Transposed Contexts: Reinhard Mucha (1990)
In an event such as the Venice Biennial, an artist’s work is appropriated for a nationalist discourse. An artist represents his nation but his work is also taken to stand for certain national characteristics. And in an event where prizes are awarded, his name, allied to that of his nation, is put into circulation in a competition. What might it mean, then, for an artist to be chosen to represent his nation? What might it mean for the rhythm of production and signification of the work, for the artist, on the one hand, and for the viewer, on the other? Reinhard Mucha’s installation Das Deutschlandgerät reflects upon these conditions and does so by emphasizing the contexts of production and display. In presentation, however, production and display intersect or, rather, each is buried in the other and their relations are obscured by the deliberate inversion of what is public and what is private.
Any remarking of this nationalist discourse, of course, cannot help but be inflected, for the understanding of a German artist, by the German pavilion itself, a stripped classical structure dating from 1938—both style and date signifying, in a word, one thing: fascism. An invited artist must contend with this history. In the present case, the first thing one sees through the portico when approaching the building is an addition specified by the artist: an enclosure built within the central gallery of the pavilion. This building within a building has been made with marble from the same Italian quarry from which the original flooring was derived. Ones immediate impression is of a mausoleum; and so by the use of material and the iconographic authority of this new structure, the artist, in an overweaning arrogance, seems to have allied himself to the building and its origins. In fact, he has aligned himself to the conditions the building imposes on an artist who accepts to exhibit in this historically overcoded space. While seeming to overly identify himself with the pavilion through this new construction, Mucha carefully reveals a gap: the row of marble flooring on which the walls of the new structure stand has been removed so that this building sits on the sub-floor with a narrow channel on either side of its walls. This nested structure, then, is both attached and detached. (By subtly separating it, Mucha preserves something for himself or saves himself from the building in saving something for himself). Moreover, the inner surface of the interior has been sheathed in grey felt, dampening sound and sight in contrast to the aural ricochet of the marble and its light-enhancing qualities. Thus, this inner space, more a sanctuary than a mausoleum, is a space of interiority, a private sphere that corresponds, actually, to the artist’s studio.
The correspondence is as much literal as figurative: the dimensions of the pavilion proportionally approximate those of Mucha’s Düsseldorf studio. The glass surfaces of the twenty-seven vitrines, which surround its inner circumference and that are stacked the height of the wall, are inscribed with grid-like markings that indicate, as if on an architectural elevation, the doors and windows of his studio. More immediately, the contents of these cases are the floorboards from Mucha’s studio. These have been re-laid and mounted to duplicate their original arrangement, given that they are hung vertically in four separate walls and not in one contiguous plane. But they are now hung in such a way that we can read the traces of the room’s history, such as a removed wall and doorway. This removal corresponds to another within the German pavilion itself, where a narrow band of stone—itself registering a previous partition—has been carried through the exterior marble walls of the inner pavilion. Thus, what is an anomaly specific to each locale is taken as a coincidence that brings these two separate, perhaps disparate, spaces together in the same time and space. On being observed, this irregularity common to both breaks the isolation and binds the inside to the outside, the studio to the pavilion, contaminating the studio’s purity of enclosure andmarking it by the same historical or political conditions as thepavilion.
If the felt disguises these relations by emphatically enclosing the inner space, something else shows through the display cases as if their sliding glass panels were windows. The inscription of the studio elevations onto the plan” of the original floor also outlines how an exterior light would cast its image upon the floor. Seemingly enclosed, the studio shows itself open to outside influences. If it is indeed open, what other histories might be brought to this space? That question might be answered by what is immediately proximate to this space. One entered that interior space only to be enveloped. The outer space, on the contrary, can only be experienced peripatetically, but however one walks one is met at every moment by what is the same, or appears to be the same. Around the outer walls of this space, facing the marble walls of the inner pavilion, are hung thirty-eight identical display cases. In opposition to those inside, these cases—constructed of aluminum, felt and glass—are installed vertically, matching the architectural repetition of the building’s façade. Each case houses an ensemble identical in type and manufacture of a footstool and its brass cast. Still attached to the apparatus of the casting process, a brass stool supports its wooden stool and, in turn, rests on a retractable tape measure. While of a type, each stool is slightly different in manufacture with its own patina of domestic use. Since each brass cast reproduces one of the stools, they too are different one from the other.
