BY Jan Verwoert in Reviews | 05 MAY 99
Featured in
Issue 46

Christian Philipp Müller

BY Jan Verwoert in Reviews | 05 MAY 99

The dreaded argument about whether and how aesthetics and politics can be brought together still continues. Faction A insists that social relevance is essential - art should convey political content, whilst also reflecting its political context. Faction B contests that art's potential lies in creating something that transcends any single dimensional political calculation. For some time, Christian Philipp Müller has been conceptually manoeuvring along the vertiginous plane between the two. Political didacticism and aesthetic formalism interweave in his work to create strange, hybrid constellations.

Müller's project for the University of Lüneburg, Der Campus als Kunstwerk (The Campus as a Work of Art), is a permanent installation for the new library, completed at the end of last year. At first sight it is a perfect example of didactic art: examining the history and architecture of the university, his project was realised with the co-operation of students and lecturers from the Cultural Studies department and supported by the university's art showroom.

In 1994 Lüneburg University moved into a former barracks - a series of identical brick buildings constructed by the Nazis. Müller's project was to compare the institutional and architectural character of Lüneburg University with that of other international universities. He produced a total of 100 screenprints, in which the ground plan of Lüneburg University (in rich red) was printed over the ground plan of another university (in light beige), aligning the plans so that the two university libraries were on top of each other. The prints are arranged in 15 different-sized groups and distributed throughout the library. Each group is accompanied by a panel of text that provides comparison criteria, information and politically critical notes on the universities concerned. We learn, for example, something about how universities organise their space, the history of student movements and the questionable practice of 'ranking'.

But at a particular point the didacticism dries up: the criteria are quite obviously based on pure association, whilst systematic, unambiguous comparisons are not even attempted. The screenprints certainly do not provide a clearly comprehensible or analytical result. There is no hint of how the ground plans should be individually interpreted and the endless repetition of the Lüneburg ground plan makes them totally unintelligible: what remains are 100 highly decorative variations on one and the same graphic ornament. Ultimately, the installation supplies little information. Similarly, a showcase in the foyer of the library is filled to overflowing with original plans and photographs, which function simply as an aesthetic accumulation of materials à la Arman. Thus, the focus of the installation shifts constantly from aesthetic sign to political content.

The aesthetic appeal of the prints and the treacherous discretion with which they fit in with the slick ambience of the library creates work with a certain corporate appeal: any major bank would be delighted to have them in its offices. It is clear how Müller thought out his strategy: if the University of Lüneburg wants to rate as an important site of learning and reveal its dynamic corporate identity through the art on its campus, then it will aspire to collect work that is 'corporate chic'. (He was probably also thinking along these lines when he borrowed the title of his work from an evaluation study of the same name.) This is a point that is made expressly in the 'Prototypes Department': Müller and a student working-party designed fictitious merchandising articles for the University (from T-shirts to cigarette lighters and crockery), which are now presented in a showroom. Müller has addressed his brief in its entirety: he has created criticism for the critics, decor for the library, project work for the students, and has placed Lüneburg University in an international comparative study. No one can complain. This is subversion, redefined as worthy cheek.

Translated by Michael Robinson

Jan Verwoert is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He is based in Oslo, Norway. Cookie! (2014), a selection of his writings, is published by Sternberg Press.