Rolf Hengesbach

Things Are Not Quite What They Seem

The complexity of Christopher Muller’s assemblages of everyday things can easily be overlooked. However, they can also "strike" the viewer: the objects stand in view, life-sized and unembellished; they leap out at the viewer, not aggressively but in cool restraint. Even for those unfamiliar with the etymology of the word "thing", it becomes clear, that in the context of Muller’s works, a "thing" does not merely mean something which exists. The Old High German meaning of "thing" in the sense of a legal act, legal case, as well as its middle High German meaning - hope, faith, mood or atmosphere are embraced in his works. Things open up opportunities for action, but they also commit us, tie us down, and are thus an expression of our notions of shaping and organising our environment. In the German language, depending on how we cope with the world of things, we can be "Guter oder schlechter Dinge", in good or poor spirits. Our interaction with things is an elemental elixir of life.
In their sensorial presence, Muller’s everyday objects are not reduced to their functional use. We do not remain indifferent towards them; they call forth a multitude of value judgements. In everyday-language, we speak of stupid, dreadful, interesting, peculiar, enchanting, mundane, ridiculous, fascinating, agreeable things, etc. Rational judgements merge with our emotional disposition. How many abhorrent, repulsive, unacceptable things are there, and how casually do we accept this condition?
Muller’s assemblages of things do not depict specific everyday situations or everyday stories. Nevertheless, they are by no means haphazard. In his compositions, disparities and interactions between social types are revealed: who uses whom, who supports whom, who needs whom, who ignores whom, who is absorbed in whom, who imitates whom, who likes whom etc.
Things - like people - have different presences in the world. Some are loud, others reserved, reticent, unassuming; but as is always the case in human relations, these roles are not always free of ambiguity. Some only assert themselves within a certain context, yet are unable to in another. Things have different degrees of fame, there are also the film stars and divas among them as well (e.g. the can of Coke). Deprive them of their natural context, and they too can fall back into obscurity. For this reason, a driving factor for Muller is the blurring of certainties. The objects not only have their functional tasks - aesthetic, affective and symbolic aspects are also associated with them. Owing to similar external features such as colour, shape, material or size, links are made between things unrelated in functional terms. Analogously, groupings or contrasts can be created in terms of emotional relationships. The affective roles arise from the emotional place certain everyday things occupy for users within the spectrum of pleasure and displeasure. Muller uses these compositionally in order to create the unlikeliest of alliances.
Above and beyond this, things have their specific areas and moments of use. Some are associated with speed, some with peace and duration, some with transience and decay, others with blossoming forth. Each thing has its particular life span. When we use them, we use some only for a short time, others over longer periods. Some we use just once, others very frequently; some only at a particular time of day, while others are seasonal. Things can be targeted at a certain age group. The cabbage, the toilet roll, the cuddly toy, the beer mat and the Christmas decoration occupy very different points in the co-ordinate system of these different temporalities. An extremely complex web of potential roles emerges from the mix.
Muller formulates these potential roles in all their complexity. His works thus articulate something rarely found in contemporary art; their central theme is the complexity of the social pluralism in contemporary life and the varying degrees to which we penetrate that complexity. The pluralism of things with their multitude of different potentials for order and chaos, the constant changes of form and function, the unexpected alliances arising and breaking apart in this realm of things, the ups and downs of our emotional moods in relation to things and our various banal opportunities for action establish the ground upon which Muller cheerfully displays our disorientation in this jungle.
There are notable differences in approach between his large and medium-sized works: The large works are concerned with position in the world, with sitting, standing, lying, with towering, hanging in suspension or being flung down. The rows of objects can be read as social gatherings, in which the individual objects are surrounded by various kinds of characters. None, however, dominates the other, so that all stand together on one level. These works can be read as group portraits. In these groups, the characters do not only differ in terms of temperament, but also in terms of gender. Masculine and feminine types are represented, in their midst there are also the transvestites and the sexless. There are the intellectual and the down-to-earth types, the decisive, the irresolute, the vain and the coy. The structural characters of the objects refer to our physical build and frame. Our bodies can only move from one place to another. The movements of our limbs obey the simple mechanical laws of kinetics. In this respect, the chaos of the world must be interpreted from the perspective of a puppet theatre in which the plurality of things and our plurality of actions obey the linear mechanics of the movements of simple sticks and strings, for we can only control our body thanks to a series of individual muscle-fibre actions.
In the medium-sized works, the relationship between the things is more dynamic, and less dominated by linear paradoxes. Here, it is the more common passions, the ups and downs of lives more moderate pleasures in its fluctuations and contradictions that come to the fore.
Mundane affairs are described in all their parallel and varied potentials for action. Muller exposes the overlaps with a humour that inevitably goes against the grain. People participate in different worlds, which obey distinct rules, constantly shifting back and forth between them. Their private worlds are different from their professional ones, the world of their friends is different from that of their children, and the workaday world is different from the holiday one. The world of the media is different from the literary fictional one, the world of memory differs from that of the present, while our hopes and expectations occupy yet another.
Here too, Muller orders the objects and their potential uses into rows, but on several different levels. In wave-like movements of hardness, lightness, severity, comedy, gesture, sobriety and submission, we are invited to dance through everyday space.
Besides creating contrasts, a further stylistic device used is that of formal variation: a comb and brush can be transformed into a toothbrush, then into a carpet comb and finally a broom. Run-of-the-mill destiny sometimes threatens to crash, gets confused, is given a shove and catches itself again. No sense of importance or dominant reference point can be gained from the ups and downs. In an extremely subtle manner, Muller emphasises the flatness of the objects on the one hand, and on the other, their volume. He then lets the perceptive movement bounce back and forth between these two aspects. In "Along the Bottom" there is a heavy black mug, which, owing to its blackness, appears as a hole in the picture plane. Frequently, flat objects such as towels or pieces of paper create an impression of volume. They are the Dervishes, ascetic yet bursting with joy. They hold the torero’s muleta out to us so that we blindly rush at them only to notice we have been outwitted once again.

Rolf Hengesbach
Translated by Simon Lèbe

Stefan Gronert
- Extract from - Reality Show - in "Seeing Things" Verlag für moderne Kunst, Nürnberg, 2002

Rolf Hengesbach
- Things Are Not Quite What They Seem - Nummer 3, Kunstverein Baselland, 1998

Christopher Muller
- The Measure of All Things - Edition Stemmle, 1998
Keep It Casual - Städtisches Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach, 1994

Bottersnikes and Gumbles IV, 1998
40 x 180 cm
C-print behind perspex

Home & Dry II, 1996
160 x 259 cm
C-print behind perspex

Along the Bottom, 1995
156 x 245 cm
C-print behind perspex