Michaela Melián

Kunstverein & Stiftung Springhornhof

The Kunstverein Springhornhof, in the Lüneburg Heath of northern Germany, has for over thirty years focused on the theme of landscape and art, including site-specific works. As with some earlier projects here, Neuenkirchen’s proximity to the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen was a point of reference for some of the works in Michaela Melián’s exhibition “Triangel.” In machine-stitched “drawings” based on photographs from her trip to the memorials at the concentration camp, Melián outlined her motifs: train tracks that remind one of the Nazi deportation trains packed full of people, but also tree-lined streets and the interior of the local Heimat-museum, or historical museum.

Melián observes the political relevance of historical events with an aggressively personal viewpoint and uses idiosyncratic techniques derived from nonartistic modes of production. Sewing, a case in point, evokes the cliché of a “feminine” activity. Applied as a medium for taking a political stance, though, it becomes a feminist calculation. In a complex installation called Life as a Woman: Bertha, Bertha, Hedwig, 2002, made up of a number of earlier works, Melián presented three exemplary figures, Bertha Benz, Bertha Pappenheim (known in psychoanalytic literature as Freud’s patient “Anna O.”), and Hedy Lamarr (originally Hedwig Kiesler), all of whom had significant achievements for which they have not been widely credited. Thus a framework of wooden slats covered in pale pink silk taffeta in the shape of a Mercedes becomes an ephemeral memorial for Benz, who left her husband, the automobile manufacturer Carl Benz, by taking off in one of his prototype cars, which had been rejected as nonfunctional and was just sitting around, forgotten. She drove over sixty miles and may thereby have become the first person to make a cross-country trip by car. A submarine fabricated from the same materials is a reference to Lamarr, whose appearance in the film Ecstasy (1933), in which she simulated the first orgasm in the history of cinema, is legendary. Melián picks up on this, stamping a half-nude portrait of the actress on a wall frieze surrounding the submarine. But the fact that Lamarr was also the coinventor of a key step in the development of the remote control of torpedoes has been forgotten—or, rather, credit has been claimed by male inventors—just like Benz’s cross-country trip. The technology that Lamarr wanted to apply in the fight against Hitler serves us today, without our thinking about its originator, as the basic technology for cell phones and other private-channel radio transceivers. It’s not just inventors who are presumed to be men; the same is true of criminals. In an act of irony and delight in experimentation, Melián had portraits of the two Berthas drawn from the catalogue of male features in the computer program used at the regional police headquarters in Munich to make composite sketches of criminals.

Melián’s drawings and objects are light and airy; her sewing-machine paintings, with their sparse lines of penetrating threads, seem almost celestial. Nor is our aesthetic enjoyment of these fragile pieces disturbed by their opening a succession of different interpretive contexts. On the contrary, they suggest the conflation of visual pleasure and critique, which are too often considered mutually exclusive in art. Something similar is true of music, too, in which Melián—who plays bass and sings for the band FSK—succeeds in joining complex critical references with an art form that strikes us first and foremost as an enjoyable sound.

Nina Möntmann

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.