Matti Braun

Matti Braun has added yet another chapter to his secret art history of the twentieth-century. The German-Finnish artist, who was born in Berlin but makes his home in Cologne, is not interested in the heroic art movements that are the stuff of traditional art-historical narratives. Instead, Braun focuses on mistakes and errors, carefully mapping out those encounters between artists and cultures which went nowhere or ended in catastrophe. Last year saw the publication of his early book project Adolf Hitler, Installationen und Happenings, 1992, which considers the dictator’s aestheticization of politics. The inspiration for “Bali,” which appeared last year at Luis Campaña in Cologne, was a yacht trip made in 1929 by the great German silent-film director F.W. Murnau, who shot his last film, Tabu (1931), in Tahiti. With the recent exhibition, titled “Edo,” Braun examines a discrete exchange between Europe and Japan from a Japanese perspective.

Braun’s point of departure was a painting by the Japanese artist Yoruzu Tetsugoro, who traveled to Paris at the beginning of the century and attempted in vain to import the styles of the European avant-garde to Japan. A reproduction of Tetsugoro’s 1913 self-portrait doubled as a poster for and invitation to the show. But visitors hoping for a retrospective of Japanese paintings were instead confronted with images of themselves. The gallery space was filled with five large rectangular boxes with mirrored surfaces large enough to reflect the spectator’s body and positioned to create an ever-changing series of reflections. Where Tetsugoro’s Cubistic painting presents different perspectives on the single plane of the canvas, Braun multiplies them onto dozens of surfaces. The spectator was constantly forced to reassess the very dimensions of the gallery space. Small white Styrofoam balls, piled in corners on the floor, only augmented the sense of distortion since they were the same color as the walls. Here, a temporal discontinuity within art history was transformed into a spatial one. (Of course, the exhibition title itself, with its reference to the former name of Tokyo, marks an uneasy historical and geographical break within Japanese culture.)

Using ready-made images in his posters and a minimalist design aesthetic in his installations, Braun here, as in earlier works, frustrates expectations. The fact that the subject of the self-portrait moves from the artist Tetsugoro to the contemporary spectator may suggest that all attempts at cultural exchange, successful or failed, are ultimately narcissistic.

Jennifer Allen