Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Volkhardt Müller’s Any High Street at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter

Volkhardt Müller’s exhibition Any High Street at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter is a mix of old and new work. Of the latter actually, some has actually been created in the gallery, in a small enclosed workshop corner fenced off to the public but completely open to close view. The old works include Cell from 2009 and a filmed record of his Pastoral from the same year, and same project. Both are derived from prison holding cells once housed within the old Georgian Exeter Crown Court buildings within the Norman walls of Rougemont Castle. The Court, its original structure built in 1774, was closed in 2003, and Müller was given permission to use two of the old cells for his art installations before they were, eventually, converted into toilets. Cell reproduces the surface of the walls of one of the cells, which were essentially used as ready made, in situ printing blocks. Their markings and indentations, whether made by human agency or by the steady erosion of time, were imprinted onto delicate Japanese paper. The resulting prints were hung from a frame in order to reproduce the approximate dimensions of the cell. These new and insubstantial walls are fragile and translucent, lit from within by a pendant strip light. You can see the frayed fibres of the paper around the edges of the doorless entrance and at the angles of the room’s corners, where the walls don’t quite meet, leaving cracks of empty space which merely imply a continuity in the imprisoning structure. The whole is suspended airily a few feet off the floor, lending it a feel of floating weightlessness. The loosely tethered paper wafts and wavers gently in the lightest of drafts or air-conditioned exhalations. It is more like a monastic cell, its elevated position and its transparency, which verges on immateriality, symbolic of a spiritually enlightened state.

Such a pious impression is immediately belied by a closer inspection of the graffiti printed onto the paper from the walls, all testament to an adherence to a latterday outlaw mythology. ‘Fuck da Law’ stands as a basic statement of position which, though anonymously carved, could be the motto of any or all of the others who have marked their brief transition through the Court holding cells in necessarily truncated form (a matter of time and the crudeness of the tools available). These include: Clinton ov Brum, who seems happy at the outcome of his trial (Exp 4 Got 2½); Billy P ov Xmuff 6/3/08 (from just down the estuary in Exmouth, a local bad boy); Maggot Faggot ov PSV (not Eindhoven, surely); Charlie ov Truro 2002 7 yrs “A Truro Psycho to the Max” (the quotation marks presumably indicating that this is the manner in which he would like others to see and refer to him); and Simo, who ‘waz ere on tour once more 97/98’. Someone else pledges allegiance to WHU (that’s West Ham United), with their fascistic crossed hammers symbol etched above. Doyl, meanwhile, takes a more aesthetic approach and is rather more painstaking in his execution, the elaborate curved and trailing tails of his D and Y finished off with outlined arrows and the whole etched with a sure hand and sense of graphic design. These graffiti, with their offhand bravado and defiant sense of pride in outlaw status, were clearly originally carved out with fairly crude tools – whatever was close to hand – and as a result have a jagged violence which conveys a sense of angry young men trying to fight their way out of confined lives. They are recorded here on fragile, delicate art paper, which such fiercely wielded tools would have torn through. This lends the writing an oddly delicate character, an aestheticisation of violence and macho f off attitude. The ease with which the inmates could punch and kick through these diaphanous walls suggests that this is a prison cell of the mind, whose confines are not so easily breached.

For the second cell which he used, Müller etched a pastoral scene in the manner of an 18th century etching onto the walls, his far from precision tool a screwdriver. This scene draws on a nearby Georgian house, depicted here with surrounding trees and parkland and a small white bridge across which a figure strolls, dogs in tow. The scene, carved onto three sides of the cell, offers a panoramic escape from the cramped greystoned prison space - a landscape of the imagination to retreat into. It reflects the historic origins of the Court buildings, and also offers an ironic contrast between old ideas of aristocratic, landowning wealth and the mainly lower class status of the men who have passed through the cell. The figure taking his constitutional in the perfectly proportioned grounds would far more likely be the judge. For this exhibition, the three walls have been reproduced via a projected collage of filmed sections in a work entitled Pastoral II. We see one wall for a period of time before the next replaces it. The projection, formed of different ‘tiles’, square sections filmed with a hand-held camera, fit together to create the whole picture. The wavering, slightly woozy nature of the resulting image creates the impression of a provisional landscape, transitory and subject to change and dissolution. The tiles are like the elements of a theatrical backdrop, which can be taken down and packed away at short notice. If this is a landscape of the mind, a retreat into a fantasy of an easeful, bucolic past, then it only takes the rattling of a set of keys, the clank of a metallic door and a call to court to dispel it instantly. It never wholly succeeds in erasing the present, either. Look closely and you can see the graffitied names of previous inmates inscribed behind the tremulous clouds.

