BY Daniel Birnbaum in Profiles | 01 JAN 03
Featured in
Issue 72

Michel Majerus


BY Daniel Birnbaum in Profiles | 01 JAN 03

He told me he would call as soon as he got home, and he kept his promise. Early one morning in mid-September the phone rang and I woke to the sound of Michel Majerus laughing triumphantly. The Berlin-based painter was standing in front of the city's Brandenburg Gate, the German national symbol par excellence, which during its two-year restoration period had mostly been covered with advertisements for Deutsche Telecom. Majerus' huge image of the Schöneberg Sozialpalast, an early 1970s housing block now covered in graffiti and pockmarked with satellite dishes, had just been draped over the Berlin landmark, which it was to veil over the last few weeks before its reopening. During the actual production and installation of the work Majerus had been in New York. We had been planning the project for months over the phone, and finally there it was - 'the monster', as he called it. He was overjoyed, and I was relieved that things had worked out so well. Now, a few months later, Majerus is dead - he died in a plane crash in Luxembourg on 6 November, 2002 - a fact that I struggle to come to terms with as his laughter still resounds in my ears.

That enormous picture covering the Brandenburg Gate, on display for three weeks in September, was Majerus' last major project. We worked on it together, and this is an account of a collaboration involving many people, the most important of whom is no longer with us. It all began with Jochen Volz, curator of Frankfurt's Portikus, noticing some affinities between Majerus' work and that of Thomas Bayrle, a Frankfurt-based artist in his mid-60s who had first celebrated the super-flat Pop surface some 40 years ago: 'With me, everything is flat', says Bayrle. Volz and I decided we would try to bring the two artists together one day in some form of collaboration.

Then came a fax from Bewag, the Berlin electricity company, inviting me to submit a proposal for a project for the Brandenburg Gate. I called Majerus, who was on his bike. 'Interesting', he said, and then the line went dead. A few days later he called back, again on the bike. He had just passed a building in Berlin's western district of Schöneberg: the Sozialpalast, one of the city's most controversial landmarks. It stands on the site of the infamous Sportpalast, where in 1943 Joseph Goebbels declared 'Total War'. For many years right-wing politicians have criticized this piece of 1970s social housing and everything it stands for: 25 different nationalities are represented in the complex, and around 40% of its inhabitants are unemployed. The CDU, the German Conservative party, would like to see the building demolished. 'I've got an idea', said Majerus, and a few days later his friend Chris Rehberger, a graphic designer, sent me an outline of the plan: a replica of the façade of the hated building covering the whole eastern side of the Brandenburg Gate. In the meantime Bayrle had also come up with an idea for the other side of the Gate: an image of interwowen Autobahns, with cars apparently climbing up the side. German artists from two different generations were thus planning to poke fun at one of the country's most celebrated monuments, while highlighting socio-political realities in a way that would undermine the very idea behind such grand architectural gestures. Were these two projects really to be executed during the three weeks leading up to the gate's ceremonial reopening on 3 October, the Day of German Unity? Well, no one stopped us, so indeed they were.

A second peal of laughter, even more intense than the first, came down the phone on the evening of the German general election on 22 September. Majerus asked me to turn on the TV - the most hilarious thing was being shown on CNN. The network had rented a room in the luxurious Adlon Hotel - itself rebuilt some years ago as a pastiche of its prewar original - in order to be able to report directly from Berlin with the Brandenburg Gate as a backdrop. But of course what the viewer saw was the image of the Sozialpalast, with the four horses of the Quadriga statue sticking out mysteriously on top. For several hours this bizarre spectacle could be seen without any explanation on virtually every channel.

When I first came across Majerus' works in Berlin in the mid-1990s I tried to sum up the impact of his art in this magazine. 'For Michel Majerus, art history is at an end', was the bold opening of that short essay. Majerus quoted the history of painting in its entirety, but he never moralized or indulged in melancholy reflections on the loss of authenticity. Instead, his works celebrate the profusion of images to which the history of art has given rise. The temporality of his work, I claimed - and still do - is that of a floating an all-encompassing Now, perhaps analogous to that of the Internet. With the Brandenburg Gate project his art acquired a new political dimension. The work prompted much discussion and was seen as a critical comment on the controversial decision to rebuild the old Prussian Berlin Castle (which was bombed during World War II and eventually torn down to make way for East Germany's Palast der Republik).

Intriguingly, the residents of the Sozialpalast later contacted the artist and insisted that an image of the Brandenburg Gate should be displayed on their building as the second part of the project. Majerus took this idea very seriously. One scheme involved building a replica of the Quadriga with its four horses on top of the 1970s block. What better way to honour the artist than for this to happen?