Once there was a hat. A tall top hat, sewn from patches of garish violet, black and multicoloured velour, not unlike the Mad Hatter’s in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865). Its flaccidity approaches the cartoonish headwear worn by some sports fans. Made by the mother of artist Kaspar Müller, the hat appeared in Müller’s film Colmar & Strasbourg (2010), perched on the head of a man as he navigates these cities, on foot and aboard a tourist boat. The cover of the catalogue for Müller’s 2010 exhibition at the Museum zu Allerheiligen in Schaffhausen – Müller’s home town – features a photograph of the hat against a white background. It appeared again in 2011, at Francesca Pia in Zurich, in blue saturated prints, both stills from Colmar & Strasbourg, and an image of the hat underwater, as if in a fish tank. At The Green Gallery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in March this year, Müller showed the film Forever alone and around the world (2013). The hat returns yet again, front and centre, digitally superimposed on changing background images of various landscapes. Grown up and now independent, the hat – through a fold approximating a mouth – gives a ten-minute monologue about its birth, fame and travels, as well as speaking with some insight about its part in a broader system of production, reproduction and distribution.
Since its debut, the hat has operated as if it were a portion of dough containing yeast starter, carried through to activate a number of subsequent works in which Müller applies different tactics to address questions of how a thing can be itself and a prototype at the same time. The hat is always presented as an image and never in the flesh, yet the more it is flattened by image processing, hovering over other images in an obviously artificial arrangement – in the recent film as well as in work in development for his solo show later this year at the Kunsthalle Bern – the more it is anthropomorphized.
Müller’s work ranges from physically tangible sculpture to shadowy reproductions of images. If his sculpture Hand With Cigarette (2011) – a tiny hand holding a oversized cigarette butt, nailed to a wall – has fleshy corporeality, then many of his images are occluded and challenge perception, be they the blue-printed street scenes from Colmar & Strasbourg or For Ever Alone and Around the World (2013) with its evident lack of depth. Recent photographs of urban settings – akin to stock images – also bear a lingering sense of artificiality. In contrast, Müller’s chains of individually blown, bright glass baubles strung across rooms – like those shown at Société Gallery in Berlin for his 2011 exhibition Corrective Detention –were most definitely physically present, but their vocabulary was one of decoration and surface appearance.
Considered en masse, Müller’s investigation is a comparison between the solidly real object and the evanescent image. Not that this division is antagonistic. Rather it is an enquiry into when one becomes the other, where they meet or if they can coexist. Reproduction and its dissemination is key: Müller has, for example, shown drawings made on photocopies of previous works. As in film or television dramas, the artist knowingly picks up narrative strands from previous episodes of his practice, building on his cast of characters.
Given the ease of file sharing today, entertainment products – films in particular – are often loss leaders for spin-off merchandise that will generate profit. The resulting adaptation and diffusion of the initial film both compromise its status and secure its fan base and longevity. Take action figures as an example: extracted and isolated from a filmic narrative, their framework is jettisoned. The figure is put in the hands of the public – or its children – who will reactivate the narrative in their own contexts. There are other strategies too: the film can become the book, the book the film, the film the series, round in circles seemingly ad infinitum. Viewed from this perspective Müller’s hat begins as a prop, then is gradually pushed up the billing to character status, though we remain uncertain as to whether it is an individual or an archetype, or even a trademark. Across his practice Kaspar Müller makes test scenarios in which he deflects the energy of an original into other entities. What is Müller, like most artists, doing if not ultimately merchandising? In the resulting reiteration and dispersal, direction is lost and authority destabilised. But, perversely, new cumulative energy is gained.