Death usually comes uninvited, but Erik Niedling went looking for it – and survived. With ‘Mein letztes Jahr’ (My Last Year, 2011), the artist did an exhibition about dying well. The project began with a hypothetical scenario: What if I started living on 1 March 2011 as if 29 February 2012 were my dying day? At least that’s what the writer Ingo Niermann relates in an information sheet for the show, which the gallery sent out in lieu of an invitation.
‘Mein letztes Jahr’, as Niermann explains, was conceived as part of a larger project. In summer 2012, the Neues Museum in Weimar will host a ‘posthumous’ exhibition with Niedling’s design for his own burial chamber at the ‘Pyramid Mountain’, an at least 200-meter-high pyramid carved from a mountain, which will be re-buried in the cleared-away mountain rubble following the artist’s internment. The ‘Pyramid Mountain’ is inspired by an ongoing project to build a massive ‘grave for any human being called the ‘Great Pyramid’. Inspired by Niedling, Niermann started working with businessman Jens Thiel – in a New Deal spirit – on the pyramid project in 2007.
Before Niedling’s Pyramid Mountain chamber is presented in Weimar, the Leipzig exhibition showed how his ‘last year’ unfolded. Instead of videos, photographs and other autobiographical documents, the exhibition consisted of just two vitrines containing, respectively, six and three sheets of typewritten paper. It’s unclear just how much their content relates to actual events in the artist’s life. The larger vitrine contains a to-do list with 33 items, the names of 25 people who lent the artist their support, a ‘training plan from Daniel Homes’ for a visit to Malta in March 2011, 38 points for a four-day walk in the forest and the art works, which Niedling wants ‘to be transferred to my burial chamber as funerary objects.’ Among other things, the artist resolved to take care of his last will and testament, to prepare a catalogue of his works and to safeguard his digital and analogue data. There’s a plan not only to purchase a year’s season ticket for unlimited travel on Germany’s rail network but also to conduct unspecified drug experiments, take a trip to Paris and visit the ‘battlefields of WWI’ (Listen, 2011). The second, smaller vitrine contains the three-page draft of a contract for the purchase of the funerary art works (Vertrag, 2011).
In archaeological excavations, funerary objects such as garments, jewellery and ceramics tend to offer insights into the burial rituals or culture of bygone civilizations. This cannot be said of Niedling’s exhibition: The artist isn’t dead; the pyramid hasn’t been built. Although Niedling previously worked with photography and installations, there is no trace of such works here but only typewritten texts. Are we dealing with the results of a cleverly avoided creative crisis? A rewriting of his oeuvre to date and thus a skilfully staged shift in direction?
The substantial size of the vitrines is best explained by a widespread notion that runs through the history of human burials: the jealous lust for revenge on the part of the dead. ‘The stones weighing down graves in Tasmania,’ noted the anthropologist Julius Lips, ‘the bound mummies of Egypt, and the nailed-shut coffins of our time’ can all be attributed to this ‘atavistic fear’ of the dead. In this light, Niedling’s huge vitrines resemble weights to prevent evil spirits from taking flight.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell