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How Artist Lukas Müller’s ‘Excavation’ of a Stranger Tells a Story of Political Desperation

From tarot cards to AA flyers, the artist’s installation at Lucas Hirsch, Düsseldorf, sketches out a precarious existence

Every day, in our fragmented societies, people disappear. They go to ground, leave their old identities behind or discretely erase their own lives. Their vanishing is rarely discussed, far less the reasons for it. Usually, their possessions are quickly disposed of and people return to business as usual.

Lukas Müller’s Dear Hanna, part of which is currently on view at Lucas Hirsch, deals with one such case. The project takes a trash-filled apartment in one of the less desirable corners of Chicago as the basis for an archaeological reconstruction of the woman who once lived there. The titular work, Dear Hanna (all works 2019), is a framed display of printed materials that sketch out Hanna’s personality: a tarot card, letters from psychics, a flyer from Alcoholics Anonymous, personal lucky numbers, spiritual tokens and a photograph of a young child. A crack in the glass points to the same broken existence that is reflected in the assembled items. Hanna clearly endured multiple forms of precarity. She lived in a bad part of town with an alcohol problem and had either a child or grandchild with whom she presumably had little contact. While the arrangement of these materials is markedly sober, Hanna’s desperation is palpable.

Lukas Müller, The End of America, 2019, objects on steam pipes, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist and Lucas Hirsch, Düsseldorf

The End of America is a structure made out of heating pipes that supports a diverse array of items found in the apartment. They include a biscuit tin full of photographs and letters, a broken vase and a golden sculpture of a swan. A prominent position is given to a pamphlet titled ‘The End of America’, by Porter Stansberry (ordered personally by Hanna, whose address is written on the back cover), in which the white supremacist and convicted fraudster invokes the collapse of the US under President Barack Obama. It would appear that Hanna belonged to that class of ‘forgotten’ white people, whose fears of social decline have been bundled into a malign movement under the ‘Make America Great Again’ cap. Seen in this light, Müller’s excavation of his absent subject’s private desperation takes a political turn, with her dejection becoming emblematic of a much larger societal concern. The modular piping, a branch-like infrastructure connecting households and supplying them with warmth, is a succinct metaphor for social cohesion. Here, the metal remains cold.

Lukas Müller, Untitled, 2019, identification card, paper in broken frames, 85 × 108 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Lucas Hirch, Düsseldorf

Müller’s treatment of Hanna’s belongings is restrained: the found material is never distorted. Neither does he assume the role of the smug European, commenting on the political climate in the US from afar. Rather, his intention is to position Hanna’s anxieties within a new geographic and cultural context and, in doing so, hold them up as emblems of a socially and economically disadvantaged class that is known on a global scale. This is stressed through the inclusion of Untitled: a wall-mounted triptych of yellowing cardboard set in frames. In each case, the glass is either broken or missing entirely, recalling the boarded-up windows of houses left abandoned, like Hanna’s. But attached to the cardboard we also see the identification card of a woman in a headscarf and a card commemorating women’s rights activists who have disappeared in Iran. From a European perspective, looking through an American lens, Müller is alluding to a general fear of ‘the other’, be it the fate of the women’s movement in Muslim countries or that of immigrants in Europe. This brief allusion to the complexity of global political issues is a single but necessary gesture of disrespect towards Hanna, one who sadly sought consolation in simpler truths.

Translated by Nicolas Grindell

Lukas Müller, 'Dear Hanna' runs at Lucas Hirsch, Düsseldorf, until 12 February 2019.

Main image: Lukas Müller, Dear Hanna (detail), 2019, letters, flyers and photograph in broken frame, 71 × 99 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Lucas Hirsch, Düsseldorf

Moritz Scheper is a writer and curator based in Essen, Germany, where he works as artistic director at Neuer Essener Kunstverein.

Issue 202

First published in Issue 202

April 2019
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