Entitled ‘Ding und Körper’ (Thing and Body), this latest show of work by Michaela Meise explored the subtle shifts in the way things and bodies are put on display. An obvious case in point is Valie Export-cube (2002), the title of which already refers to a pioneering predecessor. With her ‘Body Configurations’ (1972–82), Export sited the female body in relation to the monuments of the dominant patriarchal culture. The Temple of Theseus or the Palace of Justice in Vienna were preferred locations for Export’s photographically documented actions, which consisted of her nestling against the architecture, bending to fit it, subordinating herself to it. In Meise’s large-format, black and white photographs, the artist portrays herself in an extremely contorted position: her arms resting on the asphalt, her legs spread at right angles and raised in the air, the mighty architecture of power in the background – all just as in Export’s work.
But one didn’t need to see the adjacent two-part work, being Arnold being Nijinski (2001), in which Meise recreates poses by Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, to notice that something is different in Valie Export-cube: Meise’s posture carries the hallmarks of classical ballet training and appears far more artificial than Export’s, but also somehow freer. In ‘Body Configurations’, Export’s gesture of subordination demonstrates the power of the reigning cultural apparatus. Meise’s adaptation, by contrast, reflects the results of deliberate training. The artist does not subordinate her body to the architecture by imitating its forms. Although Meise contorts herself, her posture is not determined by the structure of the building alone. Her action resembles Export’s concept, but is not identical.
The objectification of power is also clearly the theme of Bündel (Bundle, 2009), a dozen round wooden rods, stained green, bound together with fine thread and carefully balanced so that they stand upright. The work relates to the fasces: a symbol carried by magistrates’ guards in the Roman Empire that was revived during the French Revolution and in fascist Italy. But, with its thin binding thread and meagre sticks of irregular thickness, Meise’s Bündel renders such symbolic demonstrations of state power absurd.
Meise’s approach is something akin to applied Minimalism. Instead of resulting from a supposedly autonomous process, her objects and actions always have a concrete frame of reference, either in art history or in everyday practicalities. In her video Étude Carpeaux (Carpeaux Study, 2008), she tries to re-create the posture in the sculpture Jeunne fille a la coquille (Young Girl with a Shell, 1864) by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. In doing so, she pays great attention to detail – not only in her clearly problematic endeavour to reconstruct with her own body the balance portrayed by the French sculptor, but also the accompanying prop, a cushion made of woven fabric.
Meise carries out microanalyses of physical poses and objects, perceiving details and processes that most observers simply wouldn’t notice because they are so ordinary. The series ‘Tür auf, Tür zu’ (Door Open, Door Shut, 2007) consists of small wooden objects with characteristic shoehorn-shaped door handles, resembling commercial samples from the 1950s and ’60s. This aesthetic was considered modern at the time, at least in West Germany, as were the nested tables that Meise often refers to, such as those in Quartetto Amerika (American Quartet, 2006). It is as if they illustrate Meise’s hermeneutic method: just as there is another table under the first and another under that and maybe even a fourth and a fifth, so, layer by layer, the artist brings to light seemingly inconspicuous realities.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell