Michaela Melián couldn’t remain anonymous in Munich if she tried. Not only did she win the 2010 competition for the Munich memorial to victims of National Socialism, but the project, Memory Loops, also received the Grimme Online Award for its convincing, decentralized, time-based, partly-online realization that year. And yet, ‘Electric Ladyland’ – the name of both the retrospective exhibition and her new, large-scale installation – is her first institutional exhibition in the city.
Melián has two creative legs to stand on: a classically-trained cellist and member of the band F.S.K., she is also a fine artist. These dual roles have been entangled in her work for a while now. And yet her sound pieces, which accompany most of the installations in the form of radio programs, function autonomously. Bayerische Rundfunk has aired the pieces for years, and you can listen to them on demand from the station’s pool of recordings. Her multimedia installations are accordingly multifarious. Currently on view in the exhibition, aside from the work Electric Ladyland, are previous installations: Convention (1999), Föhrenwald (2005), Speicher (2008), and In a Mist (2014–15).
Melián’s artistic process is based on extensive research of historic, site-specific data, including audio recordings and archival images. A particularly impressive work focuses on the Bavarian displaced persons camp Föhrenwald, which had been majorly repressed within the German historic consciousness. Föhrenwald was initially conceived as a model Nazi settlement for the workers of a munitions factory and their families. In 1945, it became a labour camp. Shortly thereafter, and until 1956, it turned into a ghetto for survivors of the Shoah, who were preparing for their emigration to Israel or the US. In the work, Föhrenwald, narrators, including children, read a script comprising personal diary entries and official documents. A glimpse into the camp from multiple perspectives forms in front of the listener: everyday life in work and school. A slide projection runs simultaneously, displaying simple line drawings which suggest a map of the site. It’s deeply moving when the children literally speak out, sound for sound, this complex and disturbing content. There are many parts to ‘Electric Ladyland’, named after Jimi Hendrix’s 1968 album. Mobile stools and a revolving silver stage invite the viewer to take a seat and listen. Their design can be traced back to the early sonic sculpture Convention (1999) – also reinstalled in the Kunstbau – in a club in Hamburg, whose name in turn relates to a famous gay and lesbian bar from New York in the 70s, which is typical for Melián’s variety of pop and its system of codes and references.
In Melián’s work, design is loaded with meaning, and not subordinated to ‘art’ in any conventional hierarchy. Cuts in spaces or clothing, and concepts of fashion, furniture and object, or the traditions of colour, but also forward-looking sociopolitical concepts, can be transported structurally, materially and symbolically. Formally recalling the 1960s, chairs upholstered with grey fabric are suspended from the ceiling. Invisible speakers are built into the elegant seat: the sculpture is used as a housing for musical pieces. While the visitor hears a selection of compositions from Melián’s work, they look at two 70-meter-long black and white drawings that stretch along the Kunstbau’s longest wall. At least that’s the first impression. It’s actually a textile wall covering, printed with the initially hand-drawn contours of cyborgs, avatars, androids, robots and other synthetic, larger-than-life female figurines. The image research for these Eve-like automatons stretches back to the early modern period – and fantasies about machine people are at least as old.
Images of glass beakers and microscopes appear on the Kunstbau wall. In the context of imagery related to human reproduction, these suggest that procreation here isn’t considered in biological terms, but rather alchemistic or chemical, which therefore presents an alternative to the two-sex model. By crossing these ‘Eve’ figures from archaic prints, as well as graphics sourced from films, Melián intends neither to offer up historic meticulousness nor a technological teleology. For Melián, the question of reproduction is interlaced with questions of utopian or potential futures. In a booklet for the exhibition which references Donna Haraway, this principle of futurity is declared to be the leitmotiv of the exhibition, but it’s also the basis for Melián’s pop-cultural approach of appropriation and re-combination in general. ‘Any objects or persons can be reasonably thought of in terms of disassembly and reassembly; no “natural” architectures constrain system design’, Haraway wrote in her 1985 Cyborg Manifesto. This assertion reflects new everyday technologies in the process of displacing human subjectivities. One could view Melián’s exhibition in terms of certain theoretical arguments by film scholar Thomas Elsässer, who has argued that such technologies of everyday life began in the military-industrial complex of the nineteenth century, but need to be updated into today’s military-industrial-entertainment complex.
Melián sees this at work in Jacques Offenbach’s operetta, Hoffmanns Erzählungen (1881), the musical motifs of which she uses as the basis for the compositions in Electric Ladyland. Based on their location in the room, listeners will hear different bars of Melián’s score. In Offenbach’s operetta, the puppet Olimpia (from E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann, 1816) makes a stage appearance. The automaton Olimpia, in the story and the operetta, serves as a symbol for any technology that conflates the mechanical and the living. The fact that Olimpia can only utter ‘oh! oh!’ and dances stiffly and mechanically – adhering to traditional ideals of femininity – emblematizes the desires of that era.
The exhibition demonstrates a precise indifference – if we don’t understand ‘indifference’ as disinterest or being on the fence, but rather literally, as being equally valid.
For Melián, taking sides with socially and culturally marginalized groups doesn’t emerge from sloganeering, but rather by employing an aesthetic method in which the artist extols, samples, compiles, combines and composes her data in visual, textual and musical ways. This all sounds like the intellectual labour of observation – which it can be. But in this excellent exhibition, knowledge is gained in the form of sensory pleasure.
Translated by Michael Ladner
First published in Issue 24