These domestic objects and their artisanal replicas are given a display which in their repetition seems to sublime the absurd. But this now figurative ensemble also gives the Mucha work as a whole its title: Das Deutschlandgerät. A pneumatic-hydraulic device to right derailed locomotives and train cars of the early railway era, the Deutschlandgerät was a famous product of the Maschinenfabrik Deutschland in Dortmund. Another contemporary industrial concern and manufacturer of railway equipment and streetcars was the Düsseldorfer Waggonfabrik whose main office Mucha’s studio presently inhabits. What surrounds Mucha’s displaced “studio” in the German pavilion provides the historical context—and seeming subjects—for his work in its original Düsseldorf site. This socio-industrial history, then, also inhabits the site of the pavilion through the agency of Mucha’s transposed studio. The duplicate conditions of these two sites—Düsseldorf/Venice—highlight an analogous transformation. As the cultural function replaces the industrial in its original site (an artistic production, however, that utilizes the standardized products of industry and sublimates its history in the work’s figurative references), so too is the “studio” here in the pavilion transformed from a place of production to one of display. In this chiasmic reversal of transposed contexts, the two spaces begin to assume an integral relationship. Perhaps the two displays—the inner and outer—have some degree of equivalence as well. That, at least, is indicated in the parallel facing of the walls of the inner pavilion, the outside with marble flooring, the inside with Mucha’s studio flooring.
The function of the industrial product Deutschlandgerät is figuratively referred to in the combination of stools, one supporting the other, reflecting the positioning of the apparatus in operation as shown in the archival photograph. (The stools, however, may also mimic the portico of the German pavilion). The brass casting also recalls that tradition of machine-making but on an artisanal level. But we should not limit the meaning solely to this reference as if the installation were merely a clever homage to a specific machine.1 Any support and presentation in Mucha’s work point also to the institutional support and bracketing of works of art. Moreover, the vitrines simply contain domestic objects, albeit a collection of sorts, Mucha’s own. What is of mundane origin has been elevated into a display—and aggrandized in repetition—as if it were of archaeological importance. Industrial archaeology of a type the Bechers could be said to represent, and whose photographs in turn surround Mucha’s installation in the outer galleries of the German pavilion, is presented through the guise of the domestic. If we concentrate on that which is domestic, what is usually of private use (the stools) has been placed in a public context. Leaving aside the consequences of the analogy for the moment, the situation is similar to the private act of making made public through the display of the place of artistic production.2 In that it stands for production, Mucha exhibits the studio itself rather than its products.
In an age of the commerce of signatures, where cash is exchanged for the prestige of a signature, and in the nationalist competition of the biennial, where artists are put into exchange under the names of their countries, Mucha has chosen to substitute the place of production, and its values, for the individual product which gains an independence from the artist while representing him in its commodity status. While one might insist that the installation is composed of nothing but products, Mucha has made the installation as integral, embedded in its context, as the domains of public and private are in the display of this work. He does not simply display the place of production; he puts the apparatus of art as a whole into context. That context as a whole, moreover, coalesces in the title: Das Deutschlandgerät.
A literal translation of Deutschlandgerät is impossible; “tool for Germany” more than “German tool” might be an approximation. The use of the term for the installation could be a metaphor for getting Germany back on track. But that would too literally make Mucha’s work a representation of the German spirit in the sense also that his work represents the state of German at the Venice Biennale. Isn’t this representation meant to be officially archetypal in this all too ideological building in the way that the name of the tool makes the tool typical? By the very title Mucha acknowledges, but does not accomodate, this complex. Moreover, in that the stool itself can be considered a utensil, it is a gerät, a designation which with its mundane connotations deflates now rather than elevates this ideology. Mucha presents something on behalf of Germany, but he does notnecessarily simply represent it. Something else is represented in this name Deutschlandgerät and takes its place through the installation.
