in Features | 04 MAR 07
Featured in
Issue 105

Past, Present and Future

In her murals, installations, music, radio plays and projections, German artist Michaela Melián explores the politics of memory, alternative histories and the often unsung role of women in shaping the past – and future

in Features | 04 MAR 07

Addressing history is a political act. When you tell the story of how special events and people have changed the course of history, you effectively claim that the ramifications of these events and the lives of these people matter, not just for you but potentially for anyone. By contending that they matter, you assert a particular set of values and, subsequently, politics. The position someone will take in a debate about whether or how the events of 1968 made a difference, for instance, is possibly one of the clearest indicators of where that person stands politically, and what he or she condemns as failure or espouses as progress. Likewise, controversies over who should be remembered as a protagonist of history, and for what reason, continue to split camps. Only a few years ago, for example, the plans of the newly elected leftist government in Spain to finally dismantle the last remaining public statues of the fascist dictator Franco caused quite a stir throughout the country. People reveal where they stand on such issues not just through what they recognize as memorable, but also in how they go about asserting that it is. There is a distinct difference between the authoritarian proclamation of historical value as a non-negotiable given (rooted in national myths) and the critical attempt to confer this value through public debate and a personal commitment to investigating the work of memory.

German artist Michaela Melián has explored the politics of memory for many years now. In her installations she develops different scenographies for the staging of alternative histories, creating complex environments in which slide projections of drawings, accompanied by music or spoken narratives, immerse you in the experience of history unfolding. In other instances she purposefully strips the work down to simple objects, images or texts that evoke hidden histories by gesturing towards them in the coded language of allusion and innuendo. Yet, in all cases, the careful questioning and ephemeral way in which the artist constructs her works reflects her commitment to the deconstruction of an oppressive aesthetics of monolithic historical representation. Subjects she has returned to include the legacy of Nazi rule in Germany and the political radicalism of those affiliated with the Baader-Meinhof group, who, during the 1960s and 1970s, sought to exorcise the authoritarian structures that had remained untouched by the cursory de-Nazification of the country. Another central concern of Melián’s practice has been the development of a feminist historiography. Many of her works are dedicated to the memory of women whose contribution to history has been obscured. Especially in these works, the critical detachment implied in Melián’s general conceptual approach is intimately linked to a strong sense of appreciation for the work, life and persona of the women to whom she pays tribute.

The aesthetics and politics of Melian’s art have continuously evolved parallel to her practice as the bass player and vocalist of the Munich-based band FSK. After its inception in the early 1980s as a New Wave outfit with edgy lyrics sung to a nervous machine drum beat, the band has put itself through many permutations to arrive at its current sound: open soundscapes underpinned by relaxed minimalist yet hypnotically throbbing dance grooves. Part of what is great about FSK is that they have shown how a band can be more than just an ‘act’ and can instead develop into something like an academy where friends convene to converse over what they care about. With FSK this is the history and politics of alternative pop-music, the participants being Melián, her partner and novelist Thomas Meinecke (guitar, vocals), critic and curator Justin Hoffmann (keyboards), photographer Wilfred Petzi (guitar) and professional musician Carl Oesterhelt (drums). Over many years and records the band has, in its own unique way, explored and performed music from a variety of genres – ranging from disco and R&B to folk and Krautrock – to grow into a shape-shifting accumulator of influences. The particular blend of deconstruction and heartfelt appreciation that underpins Melián’s art could, in this sense, be seen to resemble the very spirit of the music of FSK. As a somewhat more pensive older sibling to Chicks on Speed, the band epitomises the ethos of the proverbial liberalitas bavariae – the antithesis to the staunch conservatism of Munich, a spirit that has chosen to incarnate itself over the centuries in such characters as the camp King Ludwig of Bavaria, the film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder or the model Uschi Obermaier. Melián paid tribute to this culture in her contribution to the group show ‘Atelier EUROPA’ at the Kunstverein Munich in 2004: using a simple black ink stamp, she traced the outlines of a mural, depicting an imagined community of Munich bohemians from different moments throughout history, on the end wall of the main exhibition hall.

The writer Bernward Vesper, to whose memory Melián dedicated the installation Triangel – Bernward Vesper room (2002), is a more tragic figure from the late 1960s – the era in which German bohemia radicalized its politics. One element of the work is a series of images of fields and country roads, the outlines of which have been stitched in black yarn onto paper with a sewing machine. The second element is a roll of grey felt, lying on the ground and bent sharply twice to form a triangle. Triangel was, in fact, the name of the estate near the northern German village of Neuenkirchen where Vesper grew up. The images portray scenes of the surrounding landscape; one depicts the entrance to the nearby former concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen. With these few spare gestures, Melián sets the stage for a drama that relies on the inquisitive mind of the viewer to be fully realized. Vesper, who was born in 1938, was the author of Die Reise (The Trip), a novel published posthumously in 1977 after the author took his life in a psychiatric clinic in Hamburg in 1971. Die Reise is probably the only work in German literature written in a beatnik spirit comparable to that of its American precedents. Vesper adored William Burroughs and, rejecting linear narration, produced in this work a collage of different writing styles. Recollections of growing up under the iron rule of his father, a writer himself and an unreconstructed Nazi, interlace with reflections on the oppressive nature of the capitalist regime in postwar Germany. These, in turn, blend with a road diary of Vesper’s drug-fuelled travels through Europe – inspired by his fiancée, Gudrun Ensslin, leaving him for Andreas Baader and going underground to become a leading figure in the Baader-Meinhof group – and his meetings with various characters from the politicized bohemia. Melián’s images of the country roads around Triangel thus mark the symbolical point of departure for a journey that continues in Vesper’s book. Simultaneously, the emptiness of the rural scenery, apparently unscathed by the violent personal, political and historical struggles acted out upon it, mourns the loss of historical memory.

