PRINT November 2010


THE HUMAN BODY—that ghost of monumentality and figuration inexorably haunting modernism—is ever present in Michaela Meise’s work. Whether, in her numerous films, she takes on the pose of a neoclassical sculpture (as in Étude Carpeaux, 2008) or presents herself as a ballerina trapped in a gated community in South Africa (as in Ballerina Diary, 2001), she always makes sure her body is what everything else must relate to. And although Meise’s sculptural objects at first glance appear dry and reserved, on closer inspection they no less distinctly refer to the figural. Usually made of plywood panels and roughly human size, these sculptures spell out what Michael Fried famously termed Minimal art’s “latent . . . anthropomorphism.” Trans Columns, 2009, Meise’s fragile bundles of unsteady poles of painted wood, for example—on view last year in the solo show “Constitution” at Greene Naftali Gallery in New York—suggest groups of slender figures forming circles.

But Meise uses a post-Minimalist sculptural language to stage psychological dynamics as well. The objects making up Trans Columns look not only like human figures but as if those humans were acting out the tense drama of a confidence game. The sense that each object has an individual “character” is reinforced by the Waldorf-schoollike colors—bright and happy orange, muted dark green, calming beige. (For German viewers, these anthroposophical associations bring to mind the questionable ideal of the spiritual person espoused by the movement’s founder, Rudolf Steiner, who, as an ardent reader of Nietzsche, tended to overestimate the powers of the individual.) In Meise’s Liegende (Reclining Figures), 2007, meanwhile, panels of wood, stained black, are hung from the ceiling at various angles as though to fill the art-historical topos of the reclining figure with life—a life, however, that in this case seems distinctly schematic and somber. We can read a literal embodiment of this same life in the artist’s so-called Boxes, on which photographs of selected celebrities are pasted—the spectrum ranges from Madonna (Madonna-Box, 2002) to members of German indie bands (German-Singer-Songwriter-Cube, 2002) and the eponymous actor in the same year’s Charlotte Gainsbourg-Box. These objects take up the traditional function of the statue, not only in representing human figures but in serving as substitutes for the absent people they aim to immortalize. But like Liegende, these works also speak to how life in our media-dominated society has become highly abstract. The “Boxes” should, in my view, be seen as reflections on the way media society personalizes absolutely everything, including artistic production. This tendency is obvious in the displacement of reviews by interviews—which, by definition, blur the line between the person and the product. Just as celebrity culture tends to treat works of art as if they were human beings, all artists—musicians, actors, and visual artists—must cultivate a persuasive persona, and this, in turn, lends them objectlike features.

Étude Carpeaux, shown as part of Meise’s 2009 solo exhibition “Ding und Körper” (Object and Body) at the Badischer Kunstverein in Karlsruhe, Germany, takes this objectification of the artist to an extreme: It transmutes Meise herself into a sculpture. The film is ostensibly an application of “artistic research” to the field of sculpture (although it is complicated by its aesthetic being somewhere between those of Yvonne Rainer and Harun Farocki). More precisely, in one section the film shows Meise adopting the posture of the smiling Neapolitan fisher boy listening to a seashell in the famous statue by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Pêcheur napolitain à la coquille (Neapolitan Fisher Boy), 1857. This laughing boy was one of the leitmotifs of “Ding und Körper,” much of which was a research-based inquiry into the artistic representation of laughter. Many artists have failed in the attempt to depict laughter; Francis Bacon admitted in conversation with David Sylvester that he had always wanted to but never succeeded in painting the smile. Part of the difficulty laughter poses to artists is, I would argue, that it renders art superfluous by preempting the production of liveliness that was art’s ostensible mission since the Renaissance, a mission brought to a halt by early modernism. Accordingly, Meise’s repeated attempt to adopt the laughing fisher boy’s posture remains deliberately unpersuasive. Her laughter seems studied and artificial, as though frozen. In its demonstration of the futility of reviving (neo)classical sculpture, this filmic experiment—a sort of performative reenactment—makes clear how deeply entangled an art object is with its maker. Object and person (or Ding und Körper) today entertain a metonymic relationship—one signifies the other. This slippage between the artist and her work is an amplified echo of conditions in Carpeaux’s own time, when the press played a growing role in forging artists’ public identities. But today no artist can afford to hide behind a work—she is expected to perform herself as well.

