Traces of Truth
The dead are not real, neither are the living.
The collective memory, introduced in the early 20th century by the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs as a derivative of the collective consciousness described by Émile Durkheim was closely linked with photography from the very beginning. The medium is essential as a bearer of information about things, places and situations, always taking on meaningful functions. For example, the majority of early childhood memories can’t be traced back to actual memory, but to the fact that one has seen oneself in family photos. Souvenirs or objects related to specific narratives complement these formations with the logic of circumstantial evidence.
This is where the work of Jana Müller begins. During her studies, she had already begun to systematically create picture archives for different categories of things. Houses and factories that were left abandoned and cannibalised for an uncertain future were just as much part of this as the empty wall unit of her own parents' home. At some point, things also found their way out of the pictures and into the studio. This was the beginning of a process of increasing separation of the image from reality, the images developed more and more of their own life. In Traces of Truth, they are presented in parallel or together with objects in the cramped environment of aquarium-like cubes or between glass panes like samples under a microscope, thus assuming the character of circumstantial pieces of evidence that initiate a play in the viewer's mind. Akin to the substantial shift in recent research on material culture - for example in the fields of ethnology, archaeology or sociology - objects appear in this constellation as independent actors. Things are no longer seen only as passive objects, but also as producers of knowledge and memories, meanings and values. Given her sense of the effect of objects and images, the artist's more recent focus on crime and its substantiation through evidence is logical. But what does it mean when actual criminal exhibits or police training material appear in an art exhibition? What happens when art sets out on the trail of crime?
There is always great public interest in real crime scenes and objects of evidence of any kind. In the exhibition Traces of Truth Jana Müller follows this curiosity in pictures, collages and installations. However, contrary to the title of the exhibition, neither her new film traces (28 min, 2019) nor the central installation A-Z | There is nothing that does not exist (2015/2019) uncovers any truth whatsoever. Rather, the artist takes up the fascination for scientific police work, as reflected in so many forms of media, and further develops it for her own purposes. Since 2015, she has documented countless pieces of evidence and their preservation in evidence rooms of state prosecutors - often trivial places such as garages and empty shops. As banal as the individual objects often appear, a layer of evil yet remains. Just like the podcasts, television series and true crime novels, Jana Müller's phenomenology of proof harks back to pre-Enlightenment emotions. But unlike these popular genres, her production denies the viewer the narration, explanation or clarification of crime. Individual objects are consistently isolated, their asocial, marginal character underlined, while others are brought into new contexts in stage-like scenes. Every picture and every installation becomes the germ of sublime ideas that offer eschatological dimensions. To avoid misunderstanding: the results are fictions that are in no way comparable with fakes. The difference is that, at best, fictions can show what the fake wants to disguise.
A central element in Müller's storytelling strategy is the glass plates on which the artist arranges findings on the floor and on tables. If they first remind one of microscope slides or showcases from a natural history exhibition hall, they turn out to be by no means so objective or neutral. On the plates are monochrome prints, shadowy transparent images of individual pieces of evidence. Like afterimages or faded memories, they exist in a seemingly gaseous chiaroscuro, floating above and beyond their real counterparts. In this way these objects are given an aura. Presented like this, the actual objects and our sense of them are inseparably blended. This leads us to conjectures and theories that don’t require or allow a distinction of their context or origin.
The artist takes a similar path in video. The source material is a police training film from the 1950s. The architecture of this current film image is again a double, because it shows, in strict symmetry, the historical film document as it is played on the archive film player, as a projection on the wall. In this arrangement, the source material acts as a small image in the centre, offering the only movement in the film, like a mixture of altarpiece and puppet theatre. The sound is assigned to the actual exhibition space and transforms it into an acoustic and visual unit of irritating intensity. The relationship between image and object tilts once again in three parallel-projected sequences from the same film. In one, as if under a magnifying glass, hands tirelessly attempt to put together pieces of glass, which not by accident, belong to a mirror. Projected onto a stack of glass panes leaning against a wall, which formerly conveyed the objects from Easy Crime (2010, new version 2019), only the images from the film now exist between the panes.
Regardless of the particular physical conditions, a suggestive meta-narrative prevails throughout the exhibition, derived from the fact that all the objects originate from the realm of the amoral and captivate as evidence of boundary crossing. These objects seem to allow a direct view of evil, of obscure power apparatuses and of secondary and parallel worlds. Certainly, one may feel caught in one's own voyeuristic pleasure when observing the show, but essentially curiosity and sensationalism are highly prevalent as two of the most important basic impulses of civilisational development. However, they also mislead us into anecdotal detail, overlooking an important subtext in Traces of Truth. Jana Müller takes up a strand of research that the Dresden public prosecutor Erich Wulffen began in the last century in his essays on criminal psychology (Psychology of the Criminal, Berlin 1908/1913). For the first time he introduced scientific claims of psychological insight into criminology. Interestingly, Wulffen constructed a connection between creative power and criminal intent and remarkably, suggested that the instinctual egocentricity of artists resembled that of psychopaths and criminals. However only the former have an objective and practical possibility of sublimation through their artistic production. For Müller, the key questions here are the extent to which criminal and artistic transgressions are currently comparable - and in which way the consciousness or conscience of observers is triggered by the direct confrontation of images and objects, when these are no longer embedded in their original narratives.
A–Z | There is nothing which is not to be found there
Das Material der klugen Köpfe
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