Contraflow: Material to Time, Time to Material. Neither Ground nor Figure.

Bulky Items Terms like “bulky items” suddenly invade one’s contemplation of sculptures by Mucha. They call to mind transportation and delivery systems, which play a not unimportant part in his work, but even before that, they invoke the sheer bulk of a thing, of an object. Sculpture always comprises materials, volume, a body in a space—aside from special cases. However, in every element of the construction of this artist’s work and in every detail, it is not just its material that is variously made manifest. There is also, emphatically, the fabricatedness of the objects, the effort invested in them, plus a precisely controlled excess of production methods. In this case bulkiness is not solely a property of the physical entity within the space, it also creates a certain—material, and hence mental—blockage. Even at first sight a material rhetoric already comes to light, urging the viewer to investigate its meaning.
Awkward bulk—both spatially and in an institutional sense—is seen early on in an installation from 1981 in which standard museum furniture and items, assembled and stacked up, thwart the momentary impression of a space station (“Astron Taurus”, 1981). In the multipart work “Der Bau” (“The Burrow”), [2002] 1980–1984, one of the components is a long, black “tunnel” made from numerous layers of curved wooden segments complicatedly screwed together. It appears to suck any light into itself and looks utterly immovable. The “tunnel,” along with the heavy wall pieces and freestanding items, is deliberately at odds with the mobile systems of “contemporary art”; an extreme example of this is seen in the permanent installation, Das Deutschlandgerät (The Germany Device), [2021], [2002] 1990, which, with its architectural demeanor, effectively defies the desire of the museum, as an institution, for change and novelty.

Installation Mucha’s carefully considered ad hoc composites of museum furnishings are in effect temporary spatial images that can be dismantled, adjusted, and rebuilt elsewhere. Even if they reflect the mobility and variability of the museum-and-exhibition system, as conglomerations of elements that are both interrelated and disparate, they have their own net weight, a capacity for spatial inertia. This is partly due to their physical weight and the positioning of individual elements, but strangely enough it has more to do with the instable nature of their interconnections. The in-situ installations made when the artist was still a student already toy with the precarious balance of items of furniture used as pictorial particles (Flak, [1987] 1981). Somewhat later, small footstools shoved under large, uniform boxes suffice to destabilize the latter. Large-scale installations—from “Astron Taurus”, 1981, via Das Figur-Grund Problem in der Architektur des Barock (für dich allein bleibt nur das Grab) (The Figure-Ground Problem in Baroque Architecture (for you alone is only the grave)), 1985, to Kasse beim Fahrer 0.1 (Buy Ticket from Driver 0.1), 1987, multiply possible links and daring constructions. The bewildering abundance of seemingly improvised details—all of which do in fact arise from means and methods that are customary in this context—nevertheless generate spatial images that are sometimes named, logically enough, in subtitles (e.g., “Todeswand” or “Riesenrad,” “wall of death” or “Ferris wheel”). Tables are turned on their sides or upside down, ladders are robbed of their secure foothold and bundled together as horizontal cantilevers or as an air-borne star shape, chairs are tilted and hooked into scaffolding, plinths become multipurpose building blocks, barriers turn into dysfunctional clusters, and fluorescent lights are distributed freely throughout an ensemble. Reflective surfaces plunge the structure into yet more incalculable visual configurations. However, when it comes to the overall look of the installation, the larger elements are no more important than all those seemingly insignificant auxiliary items that hold the construction together, both physically and pictorially: adhesive tape, steel cables, protective underlays, and not least the plethora of electric cables and cable drums. These things are like the glue in an improvisation; each has its own particular place and cannot be used arbitrarily. The inexorability of these installations is thus not only spatial; they do not merely “occupy” the museum space that helps to constitute them. Their resilience is also fed by a combination of disparate elements, unreliable constructions, and wondrous images. And it is precisely their intrinsic, latent flexibility that paradoxically turns them into a foreign body that is entirely beholden to the context.

