Tris Vonna-Michell

Milliken Gallery

“I am in my mother’s room. It’s I who live there now. I don’t know how I got there.” The opening lines of Samuel Beckett’s Molloy capture Tris Vonna-Michell’s edgy amnesiac turns around the foibles of life, the crux of his installation Down the Rabbit Hole, 2003–2006. The twilit gallery was empty but for a desk, an ensemble of storytelling props, an enormous projection of an inverted slide showing the artist walking up a white staircase to a locked door, and the sound of Vonna-Michell’s soft voice. Over three weeks the artist sat behind the desk giving an account of himself, one visitor at a time. The mood of his telling was confessional and the story line unswerving, save for scaling time to what each listener had to spend; from just two minutes to more than an hour.

Vonna-Michell’s tale begins with an ending: The house where he was raised is to be sold, and his accumulated belongings must be moved. Clearing out, he wonders aloud to his father how he came to be born in the house. “Ask Chopin,” says Dad. “All you need to know . . . is that he loved quail eggs.” And so the odyssey begins to find Henri Chopin, the family friend. Vonna-Michell stands before hoards of bits and pieces from his adolescence stored in the shoe boxes he prefers to call an archive. Without a future and not knowing his past, beyond what Chopin might unlock, he decides to translate his archive into a reinvention of himself. Off to Leipzig.

Falling under the spell of the 600 million slivers of documents shredded by East Germany’s Stasi, Vonna-Michell sets out with a hand-cranked shredder to take to pieces his own archive. Teasing the symbol hunter, Vonna-Michell plays the role of the Furies to his own Orestes. Trying to atone for his past, he finds his future becoming a series of conquests to reinvent his identity and shatter his amnesia. Not a bad ambition for a young artist. Now he is off to Paris to bait Chopin with oeufs de caille. Vonna-Michell leans heavily on symbolic language, which often becomes too palpable. The gift of the eggs (pure potential) is the currency to be translated into Chopin’s (the sage’s) story of Vonna- Michell’s birth (awakening). He never finds Chopin in this quest to chase down his genesis, so he decides to blow out the yolk from each egg—he describes the act as “decanting life”—and to let someone else try and pass the hollow shells on to Chopin in hope of receiving some response. One never comes, and a part of Vonna-Michell remains an enigma.

Vonna-Michell, a monologist in the tradition of Spalding Gray, is infatuated with his own life, propelled by an acute self-consciousness. His story of Chopin’s eggs is not entertaining so much as entrancing, an exploratory passage of self-analysis, reminiscent of Vito Acconci’s Untitled Project for Pier 17, 1971. Visiting Acconci after 1 AM on the abandoned pier along New York’s waterfront, one might have been vouchsafed a secret, something that “if it were made public,” Acconci said, “could be used against me.” There is not a speck of danger in Down the Rabbit Hole, only mania; listening to Vonna-Michell is like watching someone with a thing for picking at scabs. After his quest, what has Vonna-Michell to carry away? Beckett is dependable once again. Molloy concludes: “Does this mean that I am freer now than I was? I do not know. I shall learn.”

Ronald Jones