BY Jörg Heiser in Reviews | 09 SEP 99
Featured in
Issue 48

Michaela Melián

BY Jörg Heiser in Reviews | 09 SEP 99

It's been a while since a Mercedes S-Class limousine hit a pole in a Paris underpass, but the accident was to Mercedes Benz what chicken has been to Belgium. As if to repeat Christo's magic transubstantiation trick (wrap bloodstained historic Reichstag, unwrap new Germany), Mercedes covered S-Class cars on display in their showrooms with grey cloth. The company launched a desperate attempt to simultaneously express condolence, remove the tragic spell from the vehicle and cash in on the interest.

The charged tale of the prin-cess preyed upon by power-mad S-Class royalty and crushed by the wheels of bigotry, is the starting point for Michaela Melián's take on the cloth-covered Benz. She reveals the gender-related dynamic involved in the polarisation of victimised woman and death-driven testosterone car, soft cloth and hard steel - and then suggests that there's even more to it.

Melián showed a model of a Mercedes Benz S-Class beneath a satin cover in the gallery. Life-size, it made the spacious room look comparatively small, yet was actually a simple wooden skeleton of the bodywork supported by wooden trestles instead of wheels. It looked like a child's drawing rather than the throbbing, bulky bullet of the original design. Something is deliberately raw about this skeleton - it's dysfunctional, can't move and blocks the way like a stubborn mule. Flesh-coloured, the delicate, airy material that covers it is reminiscent of a slightly suggestive underskirt, expanded to extra large size to cover a brutish Rococo crinoline. The reference to women's clothes is emphasised on the side of the car in a kind of pleated skirt made from the same fabric. Wrapped around a horizontal white canvas suspended from the ceiling, it (thanks to a small engine) slowly turns around - a dream-like contraption, that at once looks like a peep show display for consumer goods and a geeky, blank-faced daughter whose father has taken her to a garage to show her some real man's labour.

The title of the piece - Bertha Benz, Konstruktion (1998-99) - hints at the historic background to this vested libidinal construction. A leaflet informs the viewer that on August 12th, 1888 Bertha Benz took history's first self-propelled vehicle, left the German town of Mannheim - and her husband Carl - and drove 130 km to Pforzheim, the longest trip ever taken in a car. Bertha was furious that Carl had put all of her marriage dowry into constructing the 'Benzine' without managing to make it run properly for more than a hundred metres. So her 130 km statement of separation (in which she managed to keep the car running against all odds) actually contributed the missing link: the motor was now run in, and Carl Benz could proudly present the automobile shortly afterwards at the Munich World exhibition. He christened it Bockige Bertha (Mulish Bertha).

Over the last few years, Melián has investigated the histories of important women who have been written out of a male-dominated picture. Whereas women-as-dead bodies have been visualised compulsively (romantic poetry, pop video, war, sex, you name it), women-as-creators have often remained invisible. But instead of claiming to rewrite history by presenting a supposedly authentic counter-image, Melián makes visible the invisibility itself: phantom pictures of criminals (for which in Germany only male noses, lips, chins, etc. are available) made after a verbal description, for example.

The phantom technique has a double impact on Boxcar Bertha Benz: with her masculinised image stamped onto the wall behind the wooden construction, 19th-century Mrs Mercedes becomes a serial ghost in the 20th-century machines that were built after she had proved they could run. Melian's no-tech car overtakes many of the souped-up vehicles which have populated art sites lately, on the road to mapping the sexual implications of the drive to drive.

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.