The original Pastoral cell
Opposite the Pastoral II projection, an array of colourful yellow plastic children’s TV toys are affixed to the wall like so many identical lunchboxes. These are the kind of old-fashioned (the 70s now warranting such a term, I suppose) mechanical wind-up devices which unspooled a picture loop whose unwinding images, illuminated from behind, were accompanied by a jauntily jingling music box tune of the Row Row Row Your Boat variety. Thhe offered the simple, repetitive pleasures of the pre-digital age and they were, in their time, enough. The sunny promise of these picture boxes, which the visitor is encouraged to play with, fails to correspond with the drab, black and white reality of the scenes depicted within their bright frame. Müller has provided his own paper spools, strips printed off in thickly outlined black ink from woodblocks. They depict scenes of stasis, stagnation and inactivity, the pauses and the waiting moments in life, presented as if they are in fact its major components. The motion of the winding strip merely accentuates the unchanging and repetitive nature of the different scenarios. In the little side window to the right of the main screen, Müller has inserted printed titles which supply an ironic or caustic commentary on the unfolding tableaux. So a parade of indistinguishable terraced house facades is called Progression; Weary old folks hunching down at bus stops are Regulars (referring neither to the frequency of the buses or to pub habitués); A roped-off queue of shivering, ill-clad women waiting to get into a club is Heaven; Staggering post-clubbers are having Low Larks; Shoppers bent under the weight of their bags or talking into their mobiles, none of them looking at each other, labour under the prescriptive title Fun; A row of cash-point with attendant withdrawers is headed Divine Wind (the translation of the Japanese kamikaze), a line-up willing rushing towards self-immolation; A traffic jam has the title Corso, perhaps a reference to beat poet Gregory and the movement’s valorisation of the open road; And the endless expanse of a fast-food counter is simply Limbo. There’s also an edgeland landscape of abandoned petrol stations, empty, weed-cracked sites and aging for sale signs. The tunes which the boxes play are cheery enough. But they are set at different speeds so that, as they are played (and people inevitably move from one to another, so that the tunes are overlaid to Steve Reich phase-shifting effect) there is a feeling of winding down, of the gradual leeching away of energy. This sense of entropic decline is built into the very nature of the exhibit. As time goes by, the small boxes are wound and wound until they wind no more, and one by one they fall silent, the light inside extinguished. Behind the optimistic banana yellow plastic casing it all provides a rather melancholic reflection on social and personal stagnation and decline, dissipation and eventual disappearance. The bright promise of childhood fades away.

The central work of the exhibition is a triptych of new, large scale woodcuts which depict three times of day in three different parts of Exeter High Street: Morning, Afternoon and Night. This has been a work in progress, created during Müller’s residency at the museum. Visitors in the early days were greeted with three large and disappointingly blank spaces on the wall, their empty white rectangular windows waiting expectantly to be filled. Rather than put up prints taken from the woodblocks he carved and chiselled, however, Müller has put up the wooden plates themselves. Or two of them, at least, the third laid flat in the workshop area, ready for prints to be made from it. From these three blocks he has created prints which extract selected squared-off segments or plates – thus relating it to the Pastoral II projection. It offers a similar sense of a constructed, modular landscape (or cityscape) which can be packed up and rearranged according to the demands of social and economic trends. This selective printing also creates contrasting areas on the wooden blocks, with geometrical patterns of darkness chequered across the brown grain. The printed off segments hang up on a rack in the workshop corner and can apparently be purchased for a small sum. The promise of specially commissioned works given in the museum brochure offers an illusion of choice since most of these prints are identical, and the range of images which have been copied limited. It seems like a symbolic gesture. The virtually identical reproduction of a particular detail of the larger composition – a shop sign or a discarded Coke can – is possibly intended as a comment on the identikit nature of many town and city centres, and a reminder of Exeter’s shameful topping of a league of clone towns (places with high streets comprising a high proportion of chain stores) in a survey carried out a couple of years ago.

