In 30,000 BCE, a squirrel buried seeds in the Siberian permafrost; in 2011, Russian scientists excavated them; and, in 2012, Christian Mayer made Silene. The piece consists of three photographic prints of an identical image of small campion flowers the scientists grew from those Ice Age seeds. The three prints are strongly discoloured, as Mayer used different combinations of two of the three colours used in the dye-transfer process – magenta, yellow and cyan – for each of the images. Though dye transfer is still considered the best printing technique in terms of richness of colour, depth in tone, and longevity, it has long been superseded by cheaper and less laborious methods. Like an Ice Age squirrel’s burrow, a dye transfer print is a rarefied time capsule. The questions of what is worth preserving and for how long prompted Mayer to test and twist the cultural connection between value and time in his exhibition ‘prezijnt’ (the title of which is based on a phonetic alphabet made up by a linguist for a time capsule to be opened 5,000 years after the 1939 New York World’s Fair).
In Mayer’s series ‘Putting in Time’ (all works 2012), he destabilizes the visual impact of found black and white photos by literally framing them with passe-partouts, onto which he printed enlarged fragments of what appears on their reverse sides: handwritten notes, archive stamps, attached copies of the newspaper article in which they had been published. The artist collected the prints from articles in abandoned archives of American newspapers about people who prepared time capsules between the 1960s and ’80s. In a strangely pleasing kind of superimposition, front and back, image and text become part of the same visual field – just as the subject matter suggests the superimposition of past and future. It’s interesting to note that, in a show on these same walls three years ago, Mayer exhibited In the instant of memory, everything was swirling and dissolving (2009), in which he pulled off a similar effect with different means. Using Polaroids he obtained on eBay from the set of Roland Joffé’s Mission (1986), he overturned all of the photos in which the presence of a camera crew was visible, leaving images showing only members of an indigenous Guaraní tribe in the forest – thus rendering visible the filmic effort of letting the technology ‘vanish’ and staging authenticity precisely by emulating it.
Mayer’s use of Polaroids and passe-partouts makes it apparent that, for him, Conceptualism is not a measured, strategic game of chess but rather a card game: dealing a deck, concealing or showing his hand. In Allochtone, however, there is no card trick: ten petrified tree trunks – natural stone ‘casts’ of what 200 million years ago was wood – sit on a low white platform, while another one is placed directly on the floor. The piece is an aside, the punch-line of which is not so much about the modern art object (the pedestal vs. its removal; serial objet trouvé vs. singular sculpture) but the sheer stretch of time these fossilized chunks represent: what is the lifespan of an art work compared to 200 million years?
Mayer captures the fragile character of human creation in the video El Silbo (The Whistle), featuring one of the last residents of La Gomera able to ‘speak’ the eponymous whistling language of the Canarian island. Over centuries El Silbo allowed people to carry on long-distance conversations from hilltop to hilltop. Mayer, dealing his deck, asked the young man to whistle something connected to an earlier piece of his own, a story about canary birds brought to Vienna in the 19th century as a gift for Emperor Franz I.
Mayer, like many artists, is interested in memory, preservation and rediscovery – but mainly he seems concerned with testing the methods with which these issues can be tackled in an aesthetically convincing way: techniques of reversal, of compressing and stretching time, of looking at things from both ends at once. He sets up situations in which beauty is found in the way one thing leads to another: conceptual Goldberg machines. Or, perhaps, another kind of storytelling.