‘Liebe mich, weil und so sehr wie ich Dich liebe; Ivany, ich bin Dein Ivan’ (Love me, because and as much as I love you; Ivany, I am your Ivan), wrote Swiss historian Johannes von Müller to Luis Batthyány Szent-Iványi, with whom he had fallen deeply in love as they exchanged letters in the early 1800s. Szent-Iványi was not real, only a cypher invented by an erstwhile pupil of Von Müller in order to entrap and embezzle his former master, threatening to reveal his homosexual desires. The extensive correspondence of the illusory love affair was made available in 2014 in a two-volume publication edited by André Weibel; the remarkable story inspired Marc Bauer’s exhibition I EMPEROR ME.
It’s not always an explicit reference: Bauer found the title for the exhibition, and for the portfolio of prints presented within it, elsewhere, from a brand of black latex glove, the Marigold EMPEROR ME108. Three separately dark pencil illustrations of these elbow-length gloves, each more than two metres tall, were arranged along one wall, hands upwards as if modelled by oversize forearms, clenched fingers referring to the sexual practice of fisting – these are EMPEROR ME, Glove I-III, R.P (all works 2015). They faced five other, smaller, drawings on the remaining walls showing a riding chap, different shirt details and an opulent, heavy bouquet.
The print portfolio (Portfolio EMPEROR ME subtitled 5 digital prints graced with drawing, watercolour and ribbons), meanwhile, was arranged in two vitrines; one of these prints includes a few lines from Von Müller’s letters, alongside another floral image, a portion of a torso and neck, a leather gilet and a part of a pale shirt beneath another leather garment. Ribbons were pinned to the sheets of the portfolio as well as to all but one of the smaller drawings on the walls: Gold Yellow, Pale Lemon and Orange (relic collar) C.J., for example, shows the collar of a loose shirt, the back ruffled, suspended mid-air, the airiness contrasting with three short ribbons fixed horizontally at the bottom corresponding to the colours listed. Within the thematic span from Napoleonic times to the present Bauer’s pencil drawings focus on fragments or elements of objects; by lifting these things from a particular context he heightens their import. The dark pencil underscores luxurious, haptic qualities; his technique is not photo-realist perfection, but an individual recol- lection or view of the things and their private resonances. Thus what might be a random collection of items coheres along the author’s personal logic.
Bauer’s is a rejuvenation of the genre of still life with novel codes and manners of allusion. He allows viewers to find their own Venn-diagram-like commonalities. Look closely and those connections are abuzz: even though Von Müller could never meet ‘Luis’, his affection for his correspondent became overwhelming; public knowledge of the extraordinary, unconsummated affair would damage his reputation and leave him insolvent. So Bauer’s neatly skewered ribbons might be read as reference notes – colours or suggested accessories, say – for costumes or self-disguises, though they could too be mementoes or collections for an archive. Read in a context of dizzying passion, however, the paper of the drawings and prints is pierced: the scars of intimate wounds. The body in the portfolio could be an anatomical drawing, but the nipple areola is intensely dark, as if branded onto pale skin. ‘I EMPEROR ME’ sounds like an insult that has been turned, embraced positively. Von Müller could be seen as a pitiful figure, but Bauer reverses this too, celebrating him as a lover unafraid of his own convictions, whether enacted or illusory.