Wall/Construction While the large installations and other sculptures and display cases are by definition freestanding, the wall is the artist’s preferred location for his work. In some cases the “reliefs” are so voluminous and weighty that it might appear that attaching them to a wall could be perilous. And even if everything is in fact fully secure, there is still the lasting impression of a special deadweight and its tricky relationship with the wall, the latter being both a physical precondition of the work’s presence and representing, pars pro toto, the locus of the museum. Traditionally the walls of a museum are fundamental to all the displays with which the institution fulfills its function as a presentation mechanism; at the same time, the wall also conditions exhibits and guides the viewer’s response to them. Many of Mucha’s works are affixed to walls even as they “tug” at them.
Many of his wall-mounted sculptures have some considerable depth. The intricacy of their construction is clearly visible at either end. They are, as it were, cut off at both ends, with a sharp edge separating them from the surrounding space. As such, they set themselves apart from the context of the wall and seem to underline their own autonomy. At the same time, they are cut open with surgical, or rather, technical precision, revealing a substructure that is largely concealed from a frontal view. The side view into the interior of the sculpture shows that these works are not just conceived as three-dimensional images but also exhibit the technical nature of their construction, in other words, they display the actual craft-based circumstances of their making. The effort that has gone into them is seen in the form of carpentry, sometimes also in locksmithing. Each element that is visible from the front has its own technical solution in the background. Some can be seen from the side, others are buried in the depths of the construction. Struts, spars, connectors, interlayers, screws, and glue pragmatically fulfill their various purposes, demonstrating the aesthetic of their constructive intelligence and craftsmanship. However, these complex constructions and meticulous solutions are not limited to what is structurally necessary. There is, in fact, something of an excess of craftsmanship, an almost freewheeling abundance of technical solutions, which not least arises from a delight in material and physical variety. And that even extends to the layers of felt protruding at the sides, disturbing the sharp cross-section of the object and revealing a playful aspect to the artist’s execution of his original plan. In one case there are even bunched-up lengths of fabric almost casually stuffed into parts of the internal structure (Bantin, 2003). The exposed interior of the sculpture, thus, becomes the flip side to the pictorial, relief-like front of the work. The two impinge on each other and reveal the same care and love of variety in handling materials and their combinations. “Outside” and “inside” are perceived as different yet similar. It is a marriage of technique and aesthetics, of autonomous work and context, of freedom and dependence.
Flat found objects such as tabletops, doors, and flooring are mostly cut into strips or sections and then newly assembled, often in regular sequences with the found items separated by other materials such as new, factory-made aluminum profiles. The outcome is quasi-industrial motifs with connotations of serial production, efficiency, and power. In other cases all that is left of a panel door or a billiards tabletop is the frame. Found objects of this kind can be divided up once or several times and, fragmented and reconfigured, incorporated into a work. They thus serve as the raw materials for ornament or patterning, which can be both ground and figure.

Glass/Vitrine By contrast, larger found objects, such as metal tubs or wooden fencing, are mostly left intact. They are presented in constructions that resemble display cases yet either exceed or counteract the simple function of the latter. While the usual relationship (as seen in museums) between an object and the presentation method is embraced here, it is also obscured, if not eliminated. Glass plays an important part in this. Freestanding vitrines are sealed off by glass on all four sides; in the case of wall objects glass is usually only used on the front of them. In a museum setting, glass both protects objects on display and renders them visible. Both of these practices are cited in Mucha’s sculptures. The reflections on the surface of the glass panes are both unavoidable and intentional. On one hand, they can distort the sight of the exhibit—like an additional, changeable stratum of ornament superimposed on the material of the object itself. On the other hand, the reflections introduce the mirror images of viewers, fragmented and unclear, into the work. This layer in the structure of the works is usually a vehicle for “pictures” in the form of ornaments. Arcs and parallel lines in the form of glass etchings and reverse glass paintings overlay the material configurations behind the glass and indefinably interact both with the latter and with the reflections. Unlike ornaments, they do not generally create any continuous order. For instance, they barely ever form a completely closed frame for anything else and they avoid symmetry. Thus, thanks to these diverse overlays and irritants, the membrane of the glass casts doubt on the customary relationship between object and perception, or rather, the act of perception becomes a variable aspect of the object. The object is only “complete” within the given context and conditions of its perception. The vitrine in Mucha’s work are not standard museum issue. Even if they are used to display photographs and documents, complex constructions with diverse components, and objects of many kinds, the boundaries between vitrine and object are always fluid. This is partly due to the fact that most of the freestanding vitrines do not stand firmly on their feet as would be expected but appear to be floating just above the floor. The usual distinction between a purely functional, intentionally inconspicuous presentation method and an object designed to attract attention does not apply here. The two have merged into a single work. That which is visible, and the conditions that render it visible, impact on each other. These “display cases” alert viewers to precisely this; they incorporate the act of observation into the material and conceptual construction of the work.

