Tris Vonna-Michell

The photocopies strewn across the floor appeared to be left over from a demonstration. Behind them, fresh pages lay ready, sorted into eleven little stacks lined up along one wall. This was Leipzig Calendar Works, 2005/2007, and it sometimes came to life in the presence of museum visitors: Tris Vonna-Michell would appear and ask to be given a length of time—thirty seconds per page, one minute per page, two minutes, whatever. If the visitors gave him thirty seconds per page, then, with the artist reading one sheet from each stack, they could expect a story exactly five and a half minutes long. During these performances the artist, a twenty-five-year-old British graduate of the Städelschule in Frankfurt, resembled an activist hastily making his arguments on a busy sidewalk. He spoke so quickly that sentences blurred together, places and events flowing into a rushing stream. Without looking at his watch, Vonna-Michell reached the end of his performance with flawless punctuality, the audience stunned yet strangely without feeling that the rapidity of the artist’s speech had made them miss the point.

Taking a seat on one of the chairs arranged face-to-face as part of the installation hahn/huhn, 2003–2006, one saw three black-and-white posters showing Berlin’s Anhalter Bahnhof, a streetcar stop in Frankfurt, and a piece of the Berlin Wall after its fall. In this performance, the gobbledygook of Leipzig Calendar Works gave way to clearer storytelling, evolving into a complex tale involving abandoned networks of tunnels; an East Berlin border guard named Reinhold Huhn, who was shot at age twenty by a family fleeing to the West; and Otto Hahn, who discovered nuclear fission. This Cold War story even asserted itself physically in the exhibition space through the presence of three small blocks of dry ice; the cold was palpable, and it looked as if the moisture from the storyteller’s breath was drifting across the blocks of ice like snow. Border guard Huhn became a folk hero, though only temporarily, while it remains an open question whether Hahn didn’t finally poison himself with uranium. For all the apparent clarity of the story’s telling, bit by bit the listener came to feel involved in a delusional fantasy.

Vonna-Michell’s work gives, above all, an impression of measured regularity, of a meticulously constructed economy of attention. Precisely twenty pages were contained in each stack in Leipzig Calendar Works on opening day, because that’s all the performances that were planned. Most visitors to the exhibition thus saw only the deserted stage sets. Nonetheless, the process by which narration and exposition feed into one another can be surmised even from the derivatives of this process, like the titles of unread book chapters. It is surely no coincidence that death makes frequent appearances in the absurdist punch lines of Vonna-Michell’s stories, for the artist takes time itself as the measure of his art. His work achieves its form and expansiveness through his predetermined tempi of listening, through which he plays with presence and absence and the existential boundaries of space and time.

Catrin Lorch

Translated from German by Susan Bernofsky.