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Issue 78 October 2003 RSS

Matti Braun

Kunstverein Freiburg, Kiel, Germany

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The main hall of the Kunstverein Freiburg is full of water, from which the museum’s mighty pilasters rise like the modern furniture in the director’s villa in Blake Edwards’ 1968 comedy The Party. The 1930s building, with its huge ceiling window, seems to straddle a natural pool after Matti Braun lined the floor of the former baths with sheeting and filled it up. The black mirror of the pool is interspersed with circular slices of tree trunk, allowing daring visitors to cross the hall by jumping from one to the next. The title of this piece, and of the exhibition - S. R. - stands for Braun’s inspiration, the Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray. But the exhibition also explores science fiction, the visual poems of the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, Steven Spielberg and the dark waters that carry culture from one continent to another.

For over two decades Ray worked on a science fiction screenplay about an alien stranded on earth. The opening shot was supposed to show a golden spaceship antenna rising slowly out of a lake. This plot was successfully brought to fruition by Steven Spielberg as E.T. (1982) - while Ray’s original project failed owing to, among other things, dubious American negotiators and scriptwriting fees that never made it to India. As the catalogue mentions, Ray also visited the set of The Party, and started to have doubts as to whether Peter Sellers was the right choice for the lead: ‘S. R. flies to Hollywood and checks into the Chateau Marmont on June 1st 1967. Columbia is interested in the movie project. Marlon Brando and Steve McQueen both want to play the American engineer. In the home of Ravi Shankar, S. R. finds Sellers sitting cross-legged on the carpet in front of the Indian musician imitating his sitar playing.’ Quotations from Rudyard Kipling, poems by W. B. Yeats, an excerpt from the screenplay of F. W. Murnau’s Tabu (Taboo, 1931) and advertisements for ‘Original Duchamp Ready-mades’ add extra layers to these obscure connections.

On the balustrade, just visible from the wooden islets, textile banners (Untitled, 2003) hang alongside low-contrast screenprints, in shades of black and white, and copies of visual poems, reduced like footnotes or contact sheets. Braun dilutes the attractive exoticism of these colourful banners by focusing on the relationships between them - they are replicas of the complex Indian patolas that have been woven for centuries, if not millennia, from thread dyed in a multitude of colours. It takes two people six months to finish one of these precious items, which are in high demand on the export market and which are still used in religious ceremonies throughout Asia. While at least half of the patolas held in various collections today are actually imitations, Braun’s versions do not try to hide the fact that they are screenprinted copies.

The clay vessels in the black and white images are props from the existential tragedy of Furuta Oribe. Oribe’s story is set in the transitional period of Japan’s Momoyama period (1573-1615). A student of Sen Rikyu - the Michelangelo of tea ceremony artists - Oribe came to know European traders and missionaries and began integrating Western elements into his work. Then, dissatisfied with his own mannerisms, he smashed a valuable tea service and took his own life.

Oddly bulky teacups and copies of imitation cloths - all hybrid beings that go out of shape and out of proportion as they are traded around the world - begin to take on a family resemblance. Braun made copies of valuable arts and craft imports before producing, for example, replicas of the ‘Dragonervase’, a blue Kangxi-period piece that Augustus the Strong of Saxony obtained from Prussia’s Friedrich Wilhelm I in return for 600 dragoons. But Braun does not simply lampoon these hybrids. The context in which he presents them is elegant, abstract, ornamental and restrained: a wall made of reflective mosaics (Bali, 1998), an expanded polystyrene snowstorm (Edo, 1999), the watery mirror at the Kunstverein. This is how to establish legends that mean something without grumbling or lamenting over loss and decay in an offended tone. Things have roots and long stalks - like water lilies - though these often lie hidden beneath the surface.

Catrin Lorch

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First published in
Issue 78, October 2003

by Catrin Lorch

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