While Triangel – Bernward Vesper room only alludes to the events it references, Melián’s most recent installation, Föhrenwald (2005), presents a multiplicity of voices to tell its story. Melián had a small pavilion built at the exit of the Munich Hofgarten, in the darkened interior of which slides were projected accompanied by a voice-over commentary (which Melián produced in the form of a radio play and which was also broadcast independently). Installed on a revolving axis, the projector caused the images to wander round the space slowly as they faded out and in. The slides showed views of a housing development drawn in white lines on a black ground. Listening to the recording, you learned that the development, called Föhrenwald, was built near Munich in the late 1930s by the Nazis to house forced labourers for their ammunition factories, and became a displaced persons camp under American supervision after the war. In the radio play Melián brought together information and testimonies from the many sources she had explored in her research. Official documents from the camp authorities are combined with the recollections of forced labourers and displaced Jewish people from all over Europe. Read out by different speakers, the texts formed a dense polyphonic collage, which at times was underlain by minimalist soundscapes composed by Melián in collaboration with fellow FSK band member Carl Oesterhelt. The overall atmosphere of the play underscored the feeling of temporal suspense or suspended time – an emotion many displaced persons described as the key experience of living in the camp. They recounted how, during the time in which they awaited their chance to emigrate, a form of normal civic life still established itself. For many, the conditions of displacement, waiting and anticipation became an enduring situation. A self-contained infrastructure of schools, hospitals, religious services, theatre groups, hairdressers, etc. was set up at the very same time the residents were organizing their (often clandestine) emigration to the Americas or to Palestine, to found and fight for the nascent state of Israel. Föhrenwald was only finally dissolved in 1957. The installation thus commemorates this suspended moment in time between the persecution of the Jews and the beginning of a new life for the survivors of the holocaust, an experience of temporal latency that is omitted when history is represented as if it were an unbroken chain of events.

It is precisely those moments eclipsed in standard accounts of history that Melián also highlights in her works dedicated to the memory of outstanding yet misrepresented women. Life as a Woman, Hedy Lamarr (2001), for instance, is a homage to the famous actress who is largely remembered for her controversial role in Ecstasy (1933) – one of the first (non-pornographic) films to portray a sexually explicit scene. What is rarely mentioned in accounts of her life is that Lamarr also invented the technique of ‘frequency hopping’ and donated the patent to the US army in 1943. Initially conceived as a safe method for the remote control of submarine torpedos, the technology was subsequently used to encode radio transmissions. It is the very principle that mobile phones work with today. In her installation, Melián used a rubber stamp to repeatedly print two images of Lamarr bathing nude and dressed in a glamorous robe onto the gallery wall in the form of a frieze. At the centre of the room she placed a simple structure covered in silk and shaped like a submarine. The work is essentially a memorial to Lamarr, yet one that, through its ephemeral nature and encrypted content, questions the imposing power and readily readable iconography of conventional monuments. Again, Melián only hints at the disappearance of a particular fact. This hint in turn becomes the symbolic starting point for other texts (like this one) to be written that help to produce and proliferate the missing narrative.

For the 6th Werkleitz Biennale in Halle in 2004, Melián designed the mural Wandbild Halle to celebrate another heroine whose memory is fading: Tamara Bunke, who left the former GDR to join Che Guevara’s Cuban guerilla army, was shot in an ambush in Bolivia, and was resurrected by Patty Hearst who assumed Bunke’s nom de guerre, ‘Tania’, when she became a terrorist. In Melián’s mural, Bunke’s features tower over the sketchily drawn outlines of functionalist apartment blocks from two satellite towns in the former East and West Germany, Halle-Neustadt and Munich Neuperlach. The resemblance between the towns is striking as both were built in the same modernist spirit: Melián has set the stage for a drama in which the histories of the two Germanies are unexpectedly connected through the shared project of a socialist modernism. But, she has also cast a female heroine as the drama’s protagonist, potentially as a reminder of the fact that (despite its ideological bias) the culture of Socialism had developed a whole iconography around the notion of female heroicism which was discarded with the demise of the GDR. The work thus raises the questions: could the dominant view of the GDR as the alien other of West Germany be revised? Could something about the socialist iconography of strong women be redeemed? What community could possibly assemble in front of this mural? Whose heroine could Bunke be today?

The Wandbild Halle seems paradigmatic of Melián’s work in that it epitomizes how the artist breaks up monolithic accounts of history by addressing the past (and its alternate possible futures) through evocative gestures. In doing so, she politicizes the work of memory by drawing attention to stories eclipsed by dominant ideological narrations as well as by proposing significantly different ways to tell these stories. Her works thus become blueprints for an approach to history in which the alacrity of deconstructive criticism is intimately tied to an appreciation of people whose life and work made a difference.