Reinhard Mucha: The Silence of Presentation (1988)
“Reinhard Mucha: The Silence of Presentation,” Parachute, no. 51 (June – August 1988), pp. 22-28; French translation, pp. 45-46.
This text has been in a long process of reprinting, since 2003 when I first lightly re-edited it. A new French translation was published in 2004 (“Reinhard Mucha: Le silence de la presentation,” Parachute: Essais Chosis 1985 – 2000, Montréal: Éditions Parachute, 2004, pp. 79-92) but the new English version still has to come out.
In 2003, I wrote a short introduction for the volume that was to come out then:
I was brought up on minimalism and post-minimalism before I was seduced by French theory as a young adult. Parachute allowed me to put this synthesis of looking and thinking into practice when I first started contributing to the journal in 1977. Over a decade later, after I had left criticism to become a curator, another fascination—Reinhard Mucha's sculpture—seemed a perfect vehicle to recapitulate this synthesis in application to an artist of my generation. Reading the text now, I wonder: Did my change of occupation, from critic to curator in a collecting institution, inflect my interpretation of Mucha's work? Perhaps not; as a writer I was always attuned to the unspoken systems of value that insinuate and institute themselves in works of art.
Here is the 2003 version of the text:
Reinhard Mucha: The Silence of Presentation
Faced with the complexity of Reinhard Mucha’s works, we could start, as others have done, with an extensive inventory of the objects and elements that comprise them. We could state as well the pseudo-morphic relations to the signature substances of a preceding generation (perhaps with Beuys as one of the most immediate signals here); discuss Mucha’s extension of the strategies of Daniel Buren, Michael Asher, and Marcel Broodthaers and their various museum critiques; or merely remark on his use of furniture, concurrent with other recent strategies. Having inventoried the components, we could pass to their connections. Then after having located a consistent, and insistent, intention in these connections, we could translate these, finding the part in the whole, into the larger figural concerns of the works and the references they make. Thus, we would pass in an itinerary through Mucha’s works from such simple pieces as Tilsit (1987) to complex configurations such as Kasse beim Fahrer (1987) that concluded the Basel portion of Mucha’s dual 1987 exhibition as if a spectacular resolution.
I want to delay this assured progression from simple to complex that finds the part confirmed in the whole through an interpretation that metaphorizes the artist’s intention as if it were figural or referential. Not that such an interpretation is not justified in some measure, or that the parts cannot be interpreted in the same sense as the whole, because the interpretation of the whole finds its meaning in the connection of the parts. I want to delay this progression because it moves too easily from the simple to the complex and, as a consequence, too naturally from the literal to the metaphorical. What is “natural” in a construction disguises actual relations and asserts a hierarchy among artworks. In turn, this hierarchy subordinates elements to each other in every single piece as well as establishes a specific position for the viewer outside the work but not within its process. All particularity is at risk in the movement from literality to metaphoricity. My wager is that simple works such as Tilsit may be the most complex, or, at least, that the meaning of a work resides in what maintains us in it, and that this meaning may be found in what is most difficult and unyielding about it. (This is to say that the simple is not merely the reduced.) Rather than look to connections as something that leads out in a rhizomatic way, based on the unavoidable reference to the railway system in Mucha’s work, we should look first for a way in through that which presents itself as obdurate and opaque, both materially and intentionally. This looking in does not reflect a naive interiorizing. Rather, the viewer is stationed in a place neither inside nor out but between. Everything in these works is in the construction and presentation, in between construction and presentation—the in-between of presentation.