The artist with the Day woodblock
The pictures themselves take the bleak and run down vignettes of the yellow cases and blow them up into large scale tableaux of weariness, anomie and incipient violence. There might appear to be an element of condescension or patronisation in this relentlessly downbeat view. Part of me thought ‘oi, this is my flipppin city you’re painting as some soulless limbo or Dantean circle of Hell’. But the pieces fall under the title Any High Street, so the actual locale could be said to be more symbolic than particular, a stage upon which to arrange universal dramas. Müller offers an outsider’s view, having grown up in Swabia in South West Germany, although he’s been here ten years or so now, so has probably got used to our ways. He has been on hand at the museum on several days to answer any criticisms from irate or bemused citizens who completely fail to recognise the city which they inhabit. On the wall opposite the triptych a film is projected, a survey of the central axis of the city taken by Müller as he cycled up and down Fore Street, High Street and Sidwell Street. At various times during the exhibition this depicts either morning, afternoon or night, thus reflecting the works displayed opposite. It serves as a corrective to their distorted or heightened realism, and shows that Exeter is, after all, a fairly ordinary city, and not a German expressionist film set. The films also present incontrovertible evidence that he was cycling on the pavement, but perhaps he was granted special artistic license.

There’s a certain repetitive circularity to the pictures, which suggests that this is a sequence which could be repeated, with little variance, over and over again. This links it with the yellow TV case installation, with its repeating loops. Morning, set in the lower part of the High Street, is littered with the detritus of the night before. The Stead and Simpson and Ann Summers shopfronts prominently display 50% and 75% off signs, indicators of deep recession, as are the two homeless people sleeping in the doorway of Ann Summers. They lie beneath two models which offer the allure and promise of the night, but which look a little out of place in the blinking morning light. Afternoon looks at lower Sidwell Street through the transparent screen of the bus shelter. The hunched figures of two old folk squat uncomfortably on the minimalist bench, another standing wearily waiting beside them. A younger woman leans against the advertising hoarding, completely separated off from them by a pillar and the frame of the shelter, and by the fact their her attention is wholly directed towards the screen of her mobile. The sign for the Hospicecare shop over the road is a reminder of mortality. On the pavement, in the street and standing sentinel on the roofs, crows, pigeons and gulls pick over rubbish and discarded fast food containers. At Night, the tableau becomes ominous and threatening, even a little demonic. A group of men are gathered around a small, almost childlike female figure. She is faceless and featureless, naked like an unclothed shop window dummy (from Ann Summers?) Her stance speaks of panic and fear, and a frozen inability to spring into action. The men move to surround her, and tower over her so that she appears to shrink in the shadow of their menacing presence. Something terrible is clearly about to happen. On the other side of the street, a woman stands under a partially obscured shop sign which reads ‘Go’. Her legs are set at crooked angles, her arms flop limply at either side, and her shoulder seems weighed down by the bag hanging from it. She has an open-mouthed gape of weary vacancy, and a brow furrowed with worry and care. To her left, a round-headed bin opens a wide and devouring maw, looking like a ravening robot about to swallow her up. Pools of illumination from overhead streetlights spotlight the pavements as if they were a theatrical stage. Which, in a way, they are. Müller is using the high street – it could be any high street, but it happens to be in Exeter – as a set for his own expressionist dramas. These pictures seek to project the dark subconscious of the consumer society of which the High Street (or its adjunct malls) is the locus. At the lower borders of Night, an oily, oleaginous shadow is oozing up on the prowling group, its fringed edges suggesting sentient feelers. Perhaps it stands in for a spilt pool of printer’s ink. But once it has spread, all will be engulfed in impenetrable darkness.

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