New York

Tris Vonna-Michell

X Initiative

If I were Tris Vonna-Michell, I might be tempted to use this occasion to embark upon an abridged, extemporaneous ramble about the convoluted path to my first New York solo exhibition, at X Initiative, with sashays through the New Museum’s “Younger Than Jesus,” the Third Yokohama Triennale, and the Fifth Berlin Biennial. (I’d probably go a little over word count.) I might write it all down and, in a Burroughsian frenzy, rip it up and reassemble the bits into a collagist narrative. This is not an entirely unappealing proposition for a review, and in fact the ambling, backward-looking, and partial character of Vonna-Michell’s recent installation at X Initiative (a fittingly transitory nonprofit housed in Chelsea’s former Dia outpost) almost authorizes such an approach. Thankfully, reviewers have editors to assert limits, to defend certain standards of coherence and objectivity. And thankfully—from this writer’s perspective—Vonna-Michell has no such chaperone, but only his own impulses and arbitrary constraints to keep him in line.

This exhibition presented six works—mostly iterations of larger projects, taking the form of slides, photographs, and recordings of his performances—which were elegantly if haphazardly distributed throughout the large, open space of the old Dia’s fourth floor and two adjacent chambers. The gallery looked like a spare, melancholic graveyard of “vintage” technologies. (Among the components were two clicking and whirring Telex Caramate 4000 slide viewers; a TEAC CX-650R stereo cassette deck; and an old Sony Trinitron monitor, which provided a live video feed from a nearby stairwell.)

Yet the audio component accompanying most of the pieces on view (on either headphones or loudspeakers) emphasized that, if Vonna-Michell has a certain talent for photography and installation, his primary medium is language, specifically oracular language: It is a form that at once energizes and stymies him. Like many good artists, he builds his own walls and then backs up against them, and his harrowing performance of these limits is a charming, cathartic act in itself. He’s always “running out of time,” devolving, “recapping,” and trying again. “I’m failing, like I always fail,” he notes in a recording from his storied, sprawling project Hahn/Huhn, 2003–2009, which adumbrates (one would be hard-pressed to say it describes) the artist’s search for meaning and narrative in the intersections of personal coincidence and historical circumstance surrounding the shooting of a GDR border guard and the discovery of nuclear fission by a German chemist (the Huhn and Hahn of the title).

Vonna-Michell’s works do not tend to be especially optimistic. The titles of three—Wasteful Illuminations, 2008–2009, Monumental Detours / Insignificant Fixtures, 2008–, Photography Is My Punishment, 2009—are particularly downbeat, and point to an almost melodramatic humility. But Vonna-Michell’s style of failure isn’t a “loser thing,” to borrow Rhonda Lieberman’s phrase, though the autobiographical and quasi-masochistic elements certainly resonate with that attitude. It’s a rather more earnest, less “wannabe” affirmation of failure.

Vonna-Michell seems consumed with repetition compulsion; it’s a strange, self-defeating tic. (When you give yourself a time limit in which to tell a story, as he so often does, presumably the last thing you’d want to do is repeat yourself along the way.) And yet, when the intended effect is not the attainment but the appearance of haste, repetition is a perfectly sensible tool. “Prelude starts now in Japan, Japan, Miyajima, cookies, Koji, Koji, cookies cookies bank bank division division Toblerone Toblerone cookies cookies . . .” he rattles off in a recording of a performance earlier this summer at Creative Time’s “Plot09,” one of several components that composes Photography Is My Punishment—a work that attempts to sum up . . . what, exactly? The stories he’s tracked since a fateful, apparently watershed trip to Japan in 2001? The loss/theft of his camera and his fraught relationship to photography? In the end, no matter the answer, we give him the benefit of the doubt. It’s a narcotic pleasure, listening to him flail in these Procrustean beds of his own making.

David Velasco