Simple and opaque describes the grey felt-covered box called Tilsit hung on the wall like a Gerhard Richter painting. Simple because it is just a box; opaque because it does not seem to present anything other than itself. Another description might contrast Tilsit’s one form to the elaborate construction and theatrical appeal of Kasse beim Fahrer. Tilsit reappears, so to speak, as a similar unit absorbed as part of the installation of Kasse beim Fahrer, hung on one wall reflecting the greater apparatus in its glass. By subordination to the spectacle of the work, the part that replicates Tilsit here merely seems to introduce or relay the viewer to a more meaningful configuration, meaningful because referential: Kasse beim Fahrer (“Buy ticket from the operator”) represents a carrousel. The complexity of construction of such works as Kasse beim Fahrer has the effect of turning artworks into spectacles and viewers into passive witnesses to the artist’s presumed figuralizing intentions. If the viewer, on the contrary, is detained in some of the problems Tilsit presents another intention becomes apparent. The aim here is not to present a solution to the enigma of the work. No more then will the larger spectacles be resolutions and we must interpret them otherwise. The problematic presentation in Tilsit is still a presentation, nonetheless. But in presenting nothing other than itself, Tilsit does not reveal itself or its function so readily. In presenting itself, it stages more than it initially offers to view. What does Tilsit offer and open to view?
Tilsit is not a simple object. Constructed, it is therefore neither an appropriated common object nor an unarticulated entity. The felt-covered box is overlaid on its projecting surface with a sheet of glass that is held in place, separate from the felt, with four mirror clips. Rather than inventory the elements and materials of Mucha’s works, perhaps we should list the connectives that construct them. Describing the clips in a work, for instance, would tell us more about it than any other association. Through the insistence of their placement, these connectives seem to foreground a function. What seemed simple and opaque already becomes more complex in description, because what we overlook in the appearance of a work presents itself as a problem and hence as a potential for meaning. Complexity does not reside merely in the construction but in the presentation, as well. As presentation cannot be separated from construction, construction cannot be separated from description here. And description is a transcription of our questioning movement.
Tilsit is an object and a surface. Made of glass on felt, it both reflects and absorbs light, offering little to view between absorption and reflection, as if one cancelled the other. We are drawn to the work but it presents nothing to us: the felt repels us in absorbing light at the same time that the glass glances all perceptions off its surface. By the very same conditions, however, the surface acts as a mirror and offers a dim reflection; what we see reflected is ourselves. Thrown back on ourselves, to our position in front of this obdurate object somewhere between painting and sculpture, since we are given nothing to view (other than ourselves as an image), we start again and investigate Tilsit’s object status. Here we seem to be presented merely with its construction. What the construction offers up to meaning, in the manner that the box projects from the wall and in the mounting of the glass over the felt, is presentation itself. This presentation is made without a frame so that its structure and staging lie elsewhere. Yet because of the gap between felt and glass, in this breach between absorption and reflection, some other doubt begins to stir. We are folded back into ourselves but without the security of resolution.
This reflection back into ourselves is no attempt on the part of Tilsit to reveal to us formal, self-reflexive models of perception or consciousness. (At this point, what could self-consciousness mean before a work like Tilsit other than a division?) If these models fall prey to a type of idealism that bars context from view, Mucha directs us instead to his materials. As the conditions of Tilsit are no more emblematic of the pure self-reflexivity of an artwork, and as the materials themselves seem to deny any formalism, what the artist discloses rather is the material base of presentation. Production is made of presentation, and vice versa. We are directed away from the surface with its indefinite depth and reflection to the mode of presentation; away from the surface to its edges and “background”; to the devices that hold the work together and attach it to the wall; to the “supports” of the work in all their institutional functions.
While the perceiving self is reflected in the work, the aim is not to forestall us in some form of self-consciousness, closing the circuit between work and spectator: a short-circuit. Such security is dissolved in that what we also see in the reflection is other works themselves reflecting works in turn. We are brought back from the background to the surface, then deflected by means of this surface to other works reflected therein, and finally pass through them to the whole institutional circuit of presentation. We can now say that this place “between” cannot have its location in a reflection that duplicates a relation to the work in front of it (a between of spectator and work), as the simple interiorization of that formality, a between of self and consciousness: a self-present consciousness. Yet, at the same time, we are not ready to say that the subject is displaced between a here and an elsewhere that the reference of any individual piece mediates.