Meise also reactivates and simultaneously rejects the post-Minimalist strategies of artists such as Charlotte Posenenske. While some of Meise’s objects suggest that they could be used in a similar fashion to Posenenske’s customizable works (Meise’s Very, very, very dark-green box, 2006, looks as if it could be put together differently, like Posenenske’s “Drehflügel” (Turning Leaves), 1967–68) they nevertheless declare such a literally performative approach to sculpture to be fundamentally questionable. Not only do Meise’s objects look much more precarious than Posenenske’s, as though standing on unsteady ground, but as a viewer, you are only asked to engage with her works in a limited way: You are supposed to walk around them, but never to interact with them. A case in point would be the towers in Meise’s exhibition “Lachende Steine” (Laughing Stones) at Johann König in Berlin earlier this year, tapered multilevel structures made of plywood panels arranged around central wooden poles and topped with Plexiglas plates, each resembling a fragile variant of Vladimir Tatlin’s unrealized 1919 Monument to the Third International. Just as Tatlin’s tower was intended to serve a social purpose, Meise’s display towers act as showcases for (scholarly, archival, historical) information. The floors and walls of the various levels are used to present objects revolving around a theme, suggested in the title of each: Tour de cri (Tower of Cries), Tour de lecture (Tower of Reading), Tour de corps (Tower of the Body), and Tour de rire (Tower of Laughter), all 2010. The last of these contains copies of Henri Bergson’s Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (1900) in the French original and in German translation, a figure of Baubo (the Greek goddess of laughter), close-up photographs of Carpeaux’s fisher boy, documentation of the history of the sculpture’s reception, etc. But many of the structures’ surfaces remain empty, which foregrounds their material qualities. The emphasis thus given to the formal aspects of these display towers—right down to the texture and the grain of the stained and glazed wooden panels—makes it harder to read the materials as straightforward presentations of educational information, and so counterbalances (and adds a touch of humor to) the artistic research presented in the work.

The video Lettre to the Eltern, 2010, similarly gestures in the direction of artistic research without taking it entirely seriously. In this work, three individuals read aloud, each in a different language, an equally tragic and comic letter in which Carpeaux reports to his parents (the Eltern of the title) the adversities he encountered during his stay in Naples, including one occasion when he got food poisoning and fell victim to unusual treatments by local doctors. Evoking a slide-show lecture, the images in the film lead the viewer through multiple depictions of, and perspectives on, Carpeaux’s fisher boy. In the beginning, we hear two people talking offscreen about Carpeaux’s letter; both laugh heartily about the subject of their research and his foibles, as though to remind us that the following montage possesses its own associative logic and must not be equated with scholarly study. Meise’s work is neither scientifically rigorous nor humorless as a matter of principle.

There are certainly other artists moving in Meise’s circle—from Nairy Baghramian to Mirjam Thomann—who have sought in recent years to reconcile a post-Minimalist formal language with what would seem to be its opposite: the model of artistic research, which insists on using art objects for the presentation of information. In Meise’s work, however, the reconciliation of these two approaches points up the limits of the academic aspirations of the latter form; she uses its stylistic conventions without believing in its substance. At the same time, her work undermines the premises of Minimal art by weaving a web of associations that defy the notion of Minimalism as an “art without all connotation” (in the words of Georges Didi-Huberman). See, for example, Untitled (Personal Best), 2004, which comprises four perpendicular panels coated in red synthetic-resin lacquer, with a photograph of Mariel Hemingway on one surface. The photograph evokes a tangle of mythical associations, among them the actress’s grandfather Ernest, the famous writer who committed suicide in 1961, and her sister Margaux, a socialite who also took her own life. This wealth of references challenges the alleged impenetrability of the Minimalist object; in fact, Meise’s work seeks the return of everything the creators of Minimal art sought to eliminate: subject matter, myth, representation, arbitrariness. For instead of suggesting unified form, Meise’s art reveals the individual formal elements of which her objects are composed—a sort of hobby-room aesthetics that, I should also note, has long been firmly established in contemporary art thanks to the work of artists such as Heimo Zobernig. Indeed, his plywood boxes were among the first post-Minimalist sculptures to embrace weakness: They look precarious and “self-made” and couldn’t be further from the obdurate industrial aura of Donald Judd’s “specific objects.”

