TRIS VONNA-MICHELL Not a Solitary Sign or Inscription to Even Suggest an Ending
Overduin and Kite, Los Angeles | April 4 – May 8, 2010
Since his graduation from the Glasgow School of Art in 2005, Tris Vonna-Michell has traveled to the United States, Germany, France, Japan, and various other locations to seek out histories based on personal, and often autobiographical, inquiries. In Not a Solitary Sign or Inscription to Even Suggest an Ending—Vonna-Michell’s first Los Angeles exhibition—the gallery’s two rooms serve as archives of the artist’s experiences in Detroit and Berlin. In the first room, photographs of scenes like snowy streets and abandoned buildings are pinned to three bulletin boards hanging on the walls, while an automatic slide player presents the same images. Headphones are available at a table where visitors can sit and listen to the artist’s story while leafing through printed material. In the darkened adjacent room, three carousel slide projectors, sitting on Plexiglas cubes filled with crumpled paper, project images at irregular intervals onto the walls.
This would be no more than an appended biography, however, were it not for Vonna-Michell’s performances, which situate the visual archive within quick, breathless monologues that dissolve narrative into a cinematic montage of associative language. In the past, the artist has performed his monologues sitting at tables, face to face with the viewer, sometimes allowing the viewer to determine the duration. No such fluidity at Overduin and Kite. Those who made the opening-night performance (an intimate gathering on Easter Sunday) saw Vonna-Michell teeter through disparate points in Berlin without the time to settle into a story, all against a ticking egg timer—a standard prop in his work. The selected monologue is part of a project entitled Hahn/Huhn (2003-ongoing), which interweaves an incident from the Cold War involving an East German border guard named Reinhold Hahn, who was shot by a West German civilian, with a Google search confirming the guard’s name as Reinhold Huhn, along with other tangential threads, such as the secret wartime tunnels beneath Berlin’s Anhalter Bahnhof. (Adding a layer, the title Hahn/Huhn translates as “Rooster/Hen.”) The similarity of the names sets in motion an alliterative chain that invokes free-form poetry. Here, though, Vonna-Michell uses language as an aesthetic form to the extent that words can express an external event only by failing to become it; the images pick up the slack, but both fail to constitute a narrative, or multiple narratives.
Neither the words nor the images are sufficient in themselves, as event or “art.” Those who missed the opening’s performance are left with the slides and printed images, some texts, and one recording—what the artist has himself, in a different context, called an “archive in flux.” To suggest that something is missing would reduce this material—which is, in effect, the exhibition—to artifacts from the performance. It’s an unfair assessment, particularly because the performance was finished less than an hour into the three-hour opening of a five-week show. The same logic applies to the performance, which could be viewed as evidence of the preparatory research. Yet to hold these three elements—the investigation, the performance, and the “archive”—in tension as an art object misses the arbitrariness of the project.
If Vonna-Michell’s work feels at times insufficient, it’s because “meaning,” as some kind of mythic, concrete object, is engaged in a perpetual game of displacement. For his graduation show, for example, he spent a month in Leipzig in a prefab GDR apartment, hand-shredding two suitcases of childhood and other personal photographs. While the shredded photos were left out of the final exhibition, Leipzig Calendar Works (2005), the action presumably informed it; in an interview for his 2009 exhibition, Finding Chopin: Endnotes 2005-2009 at the Jeu de Paume in Paris, curator Elena Filipovic explained that the art was found in the act of “destroying…what he had made,” and in a January 2009 Artforum profile, critic Martin Herbert addressed the same action as “los[ing], and rebuild[ing], a history.” Similarly, Finding Chopin began when the artist asked his father how the family had come to settle in the British seaside town of Southend; the father evidently replied, “Ask Henri Chopin—all you need to know is that he loves quail eggs, lives in Paris, and is 82 years old.” Old histories are shredded and reconfigured to produce new histories. It all sounds very essentialist for a project that has no essential properties aside from the semantic content of a place or a name, as with the abandoned Detroit train station that appears and reappears in the exhibition images without ever declaring what it “is” or to what discourse it belongs (i.e., “urban decline”)—other than being a building, somewhere.
These details are no more histories (new or old) than they are fictions or lies. Each point in a given narrative pushes outward to the next, fabricating a framework of contingencies. Contingency requires relationships, something that Vonna-Michell’s narratives all have on the surface. Yet underlying the chance meeting of A and B—say Southend and quail eggs—is a sense that neither one is really necessary, as Southend or quail eggs or A or B. The journey ends where it begins, and the beginning is immaterial, whether or not it has a name; any illusion of progress, based on contingency or chance, is a displacement of content through the machinations of information. To posit that the work in Not a Solitary Sign does nothing to unravel the contingency of histories or to illuminate affinities is not a value judgment. If a word means what it means, then no further inquiry is ever needed. But amid all the photographs and texts, all the seductive stories, one can begin to wonder, not what we’re looking for, but for what purpose are we ever looking, anyway?