Tilsit functions to send us anywhere but into the self. The still-to-be-determined elsewhere, however, is circumscribed by two directions in Mucha’s work that reorient a notion of place. On the one hand, we find a displacement to somewhere between works: a circuit. On the other hand, we witness an involution where place turns in on itself in the work: the work is between itself. Context traverses each work internally. By means of the inversion of site in the structure of the work itself, all particulars of place have been absorbed within the silent operations of a work’s connections.
This double direction is consequential for the interpretation of Mucha’s works. What leads out and what leads in, however, are not necessarily opposed. In fact, as the place marker of this inversion, the connective determines the outer circuit. Physically, connectives help construct a work; in the larger of Mucha’s works, they become the construction itself: they comprise the spectacle of its construction. They are the binding agents of a syntactic structure that builds outwards to more complex levels, referentially and seemingly metaphorically; but they do not disappear in any transformation or dissemination. The connectives circumscribe, rather than facilitate, broader metaphorical interpretations. Perhaps they serve instead to uncouple the references they bring about in the construction as a whole.
Mucha’s large constructions are composed of objects or elements brought to and taken from the exhibiting institution itself: tables, ladders, chairs, dollies, lights, portable walls, etc. These elements maintain their own character within the figural whole even though their orientation or function might be displaced. While connected to other elements, they are always separated at their point of contact by felt or carpet pads, the types used to rest and protect artworks during installation, storage, or transportation. Significantly, these non-descript preparators’ materials are equivalent to every other component. There is no hierarchy of materials. Similarly disposed in position, if not function, to the connectives, such as clips, they assume the same value as supports, such as dollies and ladders, that themselves are not subordinate to the objects they raise or support. Everything is support and connection at once. Even the containers (cabinets, cupboards, shelves, etc.) that appear in Mucha’s work have the same constructive role as every other element. No longer ordinarily functional, they are empty but not void of significance in their reference to transportation or commodity display. Like all the transposed elements, they operate within another system of meaning that the work as a whole composes. This whole, however, does not add up to a rebus whose meaning we could decipher, since we need to maintain an idea of the original functions of the work’s individual parts. These parts, however, do assume a sign function, but the overall reference never coalesces in a meaning related to the totalizing images that the constructions call forth. Meaning coheres on the level of construction, in how the image is constructed.
These signifiers do not send us along a track as equivalents to the names of railway stations, for instance, that appear in Mucha’s work or title them. These visible signs and names are as empty as the containers that support them. Reference, therefore, does not simply radiate outwards into a system transportation designates. But transportation is implicated as part of a circuit of preparation, as a factor that precedes presentation but enters into it, nonetheless, as a non-value. And so we find that many of the materials that are featured between members—felt, pads and tape—are exactly those materials that are used to secure and protect works of art in all aspects of transportation, preparation, and installation; and, thus, they bind works of art to other culturally determined systems of dissemination that are more delimited in their effects.
Reference is delayed; resolution into spectacle falters. Collapsing within their present system of representation that is the gallery, these works no longer spread outwards in a generalized meaning. The works’ construction instead is a “commentary” on what it is the purpose of spectacle to disguise. That is: that spectacle is produced and put into circulation as a commodity; that there are institutions and procedures for its management. No longer displaying or transporting anything—that is, any particular thing as a content—Mucha’s works designate operations that usually are hidden; that are considered to be no longer relevant in display; or that maintain the “life” of an artwork before, beyond, or between presentations, an outside of presentation when the elements that compose the work, now decomposed, no longer have a function and, therefore, no longer carry a meaning or assume a presence. All these conditions serve to construct a work and by implication to construct its presentation at the same time that we also realize that they usually conspire to keep themselves invisible. What was outside the work is now found inside as the very force that keeps it together as a presentation, a non-value that constitutes the value of a work. An “outside” circumscribes the “inside” of the gallery system, as a representational lining that composes a system of presentation, in an inversion or rather an involution that makes a passage through, rather than beyond, Mucha’s works. These codes continually led us in rather than out of his works and their setting.
