Tris Vonna-Michell. There is nothing more dubious than this sentence
by Elena Filipovic, 2009
Tris Vonna-Michell is a consummate storyteller. He’s made an art of it even if it is a bit of an anachronism.Not only outmoded, which is to say, decidedly uncontemporary (even in its grounding in the present here and how of its storyteller and his interests), but also virtually alien to the history of art. After all, with both visuality and materiality as the primary common denominators of art, and art’s historicisation only too-slowly adapting to the idiosyncrasies of performance, what place could there be for the kind of practice that relies neither on the avant-garde traditions of the antics and absurdity of Dadaism or Fluxus nor on the shock-of-the-new of Actionism and Body Art, but instead on something as matter-of-fact and homespun as the oral tradition? That tradition was, you see, already declared archaic in 1936 when Walter Benjamin wrote so eloquently about it in “The Storyteller”.
For several years now, Vonna-Michell has elaborately constructed tales that he speaks aloud to listeners in a typically breathless, rapid-fire delivery style, tinged with his slightly unplaceable British accent, but decidedly without spectacular fanfare. He tells his tales, more than portraying them, even when he uses images to punctuate his syncopated rhythm and also even when he leaves the images or other material traces in a space behind him like clues that continue to whisper about the wild and incomprehensible connections between disparate people and events. His set-ups are frequently makeshift ensembles in which obsolete technologies (cassette recorders, slide projectors, turntable players, photocopies) inhabit space alongside seemingly mundane arcana (toothpicks, cartons of quail eggs, plastic egg-shaped timers, biscuit crumbs) giving the whole a sense of not being from or about our space and time.
Vonna-Michell’s vocal reveries are based on elaborate research, fact-collecting, coincidental encounter, and personal investigation, but also on repetition. He weaves stories around a subject and then does so again, and again, but each time slightly differently. You could hardly call the difference between them “advancement”. For everything about his subjects and method deliberately eschews the usual celebration of the unflappable forward movement of progress, or history. His method is “circular more than linear”, he would tell you if you asked. And a circle never really begins or ends, it always returns on itself. With very few projects behind him, each of which have continuously evolved over the years, the artist also admits that even when it seems a project is a new one—the subject apparently different, the stakes in new places—deep, inexplicable links tether it to a previous project, and maybe even all others before it.
This circular practice is always in dialogue with materiality and thus with questioning the idea of a work of art as a concrete and fixed object—a permanently exhibitable thing. It seems that it has always been that way with him. He studied photography at art school in Glasgow. But making photographs and placing them on the wall was utterly dissatisfying, he conceded. Maybe that’s why, for his degree show, he rented a former GDR Plattenbau which he holed himself up to hand-shred all his personal photographs documenting his entire life up until that point and including all the images he had taken of his family, friends, and journeys. He also slated for destruction much of the memorabilia he had collected on journeys taken over the course of his life, but not before he photographed each one of them first, using up a full roll of 35mm film for each object. The shredded and disappeared remnants were never exhibited, and instead became what the artist calls a “translation and material compression act” and catalyst for the production of narrative. Thus for all the seeming concern with materiality that the project implied (even a negative materiality, if one can call it that), the ephemeral story resulting from the act of transubstantiation from object to process to narrative is more the artwork than the evidence of an entire (photographed) history subject to being cut and spliced, or the existence of so many apparently “documentary” photographs of his memorabilia, none of which will ever manage to be the now-destroyed originals.
In the years since, the artist has expanded and shifted that practice, often composing an image that he then rephotographs, showing that he is holding the image in his hands. Or, he will place, say, a tiny scrap of paper, a used napkin, or a mini plastic magician’s wand on top of one of his photographed images, creating a mise-en-abime of memory and meaning. He might then take a photograph of the photograph with the stuff on it and then rephotograph it again, this time with him holding it in his hand and revealing an indiscernible landscape in the background. This layering of place and time is another version of the repetition and recycling that he uses for the objects in his installations. But it also more profoundly functions as a mirror to his storytelling, in which collage, pasting, and the repeated return of disparate elements is central to his way of creating new histories.
