Magazine article Artforum International

Tris Vonna-Michell

Magazine article Artforum International

Tris Vonna-Michell

Article excerpt

TRIS VONNA-MICHELL'S PROJECTS invariably develop from something seemingly inconsequential: a stash of old family photographs; the late French poet Henri Chopin's taste for quail eggs; Germans named Hahn or Huhn. By the time the British artist is done, however, he'll have traveled to other countries and explored the possibility of knowledge emerging from the intersections of personal experience, history, and coincidence. And by the time the audience hears about it, it's usually in a fractured, postmedium manner. There are performances in which Vonna-Michell first sets (or asks the audience to set) a time limit using an egg timer, and then breaks into a dazzlingly fast, borderline-impenetrable monologue recounting his quest, edited or expanded on the fly; these semi-improvised recitations are complemented by--and frequently take place within--changeable, sketchy installations, liable to include performer's props, video, and slide projections.

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Vonna-Michell has performed and exhibited prodigiously since graduating from Glasgow School of Art in 2005. His oeuvre's core, however, comprises just three works--Hahn/Huhn, 2003-, Leipzig Calendar Works, 2005-, and Finding Chopin, 2005-2008--which have been repeatedly reconfigured and lately combined into a portmanteau, Tall Tales and Short Stories, 2008. In each segment, a search for selfhood ramifies inexorably beyond the autobiographical. In 2005, for example, Vonna-Michell, twenty-two and still a student, journeyed from the UK to Leipzig, carrying two suitcases containing childhood photographs, calendars, a shredder, scissors, and glue. Locking himself in a bedroom in a Plattenbau--one of the prefab residential tower blocks built by the German Democratic Republic--Vonna-Michell spent a month, from April Fools' Day to May Day, systematically shredding his past, insofar as it had been photographed, and arranging the resultant strips into new configurations on the calendars. Studying photography at the time, he'd wanted to push to the limit the medium's capacity for expressing what it is like to lose, and rebuild, a history.

Half-German himself on his mother's side, Vonna-Michell says that East Germany's mysteriousness, its own secret history, had long fascinated him, and that discovering his transplanted-Berliner mother's earlier life through her photographs reaffirmed that there was a hemisphere of his family, and thus of himself, that was unknown to him. Upon completing the project Vonna-Michell visited a Leipzig museum, however, where he began to investigate a broader consonance: The task he had set himself, he realized, analogized not only that of the GDR Ministry for State Security's shredding of classified documents after the Berlin Wall fell, but also that of the so-called puzzlers currently attempting to piece together six hundred million fragments of said documents--and thus the hidden history of East Germany. As a result, Vonna-Michell's Leipzig project has itself evolved from its personal beginnings to engage with the epistemic value of the document where the stakes are largest. The piece was first performed as Leipzig Calendar Works, in which the artist recounted his story while dropping sheets of paper, one by one. It was later refined into Puzzlers, 2007-2008, a multiform installation that occasionally includes, in a seeming nod to surveillance, a muffled recording of the spoken-word performance, which is itself sometimes given in an updated version, as Papierstau (Paper Jam), 2007-2008.

Finding Chopin, begun the same summer, likewise starts with autobiography--specifically with Vonna-Michell trying to find out why he was born near the British seaside town Southend-on-Sea. In the performance Down the Rabbit Hole, 2006-2007, we hear of his father telling him, gnomically, to ask Henri Chopin, and offering the additional information that the poet loves quail eggs. Accordingly, so the rapid-fire narration continues, off Vonna-Michell goes to Paris, shopping for quail eggs and hoping to bump into Chopin. …

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