Found Object Even if the relationship between the “display cases” and the found objects involves both amalgamation and ambivalence, the “milieu” of the objects and materials does not dissolve into pure ornament. They do not lose their referentiality. The objects in question are drawn from two main sources: one is the world of industry and capitalism, physical and administrative work; the other is a more domestic sphere, with a special role played by furnishings and pieces of furniture intended for storage and organization, which often appear fragmentary or isolated. Individual items that are used almost daily are predominantly seen in freestanding “display cases” or in larger installations: metal tubs, briquettes, model trains, soccer balls, kettles, monitors, hand tools, bicycles, hot plates, magazines . . . photographs and written documents ultimately enhance both sources and even go beyond them, making concrete social, political, and autobiographical references or referring to (the artist’s own) art.
However, the objective categorization of groups of objects and individual items is not enough to explain the connection between the two realms where they originated. A more precise view of the objects and their context can only be achieved by first identifying who selected and worked on what, and when. Apart from the moving images on the monitors everything comes from an analogue world and time. These are things that have been “left over” and loom—as potential relics—into the increasingly digital here and now. They are somewhat outdated, they are on the verge of becoming Time’s losers, overpowered by the same forces of capital, industry, and progress that originally produced them. And they are just objects that Mucha encountered, so to speak, as he was getting on with his life: found—not sought for—objects. They all appear to have been in use, some only just, during his lifetime. And in the cases where objects are no longer immediately recognizable, their function may be pieced together from recollections or oral history. A time frame can be applied to the choice of objects which is linked with the artist’s own range of experience. In essence it covers the era of the old Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany, as it was once known), including its prehistory and its changing existence up to the present.
Holding onto and exhibiting these things is not an act of mourning for continuously elapsing time—one’s own and the world’s—although here and there, as it were on the periphery, something of a playful melancholy and archaeological relish are certainly in evidence. These objects cannot hide under an aura of remembrance because they are also very much part of the sheer physicality of these works. Their integration into an autonomous construction—however rich in allusion—casts them in a critical light. These assimilated objects from the past are laden with meaning, yet they are also material items within a sophisticated artistic configuration, that always aims to achieve its own acute presence. If they bring the past with them, it is for the sake of the present, i.e., the real present of the three-dimensional work as well as the economic, social, and cultural present with all its current objects—Time’s future losers.

Biography The selection of objects drawn from the artist’s own era naturally also includes autobiographical elements—and extends the thematic range into the special field of art. Kopfdiktate (Head Dictations), [1990] 1980, for instance, with pages from exercise books Mucha used at school, enters the realms of pedagogy from the 1950s and 1960s, which focused on instilling good behavior. At the same time, on a pictorial level, there is a chronological sequence of images creating a portrait of the artist as a young man. Another wall piece, Der kluge Knecht ([The Clever Servant] Ohne Titel – Staatliche Kunstakademie – Düsseldorf – 1981), 2002 anecdotally reflects on the artist’s relationship to Klaus Rinke, his teacher at the art academy. Meanwhile a one-off conflict with the “art” system is preserved in a freestanding display case (Material für Dr. Schwarz [Material for Dr. Schwarz], [2019], 1981). References to the artist’s own life also sometimes involve members of his family, such as his son, who utters one of his first words, “Auto,” in a Super 8 film loop (Auto Reverse II/»Kreuzstück« [2009], 2009 / 1991). And lastly there are the various Auszüge aus dem großen Kalender (Excerpts from the Big Calendar), 1989, written and pictorial documents providing a discontinuous picture of the artist’s own daily life, work, and travels. However, these and numerous other connections with Mucha’s life can only partially be described as autobiographical if they are also to be read as the (re)construction of a life story for the purpose of self-representation. If anything, they seamlessly take their place, as biographical moments, among all the other objects and documents that reference and highlight the given time frame. They are part of an intricate web and not a theme in their own right. Mucha’s lifetime, since 1950, is just as much his own as it defines a perspective on that era. In his work, history, if we are to use that term, largely consists of time he has experienced himself, and it is made manifest with the help of material objects, documents, and manual skills. It also takes the previous era, the geopolitical span of the first half of the twentieth century in Germany, as a given. Personal information relating to the artist also appears in the work. This is the result of his having exposed and integrated the conditions of art. In the same way that the “museum,” as a system, is always present, the author of the works also constitutes a condition of their existence that should not be overlooked.

