From Matteo Ricci’s 15th-century tale Palace of Memory to Italo Calvino’s 20th-century Invisible Cities and Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s recent Civil Wars, European writers have continuously explored memory as an artistic theme. The subject figures prominently among Continental visual artists as well, highlighted in works by Joseph Beuys, Per Kirkeby, Anselm Kiefer, and Georg Baselitz. Underscoring the importance of memory in the construction of national and personal histories, such works have often challenged accepted narratives, suggesting new interpretations of life and existence.
The recent work of Manfred Muller, who first appeared in Germany during the 1980s and currently maintains studios in both Dusseldorf and Los Angeles, extends explorations of memory’s relation to the real, the fictive, and the terrains in between. Studying Constructivist art in the 1970s under Erwin Heerich, it is perhaps no wonder that Muller’s works merge interests in abstraction and social consciousness, two usually mutually exclusive strains in art. His 1999 site-specific installation Palacio de Memoria, which premiered at the Museo Universitario del Chopo in Mexico City, assembles disparate physical and metaphysical elements, reinterpreting Mexican and European accounts of the colonial era. Presenting his installation within a building that was originally shipped to Mexico from Germany in 1903, after it first functioned as an exhibition pavilion for Düsseldorf’s Artistic and Industrial Fair of 1902,1 Muller’s work literally embodies colonial history’s material residues. In this uniquely charged space he juxtaposes found and fabricated elements including bowls, church pews, a periscope, and words appropriated from a text written by Enzensberger. Using the language of physical forms, Muller’s installation alludes to the hypocrisy and ultimate collapse of a colonial empire that used religious justifications for political and economic ends. Colonialism’s failure is articulated in the contrasts Muller establishes between disheveled benches, idyllically ordered bowls, and hanging banners bearing phrases borrowed from Enzensberger that speak of human disenchantment and loathing. Referencing Ricci, the early Italian Jesuit missionary who attempted to proselytize the Chinese with his medieval scheme for remembering things by assigning mnemonic meanings to other things, Muller conflates the European missionary exploits of the 15th and 20th centuries. Interweaving such allusions to historical labyrinths of memory, he interconnects German exploits of Mexico with Italian exploits of China. Constructing a European postcolonial critique of these legacies from within a German-fabricated exhibition hall residing in Mexico City, Muller deconstructs extant European accounts of those years by underscoring the final debacle of European exploits.
Undoubtedly because of the profound depth and richness of Palacio de Memoria, the artist subsequently evolved a suite of paper collages and sculptures that reconsider that installation. A selection of these works, including Palacio de Memoria “Echo” (1999), Palacio de Memoria “Echo” (2000), and Palacio de Memoria “Echo No.2” (2000) appear amidst other works in Muller’s recent exhibition at Santa Monica’s Rose Gallery. Focusing in particular on the spacing and positioning of the installation’s fallen pews, Muller translates them into flat, Constructivist–looking shapes, suggesting that links exist between formal and social artistic expressions. As in the Mexico City installation, the paper works mingle new and old materials in ways, alluding to time and history. These bas-reliefs suggest that both artistic languages emerge from the same sources of reality, imagination, and memory, which are reconfigured here. Functioning as leitmotifs of disorder, even of spiritual collapse, the fallen benches shapes dislodge traditional and classical narratives of cultural triumph, whispering sublimated truths. Though abstracted, these studies of chaotic pews are so precisely realized that one guesses they may even circle back to the artist’s childhood memories of “ playing amongst the ruins of bombed buildings”2 in postwar Düsseldorf, a memory which in turn may contribute to Muller’s intuitive understanding and interest in postcolonial discourses.
The bas-relief exhibit coincided with the premiere of a new sculptural installation featured across town at the University of Southern California’s Fisher Gallery. Entitled DEMO: The Body Shop this work moves Muller’s earlier explorations of collective memory to more personal memories of a car accident three years ago in which the artist tragically lost his lower left arm and hand. Like the earlier Palacio de Memoria, the new DEMO: The Body Shop installation pivots around a central leitmotif of destruction and disarray. But here, in lieu of inverted benches, is an overturned Chevy Blazer, embalmed with 1,000 yards of elastic fabric tape. Further, as in the Palacio de Memoria, this central component is surrounded by an array of related and interrelated imagery that unfolds the story’s saga. Photos and actual crushed auto body parts are profiled near a suite of shadow photos defining Muller’s transformed body. A few steps away one sees medical silicone body casts of the artist’s upper torso that resonate conceptually with a neo-Surrealist component piece titled Pool Cycle No. 1 – No.2 located across the room. The Pool Cycle work profiles shallow boxes faced with swimming pool lining material in which the artist’s lost limb, crafted from memory, at its last moments of strength when it grasped the Chevy’s interior window handlebar to brace and protect the artist’s body as the SUV flipped onto the driver’s side. More than the wrapped vehicle that appears ready for burial, the artist’s rendition of his hand and forearm grasping a detached handlebar remains the installation’s most searing detail. Set on the periphery of the installation, it is shown as a vestige of life tossed as it were to the side, mimicking reality while underscoring the differences between the Blazer as an objet trouvee and the re-created, fictive hand and arm, which art’s imaginative powers seem to raise to life again.
Probing deeply the relationship between memory and reality, Muller’s new works re-examine the scope of human knowledge and the potential power of art to heal psychic wounds. Working with difficult themes and subjects, his installations gather remnants of experience and history to wrestle with the challenging paradoxes of inexplicable loss. Underscoring the importance of memory as an interpretive force, his constructed, reconstructed, and deconstructed works unfold those realities that mingle destruction with rebirth.
1 Photographs and descriptions of the installation appear in Jutta Rutz K., Manfred Muller Scenic Lyricism, exhibition brochure (Museo Universitario del Chopo, Mexico City, 1999) and in Kristine McKenna, Manfred Muller: Any Given Shape (Rose Gallery, Los Angeles: 2003), p. 14.
2 See Kristine McKenna’s interview with the artist in Manfred Muller: Any Given Shape (Rose Gallery, Los Angeles: 2003), p. 6.