Christian Philipp Müller

Kunstmuseum Basel, Museum für Gegenwartskunst

This first major retrospective of Swiss artist Christian Philipp Müller brought together central works of the last twenty years of the artist’s steadily context-specific practice, and also featured a new site-specific project, “Basics,” 2007, produced specially for the exhibition. The representative selection of older works was presented in thematically arranged groupings and constituted a synopsis of Müller’s main topics and projects. Grüne Grenze (Green Border), 1993, his work for the Austrian pavilion at the Venice Biennale, for instance, is a rubric of its own: Disguised as a tourist, Müller illegally crossed the borders of Austria eight times; he documented his journeys with photographs, historical engravings of the landscape he’d traversed, and a table made of varieties of wood common in Austria.

Under the category “Modernismus” (Modernism) were assembled works that exemplify Müller’s examinations of different modernist utopias, their promises and failures. His investigations end up in complex dialectics, such as in the work Vergessene Zukunft (Forgotten Future), 1992—a project originally undertaken for the Kunstverein in Munich. The work, only partially reinstalled in Basel, uses documents and images to examine three examples of late-modernist utopianism: Le Corbusier’s visionary Philips Pavilion for the World Exhibition in 1958, the Poème Électronique that Edgar Varèse composed for this pavilion, and Nicolas Schöffer’s project Die kybernetische Stadt (Cybernetic City), 1979, with its urban concept of aesthetic and sexual hygiene. Müller juxtaposed them with Veit Harlan’s homophobic movie Anders als du und ich (Different from You and Me, 1957)—represented by a cinema display case showing advertisements and film stills. He also produced a new trailer for the film, a video montage of scenes that had been censored in the ’50s. With this juxtaposition, Müller draws out the ambivalence of the utopian ideologies of the time as they fluctuated between euphoria and repression.

The room-filling work Ein Balanceakt (A Balancing Act), 1997, fell into the category “Performativität” (Performance). The installation includes a twenty-foot-long balancing pole—part oak, part brass—and a video, which begins with amusing attempts by Müller to walk across a tightrope, under the tutelage of a professional. The video ends with his performance at Documenta 10 in 1997, on the square in front of the Museum Fridericianum, in which he walked between Joseph Beuys’s tree relic from 7,000 Eichen (7,000 Oaks), 1982, created for Documenta 7, and Walter de Maria’s Vertikaler Erdkilometer (Vertical Earth Kilometer), 1977; Müller sees these two works as representative of the two poles of twentieth-century art: social art and autonomous art. The video shows Müller crossing the tightrope—but it’s merely stretched out on the ground. Brilliantly, the artist created a spectacle that also serves as a criticism of the “media circus” of the art world.

With “Basics,” Müller makes reference to the museum building’s history; in the nineteenth century, it was home to a paper factory. For the installation, he has arranged a waterwheel, a wicker laundry basket containing cotton rags, samples of local tap water in glasses and carafes, and handmade sheets of paper placed behind light boxes; further, the installation shows the original of his certification as a typesetter, acquired in 1977, before he went to art school. More broadly, the work alludes to Basel itself as a place where the craft of bookmaking has been practiced since the early Middle Ages. Müller thus positions his site-specific research within the context of his own development, which began with the now-obsolete trade of typesetting. In this way, he goes beyond autobiography to shed light on institutional and historical context in all its complexity.

Valérie Knoll

Translated from German by Wendy Gosselin.