BY Martin Pesch in Reviews | 01 JAN 98
Featured in
Issue 38

Christiane Möbus

BY Martin Pesch in Reviews | 01 JAN 98

In the early 70s Christiane Möbus tied birds' wings to her arms and leaped around fields like a thing possessed. She called this performance New Life. Shortly afterwards she had another wonderful idea: to tow an iceberg from Greenland to the North Sea coast of Germany. A map of this project has survived, with a thick line marking the intended route. Those were the days...

Möbus was born in 1947 and this is all a long time ago. And yet the themes we can pick out here run deep through Möbus's work. We find them in her new work Tödlich (deadly, 1997), for example. Two stuffed polar bears are lying on their backs like circus animals, each one balancing a white cone - not difficult to identify as a minimal symbol for an iceberg - on its four paws. The size-weight ratio is reversed, a living game and deadly paralysis come together, and there is a contrast between different materials and ways of presenting things (naturalistic/symbolic) - in Tödlich the ambivalence game itself is kept in precise balance, providing evidence of an abundant flow of ideas that cannot be staunched.

But in other works this abundance gets bogged down in the image. This is true of what is probably Möbus' most popular piece, Auf dem Rücken der Tiere (on the animals' backs, 1990-94), an installation that fills the entire space and consists of a large boat built of dark brown planks supported by crouching stuffed lions, wild boars and foxes, with a few jute sacks as padding. This is a visual formulation, pushed as far as it will go, of something that is already present as a conceptual starting point in the words of the title.

But the exhibition, entitled 'Laute und leise Stücke' (loud and soft pieces) provides an opportunity to find out just how complex Möbus' art can be. 16 works are shown, all produced in the last 20 years. But this quasi retrospective is weighted towards the present: as it enabled the artist to complete eight projects that she had had in mind for some time.

The key works here are the kinetic projects. Möbus has placed two 19 metre racing eights in the long space of the Kunstverein. Both boats are on guide rails, and are moved constantly backwards and forwards by motors. This work can be seen as a simulation of the disturbing effect felt by spectators when watching races between boats like this - the constant alternation of thrust and recoil, of acceleration and braking, which makes it difficult to see which boat is actually ahead. But Möbus transcends this observation: the meaningless movement of the boats, leading to nothing, but itself producing a peaceful flow, is underlined by the title of the work Oxford - Cambridge (1997), which appears twice in black letters on the long walls of the space.

The ceaseless to-ing and fro-ing of Manpower, Silent (1997) is also pointless. Two cylindrical vehicles painted black, grey and yellow are animated by opto-electrically-controlled motors. You can move in between the working machinery without being touched by it. The self-referential quality of the motors is emphasised by bus rear-view mirrors mounted on their sides. Hermetic as these objects seem, they are open because they can move out of the way as soon as anything comes close. Thus this mixture of watchfulness and lack of contact can be read as a metaphor for social interaction.

In fact, the contrast between inside and outside is central to many of Möbius' works. This is particularly true of O.T. (untitled, 1997). Here a rectangular, monstrous, galvanised iron frame, with sides about five metres long, dominates an entire gallery. The frame seems unfinished and crudely put together, as though someone had started to build a large table and then broken off at some point just before the top was fitted. This makes it possible to see drawers of all sizes and types on their runners; some of them still bearing labels like 'mechanical accessories', or resembling old-fashioned kitchen drawers lined with paper. The storage space, that drawers hide when serving their proper purpose is left completely open. But there is nothing in them: all empty, stripped of their purpose, they are merely tools for separating the inside from the outside.

Translated by Michael Robinson