Meise’s art, then, is situated in an intermediate domain between referentialism—in the sense of a procedure invested in sources whose status in the sphere of artmaking has been confirmed—and the renunciation of reference. Of course, the idea of an entirely nonreferential art is a fiction; still, we can distinguish between artistic procedures that are heavily invested in reference and others that avoid it as far as possible. Meise’s work, rejecting such dichotomies, is based on the insight that the model of the artist as researcher must be considered a historical accomplishment that should not be dismissed out of hand. Research has always been a key component of her exhibitions and films; what distinguishes Meise’s references from those in the usual referential art is how much weirder and more illogical hers are. It is through her deliberately awkward references that she seems to take risks. While her use of a post-Minimalist aesthetic is certainly a highly regarded point of reference, her actual research is never directed toward canonical sources, such as, say, Kenneth Anger’s works or the Frankfurt kitchen. In Meise’s art, we instead encounter arcane and even bizarre material; her 2009 show at Greene Naftali included a 2006 book bearing the slightly off-putting title Hanau weiblich (Hanau Female) that sheds light on the history of the Frankfurt suburb of Hanau (where Meise grew up) from a female perspective. This reference points up the close ties linking the artist with her work. At the same time, her objects have a sort of residual autonomy: They emphasize how the artist is present in them even as they lay claim to being formal objects independent of the historical and personal references they convey. Artist and work are intimately related, but they are not the same.

This dynamic subject-object relation is most evident in Meise’s Ohne Titel (Poster) (Untitled [Poster]), 2008. The image shows the artist sitting next to two of her works: a set of nesting tables, Ohne Titel (Satztische) (Untitled [Nesting Tables]), 2004, and Halbe Matrjoschka (Halved Matryoshka), 2007. She seems to want to positively snuggle up to the tables, whose significance as a metaphor for customized self-branding is underlined by the lower half of the matryoshka doll. Meise’s rigid posture, however, also speaks to the separation between person and object, suggesting that each side exists for itself, that neither is reducible to the other. Like the nesting tables themselves, several of Meise’s sculptures imitate the utilitarianism of interior design, e.g., Treppe, 2007, whose shape recalls the staircase of its title. Here, too, however, the relationship between Meise’s work and the applied arts is like a flirtation that remains without consequence. At least since Jorge Pardo, we have known that the transition toward design poses no real danger to the art object’s status as art. If design is alluded to in Meise’s work, as in the nesting tables, art’s capacity to incorporate foreign elements—what Adorno termed the “fraying of the arts”—is surely taken for granted.

Is it a cause for concern that Meise’s art moves within the framework of a generally accepted aesthetic somewhere between those of, say, Pardo, Zobernig, and Posenenske? Arguably so, since, whether she is examining the blurry boundary between art and design or endeavoring to subvert Minimalism’s antireferentialism, her work deploys strategies that have long been familiar to the art world. Although one might counter that she infuses new life into familiar approaches with her humor and her highly idiosyncratic references, the most important—and problematic—aspect of her work is, to my mind, her exploration of the metonymic relationship between the artistic subject and the artistic object. When Meise appears in person interacting with her own art, the danger is always that she’ll end up marketing her entire person, body and soul—as demanded by the current regime of governmentality. But the alternative of returning to an entirely selfsufficient object language is itself foreclosed, since any attempt to do so would only nourish the conservative desire for a transcendent aesthetic experience. As a result of this double bind, Meise may eventually find herself compelled to leave behind not only the premises of Minimal art but also the formal and material principles of her own work.

Isabelle Graw is publisher of Texte Zur Kunst.

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.