“A Close Distance”: Tris Vonna-Michell

Jul 16, 2014 3:43 pm

Family histories can be hazy and elusive. Tris Vonna-Michell mines this territory in his slide-and-audio work Postscript III (Berlin), 2014, part of a project ongoing for several years. The latest iteration of the installation, on view at New York’s Metro Pictures gallery (through July 25), involves a dual slide projection accompanied by a recording of a rapidly delivered monologue by the artist, detailing, among other things, extended, long-distance phone conversations with family members. In these exchanges, Vonna-Michell tried to reconstruct a family history that has played out, in part, in the German capital; the monologue also describes his travels there. The slides at times seem to have little to do with the narrative; Vonna-Michell says on the audio that the images are strictly for him. As part of the piece, he recounts searching for a long-gone railway station and laments the inadequacy of his own efforts.

Postscript freely mixes truth and fiction, but the gallery confirms that Vonna-Michell’s mother is German, his father a Detroit native. The two settled in the UK, where the artist grew up, and where his parents still live. He attended the Städelschule in Frankfurt, and lived in Berlin for a time. The current work deals partly with narratives also treated in his earlier sound installation work hahn/huhn (2003-12), which touches on Berlin’s post-1989 history.

A 2014 Turner Prize nominee, Vonna-Michell has had solos at numerous major venues: Jeu de Paume, Paris; BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, UK; Kunsthalle Zürich; Witte de With, Rotterdam. His work has appeared in group shows at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Centre Pompidou, Paris; the ICA, London; and the Guggenheim Museum, New York, among other institutions.

The generally media-shy artist corresponded with A.i.A. via e-mail this week about his goals for Postscript and his ongoing attempts to reconstruct a family narrative while keeping a “close distance” from that history.

BRIAN BOUCHER Your rapid-fire delivery, which keeps listeners very much on their toes, seems to ensure that some of the facts and stories you recount will be remembered only vaguely. Is that your aim, or are you after something else with the speed of your speech?

TRIS VONNA-MICHELL This work is a reflective monologue in which I perform at a slower pace than before, in a sound studio setting, with no live audience, no egg-timer context or recursive storyline. There is only one Postscript monologue, not multiple iterations (as in all my other live performance recordings). The piece is more about reconciling and leaving the past hahn/huhn narratives, dissolving certain works and motifs, memory failing, works running their course, works enveloping each other and, fundamentally, images continuously impeding and reinventing speech and memory.

BOUCHER Why slide projectors instead of more advanced technology? A skeptic might say that they have only nostalgic value at this point. Does that choice relate to the histories you’re investigating? Or does this technology actually have technical or artistic advantages?

VONNA-MICHELL I still photograph using transparency and negative film, too. For me, to use slide projectors isn’t about a nostalgic inclination or commodification of images. I often edit the slide sequences during an install and this is an important aspect that slide projectors offer—immediacy and interchangeability. This has always been an essential part of my practice, enabling me to shift narratives at will.

BOUCHER Obviously the project is mainly concerned with who remembers what, but have you resorted to any more methodical, archival searches for information about family history? Have they augmented the project?

VONNA-MICHELL No, I have not resorted to a more methodical mode of working for Postscript or the hahn/huhn work either. I prefer maintaining a close distance.

BOUCHER Do you feel like you have a better understanding of your family history than you did when you started this project? If so, how? If not, why do you suppose that is?

VONNA-MICHELL With this work I never set out to gain a closer understanding of my family history. The narrative was constructed as a reflection on a pre-existent work (hahn/huhn) and on methods of performing, recalling, forgetting. The work started as an attempt to access and depict a search. I used my parents’ fragmentary recollections of Berlin as a backdrop, not to gain a proximity to any set of truths.