Marianne Mueller, Mirrors, 2017, mirrors. Installation view. Photo: Marianne Mueller.

Marianne Mueller, Mirrors, 2017, mirrors. Installation view. Photo: Marianne Mueller.

Marianne Mueller

Centro de Artes Visuais

Marianne Mueller, Mirrors, 2017, mirrors. Installation view. Photo: Marianne Mueller.

Photography has the peculiar capacity to show how things feel, thanks to peculiarly photographic ways of distorting the way things look. That, I guess, is what Garry Winogrand was talking about when he spoke of wanting to see “what things look like photographed.” Marianne Mueller seems to rephrase this idea: “Photography because the pictures I see don’t exist.” The camera’s cyclopean eye creates appearances that deviate from those supplied by natural binocular vision, and through those differences photography creates metaphors we recognize as “true.” That’s what Mueller does with her photographs, and when she weaves them into an installation, as she did with her exhibition “False Ground,” the Zurich-based artist gives photography’s emotionally resonant transmutation of the real a further twist, showing reality itself as a three-dimensional but deceptive image.

At Centro de Artes Visuais, Mueller articulated her images in two groups, each evoking a different perspective on the idea suggested by the title: that we stand on false ground. About head-high along one long wall she pinned up a line of forty-seven C-prints on metallic paper, most dating from 2007 or 2008, though some were taken as early as 1995, others as recently as 2013. All of them presented as their subjects human legs or feet. Whether standing, walking, or sitting, the (usually only implicit) figures remain awkward, teetering, unstable. Not surprisingly, the pictures were mostly shot from extreme angles—the camera at head level aiming at someone’s feet—leaving the viewer feeling just as unbalanced as the subjects were implied to be. Leaning against the wall facing these images was a sequence of found mirrors ranging from about knee- to waist-high; what one saw reflected in them was mostly one’s own or other visitors’ legs, but again, at a disorienting angle thanks to the mirrors’ slant from floor to wall.

Eleven more recent photographs, framed mostly as triptychs, hung at conventional height in a sequence of small open rooms on the other side of the wall of mirrors; void of human presence, they took as their subjects architectural elements, mainly stairs, floors, and columns. In every case, these bits of buildings, whose role is nothing other than to keep the construction standing or establish a firm footing for the people who use it, were framed in such a way as to seem isolated or displaced; in one way or another, they seemed to suggest that their own apparent steadfastness and solidity must be illusory. They are part of an architecture for dreamers, one that will dissolve as soon as you turn away.

Although it is evidently deeply rooted in Mueller’s ongoing work, this vertiginous meditation on the “false ground” on which we might always be standing might also have been a response to the CAV itself—after all, its floor really is false in a way, since it is made of removable panels to allow access to the archeological site it conceals: The building dates to the sixteenth century and for centuries housed the court of the Inquisition. Mueller had one of the panels removed and the aperture covered with glass. But it’s not only the underground persistence of the past that challenges the stability of the present. Almost as a footnote to the exhibition, Mueller evoked the impossible idea of the gallery as an unwalled passageway continuous with the street, for instance by scattering around it bottles of mineral water and stray lemons, as though passersby had abandoned them along the way. More unreal, somehow, than the pictures that surrounded them, they illustrated reality’s shortfall.

Barry Schwabsky