Enrichment A poster designed by Mucha for a gallery exhibition in 2014 has the subtitle “Arbeiten am Hohlkasten.” The German term Hohlkasten—meaning box girder—translates literally as “hollow box” and could be applied metaphorically to the museum as a place that is sometimes conflicted about the status of art as such. However, as elsewhere in his work, the term first and foremost refers to a concrete, technical or industrial object. The box girder is notable for its high degree of stability and rigidity. Nevertheless, even the most robust box girder needs to be checked and maintained. In a figurative, extended sense, the same can be said of Mucha’s work. In his case, the base element is the flexible collection of materials, objects, and processes that he works with. “Checking” and “maintenance” may become necessary because the meaning of materials and processes can change over time. New exhibition situations in particular require adaptation. For instance, when Wartesaal (Waiting Room), [1997], [1986] 1979–1982, was installed at documenta X in 1997, it was accompanied by both freestanding sculptures and wall-mounted sculptures, which surrounded and partially enclosed the original work. The new components thus created a “display case” of sorts around this fundamental work. The exhibition arrangement, Wartesaal, was, in turn, presented within a display that, in the context of the wider exhibition as a whole, hindered access to it and thus specifically drew attention to the fact of its being exhibited in that place.
When it comes to “restaging” works, it is not unusual for their own history, that is to say their exhibition history, to be included. That can happen by means of references to the past in pictorial documents or video-animated photographs. Das Deutschlandgerät (The Germany Device) serves as an example of this. When it was installed in Düsseldorf in 2002, in addition to the central cube and the display cases on the walls around it that were shown at its premiere in Venice in 1990, there was not only a wall screening it off from the adjoining room (Zollverein I|II, 2002), there were also numerous monitors, and the entire work was enveloped in sound. The monitors showed video-animated photographs both of the building where the floorboards used for the reliefs in the cube were sourced and of them being removed from their original location. A second sequence of moving images featured architectural motifs from the German Pavilion in Venice, while a third showed images of the hydraulic lifting device, the “Deutschlandgerät,” in action. Recently, when there was a need to make adjustments to take account of the latest developments in video technology, the monitors were not replaced, as one might expect. Instead, flat screens were simply mounted onto the sides o them. The new technology visibly overwrites the old system, without obliterating it. Another example of this is seen in the installation Mutterseelenallein (All Alone), [2009], [1991] 1989. Over the course of twenty-seven years in total it went through four stages. In Naples, in 1989, it consisted solely of wall-mounted sculptures and wall lights; in Frankfurt, three years later, these elements were mounted on wooden wall panels, and in Castello di Rivoli, in 2009, these panels were stacked in the middle of the room. Finally, in 2016, a model of the Frankfurt installation appears, like an epilogue, with a complicated base and embellished with video-animated photographs. A work that is burdened by its own exhibition history and, in the end (?), transformed “back” into an additional model in an almost burlesque manner, as its title suggests: Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis).
These strategies—adjustments and refinements—might be described as “historicization.” Yet they are really neither archival nor nostalgic, in that they play an active part, focusing on today and tomorrow, in mutating contexts and in the artist’s own evolving ideas. Past circumstances and situations—the transportation of works by the system—are incorporated into the materiality of the sculptures in the present moment. And, vice versa, the inbuilt time factor expands these compact works. The ensuing enrichment of the works, in terms of both physical materials and their own history as works of art in particular contexts, cannot in principle come to a conclusion, even if there are practical limitations.