Yet, objects that have been completely constructed from the elements and procedures of presentation lend themselves to interpretations that could only be described as metaphoric. A meaning, no matter how generalized, is derived from the metamorphosis of the objects in the works’ references thereby to a motion determined by transport systems or fairground rides. This issue of interpretation plays into what are probably the fundamental critical questions of Mucha’s works: that is, on the one hand, the link between works and their seeming referents; and, on the other hand, their construction of meaning purely as a generalized syntax or semantics, and subsequently the, perhaps untotalizable, relations between disparate codes in each individual work. Everything I have written suggests that the first question can be dispensed with in favour of the second, but only if the second can be seen as being inferred by the construction of the works and not by their referents. For the railway system is only one cue to a movement or construction of meaning.
As the “origin” of this system of circulating references, Wartesaal (1982) is generative of this marching system of metaphors. Or so it seems. Mucha repeatedly draws his titles from the catalogue of railway station names stored in the cabinets of this work. Wartesaal only gives reference to a system by its names; the construction itself does not recall any image. Built solely around these names, Wartesaal (“waiting room”) is a purely functional object, a machine of sorts dispensing individual names on exhibition demand, when one sign is removed, set up on a table and illuminated. This procedure has its analogy far from the railway system that seems to set it in motion. For Mucha comments that the correct analogy is the gallery system, where artworks substituted by station signs, signifiers in turn of names of artists, wait to be put into circulation. The system Wartesaal defines is closed, and is open only to the degree that it partakes of a circulation that is economic as much as one of desire and prestige.4
Metaphorizing interpretation could only be conducted on the basis of complex configurations such as Kasse beim Fahrer whose profile reminds us of an entertainment. But some works make no references other than by a name or title. Tilsit’s place name, for instance, offers no insight into the meaning or reference of the work. To turn to the tain of Tilsit’s mirror, what metaphor could it sustain that would not be evacuated by its reflection in another work? Tilsit neither transforms nor moves us in so obvious a way as Kasse beim Fahrer. Too often, interpretation stations us in front of the more spectacular constructions only to lead us away from the actual works. (Yet, the insistent repetition of the constructive aspects of Mucha’s works already seems to deny the organic quality of the opening out of metaphor.) That an element similar to the construction of Tilsit introduces us to Kasse beim Fahrer in no sense should infer its hierarchical positioning in a larger constellation of meaning. On the contrary, the conditions of a non-referential work such as Tilsit are consequential for the interpretation of so-called spectacles such as Kasse beim Fahrer, and not vice versa. Kasse beim Fahrer repeats Tilsit's en abyme in the tain of its own mirror.
Two directions have been identified in Mucha’s works, one seemingly leading outwards and the other inwards—a circuit between works and a “between” that can be re-marked in the work itself. A third direction can also be observed: a lifting up or annulment of one work in another. Given that Mucha directs our attention to those factors that no longer seem relevant in presentation and that we observe his spectacles in the end to be no resolution, we should beware of any language of cancelling and lifting up that leads to the concept of the Hegelian Aufhebung and its self-restoring sameness. However, given the nature of Mucha’s large installations, some works are cancelled after exhibition only to be raised up in new works that record those events. In that some installations are site specific to the degree that they utilize material from their place of exhibition (chairs, the moving devices of the various art institutions, etc.), they have to be dismantled after exhibition. Since they are contingent to the materials of those institutions, they cannot be re-installed in another exhibition situation elsewhere. (These conditions have changed somewhat recently.)