In that the marble enclosure is a container of sorts, its“content” is a studio, and the content of these cases is the apparatus that the stools compose or to which they refer. Another subject surfaces, which is reflected in passage: the body that passes through these spaces, connecting one to the other. This body is my own, but in the silence of interpretation I do not necessarily bring it to consciousness, although it may be disclosed to another in this space. My body appears to me as a reflection in any of these cases. (How I appear to another is repeated for me in the apse-like space where from a determined position my image is reflected in all ten cases.) The thirty-eight cases that surround the outer walls of the gallery are constructed in such a way that I can only surmise that this reflection is part of the work’s function. As the glass set against grey felt extends the full height of each case it reflects the entire body as if it were a mirror. And as my head is reflected in the display area, conflating image and object, I presume these cases to have these two functions: to contain the objects and to reflect (more than) a look.
Curiously, in the inner pavilion where the glass similarly carries our image, the cases are stacked in such a way that our bodies are reflected but now without our heads as these fall inthe horizontal gap between the vitrines. What was emphasized outside, and accentuated by a corresponding verticality, is crossed out inside as if our heads were obliterated by a black bar as in a photograph. The breach that this bar makes perhaps emphasizes the separation between the two domains of public and private, the former where we have access to the interpretation of a work and the latter where we have no place in the intention and making of art. We should not think that this inner sanctum is our aim or where we should come to rest (through this act of decapitation or regression), as if it were a mausoleum for us and a sanctuary for the artist, a lure for us and a safe for him, what captures us and protects him, at the same time. We do not come to rest here but are returned to circulation, but not without realizing through these operations that the body has become the measure of the installation.
If we are forced back towards the light, in this peripheral circulation we come to an abrupt halt before an anomalous feature in the installation. One of the vertical vitrines has been placed horizontally on a table, on a bed of marble, and connected to the outer marble wall of the inner pavilion as if by a felt vise. In this position it has the aspect of a coffin. We have already noted that the two spaces are subtly separated by a channel. This gap is obscured on both sides, on the one hand, by the lightness of the marble, and, on the other, by the darkness of the felt. Yet this procuring gap testifies to a connection as much as a separation, and, as such, it contains the two as a place of transition or passage. Since the displaced vitrine is connected physically to the walls of the inner room while inhabiting the outer space, it too is marked by a passage. If it marks a transition, once again it cannot be read metaphorically as a final resting place any more than the enclosure can be read as an entombment. Whatever takes place, and takes a place as a representation, therefore, is only intermediary. (Even that“decapitation” mentioned above was intermediary.) Whatever is displayed in this installation only makes a moment or represents a passage.
Even those things that mark a place and allow one to take a position can be seen as intermediary: a chair, for instance. Within Mucha’s work, the chair and stool have been constants. In their various inversions they stood for a displaced commonplace, but they also functioned to mark the institutional context of presentation: the chairs of an exhibiting institution incorporated within an installation, and, as such, displacing a context internally. Structurally, they served to construct sculptures or installations; they were support and connection at once; something which established a place and served as a“between” places. The stool might serve to elevate objects(compare Eller Bahnhof) as much as the Deutschlandgerät was a machine for raising another machine from the horizontal to the vertical. If the stools of Mucha’s installation Das Deutschlandgerät make reference to this specific machine, thealso refer more generally and simply to actions of intermediacy, moments of transition between one thing and another. The machine is exactly that element that loses itself, as much as it asserts itself, in this intermediary act of elevation: it is a medium and agency at once. (A tool, moreover, is a device for changing a thing from one position to another or from one state to another.) What seems emphasized here and in every aspect of the installation is this transitional quality with its transpositional character, whether the theme is interpreted in the change from a horizontal to a vertical format of the display cases, the implication of raising the odd horizontal vitrine from its lying to standing position, or in the displaced verticalit of the marble and wood flooring. (In the latter instance, the inscription of the studio elevations onto the “plan” of the floor inverts our standing position, in that each elevation has been folded down from the upper row of cases as if the top marked the angle between wall and floor.) In its most encompassing figure, transposition marks even the involution of the two sites.