Language The titles of the wall pieces are taken from a fund of place names. Wartesaal (Waiting Room), [1997], [1986] 1978–1982 is an archive of Mucha’s recourse to railroad systems that crops up in different guises throughout his work. Numerous photographs of locomotives and carriages, railway systems and machinery, along with model trains and track-like ornamentation on panes of glass point to transportation, as such, to a physical network that is technical, economic, and social. As for the way it comes into play here, it is a historically defined system. With its origins in the heyday of industrialization, it shaped movement and mindsets in the twentieth century. The 242 hand-painted signs/pictures stored on the shelves in Wartesaal point to a particular geopolitical era. Each bears the six-letter name of a train station within the boundaries of the German Reich as it was on March 1, 1938, and thus implicitly refers to National Socialism and to World War II and its consequences. Titles of this kind open a frame of reference that incorporates the present in which the works are produced and contemplated, that influences their perception like a cultural filter. In some cases, the work titles taken from this repository may be familiar, but in many cases, they are like words from a foreign Germanic tongue. These words only indirectly allow the work to connect with the backdrop of “Germany in the twentieth century.” And even if the artist has a personal interest in rail transit, it is basically used here as a medium or modality in which the themes of his work appear. As a metaphor for movement and transportation it accompanies his work and thus highlights the ongoing dichotomy of stasis and change that pervades his oeuvre both in material and ideological terms.
The place names create an indirect linguistic connection with the works and tie them into a wider space-time framework. And even if many of the half-remembered or quite unknown words have an autonomous, poetic ring to them, their prevalence points to a quasi-abstract order. However, time and again other titles (mostly of prints and freestanding sculptures) break with this pattern. These other titles are mostly longish statements or half sentences that evoke concrete, yet open-ended images. A title such as “Wind und zu hohe Türme” (“Wind and Too-Tall Towers”), for Marcel Breuer [2019], 1982, for instance, can be read as a metaphorical description of an arrangement of chairs and electric fans, fixed high up on a column. # Hashtag mit Lichtblick im Schmerz (# Hashtag with Bright Spot in Pain), [2019], 2001, crosses a modern term used in electronic communications with a lyrical expression, superimposed on photographs of broken concrete slabs partly concealed by undergrowth. Other titles simply describe an aspect of the sculpture (“Der Aufstieg” (“The Rise”), [2019], 2007), while yet others clearly (or not) focus on words as the main component of a work (Untitled (SEX) [2019], 1979). Neither of these types of titles owes anything to convention, nor are they solely about making practical distinctions or purely illustrative. It is hard to say to what extent they already play a part in the conception and construction of a work, or whether they are only added in retrospect. Whatever the case, they are far from random. Instead, they connect, in conceptual terms, closely if ambiguously with the physical aspect of the work. The linguistic layer in Mucha’s work appears to complement the complexity of his material constructions. Their semantic and formal (poetic) quality is determined by a similar delight in multifarious variations and references, as are the physical characteristics of the work. Language and sculpture—two components of the work—are linked in an open, ambivalent manner. Words go beyond the visual make-up of the work, but they also complicate the viewer’s contemplation of it.

Figure/Ground   Everything that is documented in Mucha’s work by means of found objects and that is made manifest through their materials, construction, and installation is fundamentally self-reflexive. The reality, which is integrated into the works in the form of specific materials and actual time, is always affected by the conditions of its perception. The specific nature and gesture of showing, of presenting materials and history frustrates any unambiguous connection between material and time. It could make sense to describe the diverse and idiosyncratic constructions and “paint applications” as ornament, not in the superficial sense of decoration or embellishment but in a figurative sense, as it is used by Niklas Luhmann: “Ornaments organize space and time directly. [. . .] The ornament generates its own imaginary space by continuously transforming formal boundaries into transitions that have more than one meaning” (Niklas Luhmann, Art as a Social System [1995], trans. Eva M. Knodt, 2000).
Ornament, in that context, is the self-referential aspect of the work of art. In Mucha’s work it both brings out the characteristic nature of its form and also—by dint of a certain excess of materials and effort—introduces an element of distortion into its perception. The observation of the “figure” (the “foreign referential aspect” according to Luhmann) thus itself becomes the focus. The term “figure” is used here in reference to the objects and documents that are exhibited by means of the presentation mechanism. Nevertheless, and that is what gives the situation a special twist, the transitions between figure and ground, between temporal object and carrier, become fluid and ambiguous due to multiple turbulences and overlaps. Boris Groys says that a “work of art is a centaur-like being, only half of whose form belongs to the art system—with the other half extending into the realms of formlessness and danger” (Boris Groys, “Die dunkle Seite der Kunst,” Soziale Systeme 2, no. 1, 1996, trans. for this essay), but that division is even more blurred in Mucha’s work. This originates in a fundamental skepticism regarding the status of the work of art not only in the institutional system of “art” but also vis-à-vis the status of reality as such. The place of the work of art must constantly be put to the test, it is not a given: the work, its context, and its contemplation always have to be negotiated anew. That skepticism is seen, in an almost paradoxical form, in the meticulously constructed and worked materials and in tangible references to the actual conditions of the time from which and in which we live.

Translated from the German by Fiona Elliott