschweig, Germany, 2007. From Leipzig Calendar Works, 2005–. Photo: Fred Dott.

TRIS VONNA-MICHELL’S PROJECTS invariably develop from something seemingly inconsequential: a stash of old family photographs; the late French poet Henri Chopin’s taste for quail eggs; Germans named Hahn or Huhn. By the time the British artist is done, however, he’ll have traveled to other countries and explored the possibility of knowledge emerging from the intersections of personal experience, history, and coincidence. And by the time the audience hears about it, it’s usually in a fractured, postmedium manner. There are performances in which Vonna-Michell first sets (or asks the audience to set) a time limit using an egg timer, and then breaks into a dazzlingly fast, borderline-impenetrable monologue recounting his quest, edited or expanded on the fly; these semi-improvised recitations are complemented by—and frequently take place within—changeable, sketchy installations, liable to include performer’s props, video, and slide projections.

Vonna-Michell has performed and exhibited prodigiously since graduating from Glasgow School of Art in 2005. His oeuvre’s core, however, comprises just three works—Hahn/Huhn, 2003–, Leipzig Calendar Works, 2005–, and Finding Chopin, 2005–2008—which have been repeatedly reconfigured and lately combined into a portmanteau, Tall Tales and Short Stories, 2008. In each segment, a search for selfhood ramifies inexorably beyond the autobiographical. In 2005, for example, Vonna-Michell, twenty-two and still a student, journeyed from the UK to Leipzig, carrying two suitcases containing childhood photographs, calendars, a shredder, scissors, and glue. Locking himself in a bedroom in a Plattenbau—one of the prefab residential tower blocks built by the German Democratic Republic—Vonna-Michell spent a month, from April Fools’ Day to May Day, systematically shredding his past, insofar as it had been photographed, and arranging the resultant strips into new configurations on the calendars. Studying photography at the time, he’d wanted to push to the limit the medium’s capacity for expressing what it is like to lose, and rebuild, a history.

Half-German himself on his mother’s side, Vonna-Michell says that East Germany’s mysteriousness, its own secret history, had long fascinated him, and that discovering his transplanted-Berliner mother’s earlier life through her photographs reaffirmed that there was a hemisphere of his family, and thus of himself, that was unknown to him. Upon completing the project Vonna-Michell visited a Leipzig museum, however, where he began to investigate a broader consonance: The task he had set himself, he realized, analogized not only that of the GDR Ministry for State Security’s shredding of classified documents after the Berlin Wall fell, but also that of the so-called puzzlers currently attempting to piece together six hundred million fragments of said documents—and thus the hidden history of East Germany. As a result, Vonna-Michell’s Leipzig project has itself evolved from its personal beginnings to engage with the epistemic value of the document where the stakes are largest. The piece was first performed as Leipzig Calendar Works, in which the artist recounted his story while dropping sheets of paper, one by one. It was later refined into Puzzlers, 2007–2008, a multiform installation that occasionally includes, in a seeming nod to surveillance, a muffled recording of the spoken-word performance, which is itself sometimes given in an updated version, as Papierstau (Paper Jam), 2007–2008.

Finding Chopin, begun the same summer, likewise starts with autobiography—specifically with Vonna-Michell trying to find out why he was born near the British seaside town Southend-on-Sea. In the performance Down the Rabbit Hole, 2006–2007, we hear of his father telling him, gnomically, to ask Henri Chopin, and offering the additional information that the poet loves quail eggs. Accordingly, so the rapid-fire narration continues, off Vonna-Michell goes to Paris, shopping for quail eggs and hoping to bump into Chopin. No dice. Back home, he fashions a gift-cum-artwork—twenty-four blown quail eggs, ceremonially placed in a Ferrero Rocher chocolate box—and entrusts an intermediary with their delivery to Chopin. He then begins rewriting his story, “chronicling the life and supposed afterlife of the quail eggs.” The scheme, however, won’t settle here. Some of the archival material in the installation relating to the work (also titled Down the Rabbit-Hole) is stolen from an exhibition in Brussels; and in early 2007 Vonna-Michell finds out that his courier never passed on the eggs. At that point, he makes a vinyl recording of the story in order to prevent future chance events from interfering with the narrative. The next stage, titled The Trial: Act 7, 2007–2008, is a stab at resolution: The gallery not having made a police report at the time of the theft, Vonna-Michell has a stenographer transcribe the details of the case as he recounts them to a lawyer. In a touching coda to recent versions of Down the Rabbit-Hole, he finally tells of meeting and photographing Chopin shortly before the poet’s death in early 2008.

Tris Vonna-Michell, Down the Rabbit-Hole, 2006–2007, mixed media. Installation view, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, 2006. From Finding Chopin, 2005–2008.