The machine Deutschlandgerät is a figurative reference of the outer vitrines. The means of movement, the medium and agency, in Das Deutschlandgerät, the installation, can only be provided by the spectator. Our bodies are the accompaniment of any action of transposition, whether intellectual or physical. The body is an agent and passage that asserts itself as much as it loses itself only to find itself again in movement or reflection.
The building of the inner pavilion creates two spaces and provokes two different types of movement: an enclosing and peripatetic movement. While the imposing architecture seems to close off the two spaces from each other, there must be a relation between the two or something common that joins them. The body of the viewer provides this transition and is the site of exchange. This viewer, however, is to realize more than the actual transition between the two spaces in the literality of his or her body. For if a relationship is established between the two spaces, a context is created one for the other.
That context is to be determined. On the one hand, we have to understand the relations at the site of production (the context of the studio); on the other hand, we have to realize the relations at the site of display (the context of the pavilion). Das Deutschlandgerät attempts to show that the two are not separate. We cannot believe that production and display relate simply to their own spaces, the one here placed in the other as the architecture dictates. Context in this case is a complex which points to the reciprocality of the “inside” and “outside.” But in this installation two fully realized contexts reciprocate. Each acts on the other, the pavilion with its spatial priority determining and informing the “studio,” the “studio” critically taking into account the history of its host. Herein lies the risk of situating an installation in the pavilion without unconditionally accomodating oneself to the history it represents. But in order for this work to operate, it must take this risk. In its very conception and construction, the installation is connected to the site and the pavilion’s politics and history and history of installations as much as the site and the work’s reception is tied, through this installation, to Mucha’s studio and its history. As such, the installation Das Deutschlandgerät reproduces all the relations in which art finds itself inscribed—from production to display, from idealism to commercialism. But these relations are not reproduced unconsciously nor presented simply as an example. Das Deutschlandgerät is no mere model. We must figure these relations in the actual context we find ourselves, in this pavilion, in the site of this biennial.
As in every other work by Mucha, from the simplest to the most complex, what initially appears as a denial becomes a means of entry or, rather, connection to the work. But the connection is more than just the object itself in which the spectator may find him or herself reflected. (Reflection is that double figure that entreats and repels the viewer.) By the very means of what is most reticent, the viewer is redirected to the presentation and context of the work and even beyond that to the means of distribution and general creation of value. So it is with Das Deutschlandgerät. Except now the institutional context of the biennial itself is made a fabric of the work as well. Following the approach discerned in earlier or less complex work, then, we should take what immediately presents itself in the pavilion—an apparent non-communication between spaces—as a figure of our approach and find in their mutual involution of context an outcome of our actions.
The outcome is more than a movement between two contexts as if they were distinctly two separate spaces. Initially, one space finds itself situated in the other—the studio in the pavilion—with a rapprochement and detachment analogous to the attraction and repulsion expressed above. Mucha’s architectural interruption, however, acts as a mirror as well and reflects the original context in turn, while bringing something else into view, a history absent from that original presence. Ambivalence forbids a mere mirroring of the two spaces and we have already observed the inmixing of context, one in the other. Yet, if we still sense the chilling exactitude of this “mirrored” space, where one construction seems to reflect another parallel to it, we have to remember that as a spectator we are a disturbing presence and as much an insertion as Mucha’s architectural addition. As that disturbing supplement, we also have to recognize what Das Deutschlandgerät shows us: that any reflection into itself brings along an outside, another context, that contaminates the purity of enclosure, even of a mirror.
1. See Philip Monk, “Reinhard Mucha: The Silence of Presentation,” Parachute 51 (June-August 1988), pp. 22-28; French trans., pp. 45-46, for a discussion of the principles of Reinhard Mucha’s work in general.
2. Artists’ studios have become private museums or in rare cases, such as Brancusi’s, have been incorporated into museums. Even before an opening to the public, they had already literally become tombs through the death of the artist. We are also already familiar with the exhibition of temples and tombs in museums, to which the inner pavilion can also be compared, aswell as with museological installations by artists.
This essay was commissioned for the official publication to Reinhard Mucha's representation of Germany at the 1990 Venice Biennale. The publication never appeared. The artist's idea was to have a single untranslated text in the usual biennale languages of publication: German, Italian, and English.