It is not easy to interpret Michael Müller’s work or to even characterise it. As the Berlin-based artist says, often when people walk into one of his solo shows, they believe what they’re seeing is a group show. “It confuses many people to see drawings alongside sculptures and ceramics,” he says, “I suppose it’s because I don’t have a ‘signature style’, but that’s not something I’m interested in anyway.”
For Müller, the idea for a piece of art may simmer for a long time, before he finally gives it a form. “The material that I finally choose to work with for a particular piece actually says a great deal about the art itself. That is why my body of work looks so diverse,” he says.
The heterogeneity of material is probably the most striking thing about Müller’s second solo in India, which is currently on view at Jhaveri Contemporary in Mumbai. The exhibition is rather pointedly titled “For All Those Who Trust in Form and Not in Content” and features materials ranging from pencil and paper and oil paints to porcelain, plexiglass and even an oyster shell and a small metal ball. The 46-year-old artist’s concern is not so much that people should “like” the work, but that they should question the context within which their likes and dislikes arise.
This concern arises out of his lifelong engagement with the idea of codes and how they translate across cultures. “For example, the colour of mourning in the west is black, whereas here in India it is white. The two colours then work as codes for the same thing, but in two completely different cultures,” he explains. His practice, Müller says, emerges out of this tension that exists between form and content. “Any time we communicate, whether it’s through art or books or speech, there is an act of translation involved. When I’m saying something to you, and while you take in that information, you add your own context and make it your own story.”
This idea is perhaps most beautifully expressed in the two gold leaf on cardboard works — False and Real and For All Those Who Trust in Form and Not in Content (Bombay). In each of these, Müller has obscured the original image of the jigsaw puzzle by covering it with gold leaf, drawing attention to the gap that exists between the actual image and the image that the viewer sees. The artist also uses this approach to quzestion the nature of authorship itself, much like Marcel Duchamp did at the beginning of the 20th century with his concept of the “readymades”.
In fact, Müller pays homage to Duchamp through some works; for instance, the lamellar wood and coloured plexiglass Accessoire references Duchamp’s later career as a chess player, and the oyster and metal ball ‘Ready-made’ has a metal ball in place of the original pearl, reflecting Müller’s authorial intervention. But the strongest statement for the idea that ‘authorship’ is not a concept set in stone is made by the two works in the Do It! (Setting up History) pieces, which requires the colour of the canvas to match the colour of the wall on which the piece is displayed.
Müller says, “You have the choice of finding the exact shade of the wall with which to paint the canvas, or you could just buy a new shade and paint both the wall and the canvas with it. That’s up to you. But then, will this mean that the ‘creator’ of the work changes each time it is exhibited in a new place? And who would you say is the real ‘creator’ anyway?” The exhibition is on at Jhaveri Contemporary till January 28