This piece exemplifies, in various ways, the artist’s ability to have his techniques work one way for him and another for the audience. As with the Leipzig works, Finding Chopin is personal—Vonna-Michell is an avowed admirer of Chopin’s, and is influenced by his mode of delivery and his sense of the body as an instrument—yet for the audience, the work’s baroque trappings serve as deflections, hindering them from seeing the piece in the artist-following-artist terms that in some sense underlie it. Moreover, since the performances have become shorter over time, as extraneous details were discarded in Vonna-Michell’s search for the tale’s essence, the story has become increasingly oblique and gappy. The work thus scales up to inquire how we might—or might not—manage to navigate the world using what sketchy facts we happen upon. In this way, Vonna-Michell’s project intersects with a swath of recent art that considers the poetics of the archive and its indeterminate potential to contain historical truth. Yet his work does not wearily resign itself to the supposed impossibility of reanimating or learning from the past but instead proposes an interdependency between the meaningful and the meaningless. Through performative speech and assemblages of physical fragments, meaning is perpetually constructed, dismantled, and constructed anew. In chasing truth via the honing of a narrative that remains (for the audience) tantalizingly just beyond wholesale intelligibility, Vonna-Michell suggests that the chase itself, if maintained, might be a self-absorbing focus of its own. Meanwhile, the egg timer, which was initially a prop—a slightly hokey formal reinforcement—for this monologue that is in the simplest reading simply about an offering of eggs, has become a trademark of all Vonna-Michell’s performances. It effectively exemplifies the artist’s concerns with both time and contingency, and his almost Oulipian devotion to arbitrary conceptual premises.

In fact, one key question Vonna-Michell’s work raises is how much weight we should place on coincidence. The narrative of Hahn/Huhn, to the extent that one can discern when it’s delivered at the precipitous pace of a sportscaster narrating a greyhound race, concerns layers of German history, all linked together with the words of the title, which translates as Rooster/Hen. A phone call—relaying, in the artist’s words, “a chronicle of anecdotes relating many disparate events concerning post-World War II Berlin”—is the starting point for an associative narrative interweaving secret wartime tunnels under the city’s Anhalter Bahnhof; a monument to Reinhold Hahn, a twenty-year-old East German border guard shot by a West German while helping his family flee the East; Vonna-Michell’s Googling leading him to confirm the man’s name as Reinhold Huhn; a later trip to Frankfurt, where, studying at the Städelschule, he alights every day at Otto-Hahn-Platz, named for the pioneer of nuclear fission; a resumption of the project on the basis of the coincidence, and a return to Berlin to find that the name of Reinhold-Huhn-Straße had been changed. . . .

Vonna-Michell has written of Hahn/Huhn’s homophonically inspired overlaps that he “hoped [they] would find their place in my own story.” This suggests that the history of the world might devolve onto one person’s need for self-knowledge, and, conversely, that one person’s past might potentially encode that greater scale. Moreover, the narrative labors to piece its chancy constituents together, making it seem, like all Vonna-Michell’s work, at first blush a fit representation of a moment in which vast tracts of potentially intersecting information are available at a mouse’s click and in which consciousness is, accordingly, being latently rewired. But Vonna-Michell also implicitly argues for an encounter with the city and the street; that is to say, with a real that—even if it is increasingly being sidelined by virtuality—is also (as in the writings of W. G. Sebald, another influence on Vonna-Michell) viewable as a textual palimpsest of histories and interconnections of personal and public, albeit one of vertiginous unreliability.

Discernible in all these projects is a functionally split mind-set. On the one hand Vonna-Michell is a realist, and his work—in the rapid delivery and inbuilt narrative lacunae of his recitations, as well as in the sketchiness of his installations—speaks of the difficulty of any accurate conveyance of history, or even personal experience, whether through speech or media, through a photograph or a sound recording. (Preparing Wasteful Illuminations, 2008, his project for the Yokohama Triennale, Vonna-Michell made field recordings of places in Japan he remembered going to as a teenager; these were then transcribed into an audio score that became a series of Japanese speech-poems, played on speakers in a park—as if the past were held in the air and could be trapped on tape.) Yet there’s something heartfelt about his persistence, his repeated return to and restyling of each of his major projects, that suggests that he genuinely clings to the potential connecting threads, if only because the alternative—utter meaninglessness, the erasing of historical knowledge, the impossibility of knowing oneself or interpreting the past—is unthinkable. The impression, plaintively and feverishly delivered, is that the meaning we make for ourselves from the world’s intricate weft might, in the absence of any truer story becoming apparent, be enough to carry us forward.

Martin Herbert is a writer and critic based in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, UK.