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Michael Müller: Closing and opening doors

INTERVIEW! Last year, his art was exhibited all over town. Now hotshot artist Michael Müller's first institutional solo exhibition is the talk of the Berlin art scene. Catch the UdK professor's "Wer Spricht" at KW before it closes January 24.

Image for Michael Müller: Closing and opening doors
Photo by Viktor Richardsson

Michael Müller, one of the most-exhibited artists in Berlin last year, speaks about his hotly anticipated institutional solo debut at KW.

Over two floors, the recently appointed UdK professor’s exhibition Wer spricht? spans 25 years of work and countless media, from photography to drawings, sculpture to video, with references to art history and the Greek gods Hermes and Hermaphroditus. The philosophical merges with the personal, inviting the viewer to contemplate Müller’s larger metaphysical search for the self.

This exhibition heavily references gender and sexuality – as in the recent drawing “Shame”, a nude self-portrait with female genitalia. Is this a new direction in your work?

I’ve been asked about gender theory, and this show is really not about that. With “Shame”, I’m wondering if you can use a portrait in a way that it hasn’t been used before, as abstract information. From the 1990s through 2008 my work was totally abstract – it was all about structures and information, and there were almost no images. The human body didn’t exist in it for over 25 years. Now, selfies have us playing with the idea of having different selves. Twenty years ago there was still the notion that a self-portrait tells the truth, but since it’s no longer connected to truth or lies, I felt I could work with it.

How does it feel to show such a provocative piece?

When I included “Shame” in the show, it was the first time in my life when I wondered what my parents would think! Although for me, it’s connected to Gustave Courbet’s “The Origin of the World”, and is not at all sexual or pornographic.

Wer spricht? comprises drawings, paintings, sculptures, videos, photographs, sound, installations… How do you go about choosing a medium?

For me, medium is never decided in advance. For example, I didn’t know “A Day’s Work” would be made of clay, but eventually that felt very natural. I thought it was very interesting that ceramic has certain information about its structure within it. If you want to make a bowl, there is a sort of fight between the original information and the new information you’re bringing to it. It’s such a different way of working than, for example, when you have a clean white canvas, which just says, “I’m here, make an image!”

The impressions of the hand in “A Day’s Work” are mirrored in the nearby video “Do it Yourself ”. Were the two pieces made in tandem?

This video exists because of the exhibition. I wanted to bring in this idea of producing a form and producing yourself, and I didn’t have the right piece for that. So I stayed up the whole night thinking, and “Do it Yourself ” is the result. Personally, it’s one of my favourite works in the show.

What experience do you think most influenced you as an artist?

I left art school, travelled to Asia, and stayed there for over 10 years. My grandmother was from India, but there had been no Indian culture in my family growing up, so after getting into Indian music at around 16, it became clear I would have to go for myself. I later lived in Ladakh, Tibet, in a monastery and then with farmers. It was perfect – I could get really involved in my work and have no distractions.

Did that help your practice, being disconnected from the rest of the contemporary art world?

Art is a language, and to use it, you need to know how the words are used and how it changes. On the other hand, there is a need also to not know it; to work freely and not be too influenced by it. Sometimes you close the door, and sometimes you open it up very wide. That’s how I work.

What constitutes ‘good art’?

I don’t trust the concept of “liking” art, because when I say I like something, what do I really mean? I might like dry wine, and someone next to me likes a sweeter wine, and I think most of us don’t actually know why. Even though people normally say it’s complicated, it’s actually very easy to judge what good art is, because it only counts to you. For me, good art is art I want to spend time with and think about. It engages that moment when things in my head start to grow and play. But for the next person it could be very different, and I don’t think that we even need to have something like that in common.

WER SPRICHT? Through Jan 24 | KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Auguststr. 69, Mitte, U-Bhf Oranienburger Tor, Wed-Mon 12-19, Thu 12-21