Rothenburg is a town in southern Germany that tourists visit to see some history. It looks like a picture postcard of a medieval city, even though it was flattened during World War II. Among the few visible traces of this past are the inscriptions in the rebuilt city wall naming the donors who paid for its restoration. These inscriptions attracted Michaela Melián's curiosity. In Reconstructing Rothenburg (2002) she drew a selection of them on to the gallery wall in a horizontal line. The names ranged from companies such as Esso or Mannesmann through private individuals to societies such as the 'Volkswagen Club, Tokyo'. By exposing how history is sponsored, Melián raised the question of who pays for the staging of 'national heritage' and why. Instead of giving explicit answers, she let the names speak for themselves: representatives of German industry who financed the war that led to the city's destruction. Moreover, the sight of German sponsors with domiciles in Haiti or Windhoek inevitably invokes the covert histories of colonialism and Nazi exile.
Historical research has informed much of Melián's work of the last decade, which often pays tribute to women whose achievements have been misrepresented or forgotten. Life as a Woman, Hedy Lamarr (2001), for example, is a homage to the famous actress remembered for being the first woman to fake an orgasm on screen in 1933 and who later became a Hollywood icon. What is less widely known is that Lamarr 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 torpedoes, the technology was subsequently used to encode radio communication. Without it there would be no mobile phones. These facts were given in a short wall text. Images of Lamarr bathing nude and dressed in a glamorous robe were repeatedly printed on to the wall with rubber stamps to form a frieze. At the centre of the space was a wooden structure with a silk cover shaped like a submarine. The frailty of the construction stood in sharp contrast to the bombast of conventional monuments. The piece was a monument to Lamarr, but one that called into question the very idea of monumentality.
The installation Triangel-Bernward Vesper Room (2002) addressed the local context. It comprised a series of pictures of the idyllic heathland around Neuenkirchen stiched on to paper with a sewing machine. A triangular sculpture made from felt invoked the name of the nearby 'Triangel' estate, where Bernard Vesper grew up. Born in 1938, Vesper was author of a one-time cult novel Die Reise (The Voyage, 1977), which was seen as articulating the younger generation's desire to throw off their parents' Nazi past, a desire that lay behind the student protests of the 1960s and the terrorism of the Baader-Meinhof group. (A founder member of the latter, Gudrun Ensslin, was Vesper's fiancée before he committed suicide in 1971.) Melián's drawings of seemingly innocent rural scenery can be understood as evocations of the loneliness and invisibility of personal, political and historical struggles.
The exhibition brought out how Melián reassesses history while questioning its mechanisms. With their sketchy, DIY aesthetics her pieces manage to avoid being didactic, simply hinting at facts that are missing from official historical accounts. By articulating a sense of fascination they make you aware of the need to start thinking and looking. 'This is interesting', they seem to say, 'it deserves more attention.'
First published in Issue 70