Vienna

View of “Christian Mayer,” 2012–13.

View of “Christian Mayer,” 2012–13.

Christian Mayer

Galerie Mezzanin

View of “Christian Mayer,” 2012–13.

What the golden records launched into the unknown with the Voyager spacecraft in 1977 have in common with Andy Warhol’s cardboard boxes of ephemera is that they exemplify the mid-twentieth-century craze for the time capsule. No foundation could be laid, no international exposition opened, without some message being left for the future. Christian Mayer’s exhibition “prezjnt” (present, in the sense of now) was an exploration of the category of the time capsule through various media—video, photography, collage, and sculpture. In this work, the artist stands in the midst of an ongoing flow of history and stories, examining the mechanism of memory and the classification and preservation of threatened information.

Mayer has divided his research into four bodies of work. “Putting in time” (all works 2012) means searching flea markets and collections for press photos from the archives of newspapers that show motifs pertaining to the theme of time capsules. The reverse sides of the photos, with handwritten notes, stamps, and pasted-on copies of the published articles, are enlarged and the blowups used to mat the original photos. The “Allochtone” series consists of petrified tree trunks from Madagascar. These lay for two hundred million years in a floodplain underwater and without oxygen, covered with volcanic ash; sediments slowly penetrated the trunks, and wood became stone. The transformed material retained its form and appearance—but where it has been smoothed and polished, where there are fractures, it shimmers like gemstone. Each of these objects is a sort of natural forgery, a found simulacrum of something that no longer exists.

Mayer is fascinated by the way matter can be more than simply material, how new meanings arise from liaisons of every kind. For the photographic triptych Silene (outgrowth), he obtained photos from a Russian laboratory of plants grown in a Jurassic Park–like procedure, from seeds buried by squirrels thirty-two thousand years ago in permafrost. For each panel, Mayer printed the shots of the sprouts using two of the three basic colors—cyan, magenta, and yellow—in the dye-transfer process, which remains the best and most durable color process in the history of photography, although it is now, for economic reasons, obsolete. Working with the last professional in Europe who still practices this printing process, according to Mayer, the artist short-circuits image and medium, process, method, and production.

Finally, in a ten-minute video, El Silbo, Mayer lets us hear the whistling-language of the title, now used only by a few residents of La Gomera in the Canary Islands. In the video, one of the last surviving silbadores whistles the complex and moving story of Bibi and Büberl, two canaries sent by the Austrian emperor Franz I from La Gomera to Vienna in the 1820s. The birds reminded the melancholy monarch of his daughter Maria Leopoldina, empress of Brazil. Today the stuffed birds—whose story we non-silbadores can only glean from an accompanying wall text—are on exhibit in the Imperial Furniture Collection in Vienna, where the furniture of the Hapsburgs was once stored.

Mayer connects his motif to the history of its own exhibition, and with the concept of the archive and personal mapping, memories, and interdisciplinary relationships. Here, as in his other works, Mayer makes associations—as visually engaging as they are ingenious—between the familiar and unfamiliar throughout time, using analogies and juxtapositions to expose cultural linkages and create parables of perception in the here and now.

Brigitte Huck

Translated from German by Anne Posten.