“A narrative of form” is how the artist describes what he makes. Indeed, maybe that is the only way to speak about what he does. For precisely that conjunction of words tell you that it is a narrative that he constructs, above all, and it is concerned with form (even if we typically think of form/the formal being connected to material things), but the result often thwarts becoming a definable object. Does that make sense? This is getting contradictory, I know. His projects are, at times, undeniably material. Indeed, you have already been told, they are often scattered with stuff: every narrative is accompanied by images and objects, scraps of detritus or snapshots of memorabilia that somehow stand in for the artist’s own experience in a particular place and time. Not props or relics (he hates it when they get referred to that way), they sit parallel to his aural collages of fact and fiction, as if serving as reminders for the artist and ambiguous evidence to his listeners for the meaning or origins of a story. These images and the arrangement of objects in a space are even, I insist, carefully constructed, precise, and rigorous in their formalism. Yet noone thing—not a toothpick, not a quail egg, not even an apparently composed photograph or slide image in a slide projector—stands alone. None is meant to represent any single project, subject, or narrative. And given that the installations the artist has made so far have never taken a fixed, permanent form but instead allow their constituent parts to be constantly recycled into other narratives, performances, and more temporary installations, Vonna-Michell’s art ends up disavowing whatever materiality it might seem to have. The only elements that have a fixed shape, that last as they are, you could say, are his performances. And they, precisely, don’t last at all.
Walter Benjamin is speaking of remembrance when he cites a phrase from a novel (as opposed to a storyteller’s tale) and, no sooner than citing it, comments about it: “Nothing is more dubious than this sentence”. He then dissects the citation, revealing its utterly questionable claims. Dubiousness, it would seem for Benjamin, is at the core of the novel (not of the story), in part, because the story is grounded in experience. Yet it is hard to write about Vonna-Michell’s work without relying on a vocabulary of doubt. One can hardly believe his tales convey facts and truth. Still, relayed in Vonna-Michell’s soft-spoken but intensely persuasive way, they seem to become so. And this even as everything about the artist’s spoken performances advances at such a pace so as to make total comprehension impossible, not to mention being filled with information as convoluted as the network of tunnels that he speaks about in hanh/huhn (2003-ongoing), one of his stories. But then, even if and especially when one becomes entangled in his tale, which is to say, begins to believe it, there comes a moment when one cannot escape the sheer tenuousness of it all, the seeming impossibility of the chain of coincidences and actual historical facts that drive his narratives forward. Suddenly, even the true and verifiable come into question. Were there really secret underground tunnels traversing East and West Berlin used as Nazi headquarters and bombed since to hide that fact? Do shredded Stasi files contain the answers? Could Reinhold Hahn, Reinhold Huhn and Otto Hahn be connected? Were such apparently inconsequential objects as scraps of paper, an orange pen, many Ferrero Rocher chocolate wrappers and the plastic wrapper for quail eggs belonging to Vonna-Michell and attesting to his research actually stolen from the artist’s first solo show in Brussels? Was Henri Chopin really the neighbour to the young future storyteller-artist? Did Vonna-Michell truly wait more than a year for a certain Krzysztof, living in Cromer, to transport the artist’s gift of quail eggs stored in a Ferrero Rocher chocolate box to Chopin? And when Krzysztof didn’t deliver on his promise, did the artist imagine he himself might, in fact, serendipitously encounter Chopin by simply walking around Paris with quail eggs in his hands?
This cultivation of dubiousness has a purpose. It exposes as much as it conceals. “Paradoxically, it is the misinterpretation of these pieces of information and the confusion that they generated that set it all off”, the artist offers by way of explanation for much his practice.It is thus that Vonna-Michell combines fact and fiction, the carefully controlled and the merely coincidental, the concrete and the imagined, the contradictory and the plausible. Yet whatever the explicit subjects to which his voice turns (a crumbling post-industrial Detroit, a forgotten 1980s film, a defunct music scene, secret German tunnels, three similarly named men, buildings ruined by aerial bombings, the artist’s family’s move to Southend), his actual subject is, perhaps always and inescapably, History. And the ways History—of necessity and by definition—tells and hides, constructs and, ultimately, lies.
For Proust, the recollection of memory and history was as easy as eating cake. For Vonna-Michell, memory and history might not exist at all as a solidly retrievable past, but can instead perhaps only be conjured up through speech, to then be overturned and reconstituted again, and then again, except slightly differently each time.
An excerpt of a longer essay which is part of a monographic publication (éditions Jeu de Paume, 2009) to accompany Tris Vonna-Michell’s first solo exhibition in France at the Jeu de Paume, Paris from October 20, 2009–17 January 2010 as part of the 2009-2011 Satellite programme, curated by Elena Filipovic.