Untitled (Oberhausen-Osterfeld Sud 1981) from 1981/82 and Untitled (“Astron Taurus,” Kunsthalle Bielefeld 1981) from 1984 are two such “documentary” works that seem to keep alive past works, while entombing them (parenthetically) in new ones. They share certain characteristics as devices that similarly frame framed installation photographs. In Untitled (Oberhausen-Osterfeld Sud 1981), the two parts of the work juxtapose the record of a past presence through its framed photographs with the empty presence of a blank vitrine (lined with felt and lit within from its top side). In Untitled (“Astron Taurus,” Kunsthalle Bielefeld, 1981), framed installation shots are supplemented by the sole physical rem(a)inder of that installation—the Astron Taurus brand fans, objects that could be brought to and taken away from the institution.
Both these works document a past presence, but we should not look at their presentations as a play of presence and absence that constitutes representation. The new works are no longer simply the memory of past pieces. As they record a dismantling of a work that no longer exists except folded into the form of a new work, so they dismantle any metaphorical interpretation that would posit an original presentation that is not similarly complicated. The “original” of presentation is under question here. These particular works seem to take the form of an announcement as much as a record. They are open to the future. “Under the false appearance of a present,” past and future meet. Reflecting other works in their surfaces, they also point to the future end of every presentation.
1. Let us look at another folding and reflecting that appears in the untitled work from 1981 that carries the text “MANNER-FRAUEN.” This work is actually folded, as it occupies a corner, with its two frames, each containing one of the words, hung on a felt background. The work is so constructed that the felt background meets in the corner as a seam, but a gap remains between the two frames, between “man” and “woman.” Because the text rests behind glass, each word—white type on black background—is reflected in the other as if in a mirror. Thus “MANNER” is reflected in reverse in “FRAUEN” and similarly “FRAUEN” in “MANNER” in such a way as to create a chiasmatic “X” out of their intersection in a combined actual and virtual space. Needless to say, we too are reflected within these surfaces, an implication we have to unravel, untwist or unfold. All this is not given to view so easily. In the installation of this work in Basel, another construction, Lohhof (1987), blocked a clear view. This placement complicates our comprehension. To see this work, one had either to look down the channel formed between Lohhof and Untitled on the wall, never seeing the whole text at once, or to walk alongside the piece making a turn in the corner in order to gather it all in. A staging that makes us contingent to two pieces at once implicates us in this passage between while distancing us from the presence of any one of these works.
2. Mucha has tilted the historical axis of development from Constantin Brancusi to Carl Andre in his demonstration of the connections between individual components/materials as well as the work’s connection to its site.
3. As when, for example, Germano Celant writes: “Regrouped, the ‘mobilized’ components form a larger object, and participate in a transformation of meaning.” Even though Celant writes of forces and not intentions [“It is almost as if some force had pushed them toward this new order and content... It is the driving force behind these works that matters; it determines the movement and orders the regroupings and events that one sees. It propels a metamorphosis of appearances (in his writing, Mucha often quotes Franz Kafka), causing them to travel and change position toward unknown and fascinating ends.”], the meaning of the work is already generalized: “Each work, spreading out horizontally, becomes a carrier capable of crossing all frontiers, linguistic and geographic.” “Stations on a Journey,” Artforum (Dec., 1985), pp. 76,79.
4. As this catalogue of station names is taken from an early 1930s railway station registry, that is, from pre-division Germany, it points out that, on the level of reference, even for Germans we are dealing with something that is divided in itself.
5. Patrick Frey talks of the form and function of the parts of Mucha’s works as being “temporarily kept annulled. This transitory Aufhebung (which word I use to designate Mucha’s way of collecting things and hanging them up or suspending them, of turning, tipping or completely inverting them) seems to be the key to the mysterious energy that transforms the substantial voids of Mucha’s cupboards, shelves and skeleton constructions into encompassing meaningful spaces, into spaces that demonstrate multiple relations and connections.” Not that Frey’s terminology follows philosophical usage; another transformation takes place: “In consequence, Mucha’s absolutely immobile sculptures are infused with real motion behind which more motion is concealed: namely the motion of emotion generated by the artist’s commitment to his things...” “Reinhard Mucha: Connections,” Parkett, no. 12, 1987, pp. 114, 119.