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                                                     Come together to...


“I do not seek. I find”: This declaration is surely one of the most pleasing statements that an artist has ever made. Regardless of which artist we happen to be quoting, this description of the starting point for artistic activity is more precise than many a long-winded interpretative explanation.


And what a lot of things we do find in the course of a day! In fact, if we interpret the statement above with care, we realize that we are still finding at night as well, for dreams too are part of the realm that we human beings both inhabit and – unintentionally yet attentively nonetheless – perceive.


If we take literally this notion of finding, if we assume that the artist does not actually wish to create but rather to see and gather up that which already exists and then to cast what has been found in a new light by presenting it as a work of art, then we can date the activity back to the early 1910’s. It was during that period that Georges Braque discovered, in an Avignon paint shop, a wallpaper pattern imitating the grain of wood and then stuck that wallpaper onto a canvas for his Cubist pictures. It was also the decade when Marcel Duchamp rotated a urinal by 90 degrees, set it on a pedestal and presented it to an exhibition jury. The “objet trouvé” made a triumphant appearance, and scientific machines fascinated the Dadaists. The surrealists were inspired by Lautreamont’s poetic image of a "chance meeting of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table,” as were the Pop artists by a broad range of consumer goods.


One object in particular has held special charm for artists – not to mention designers, architects, engineers and so forth. That object is the chair, which is clearly not just something to be sat upon. Simple though their ostensible function may be, chairs have been – and will continue to be – created in many thousands of variants, materials and forms. Even a table can become a chair if one sits upon it. And just to further complicate the task of defining the term, scholars claim that the German word for chair, “Stuhl,” actually contains the Germanic root word for the verb “stehen” – meaning “to stand.”


The chair as throne numbers among the insignia of rulers, judges, bishops; a cathedral is described as the “seat of God.” In other words, a chair can be a symbol of power or of status as well as a marker of taste; a chair tells us much about the mind of the one who owns and sits upon it.


While Mia Unverzagt was living in Havana, her curiosity was piqued by the old chairs that she encountered again and again – chairs that were not simply useful objects but also integral parts of their owners’ everyday lives. One chair sported odd indentations because its user wanted to lean an arm on a particular spot while playing guitar. One previously narrowish chair was made a lot more comfortable when its user attached a plastic seat to the chair back in order to broaden it. The functionality and, I would suggest, the assemblages of color and material that characterize the resulting pieces confound our notions of practicality and usefulness – although it may well have been the owner’s poverty that first prompted the makeshift solutions and novel combinations.


In any case, Mia Unverzagt struck up conversations with the chairs’ owners and heard the personal stories in which the chairs had played a role. Her admiration grew for the creativity of the combinations and the bold approaches that had been taken toward the chairs’ construction. The artist regards her work not as sociological field research or as a political statement about Havana’s impoverished inhabitants, but rather as a form of homage to imagination and creativity.


In fact, projects comparable to Unverzagt’s might include works by Pablo Picasso, who could see the handlebars of a bicycle or the horns of a steer and transform them into an assemblage, or Marcel Breuer’s idea for bending steel pipes to make chairs (the famous Thonet chair, which has no rear legs) – the inspiration came while he was riding a bicycle and looking at the curved handlebars.


Now, after a presentation in Cuba to which Unverzagt invited all the former owners of the chairs, the artist is exhibiting these Cuban chairs in European venues under the titles “Coming together to learn from an example,” “Coming together to talk about the concept,” “Coming together to understand the composition,” and “Coming together to discuss the context.” The very nature of the artist’s activity in carrying out this project, and the “white cube” context of the gallery with its clearly defined artistic genres, serve to profoundly alienate the chairs’ identities. Hence Unverzagt’s answer to the bewildered questions of the customs officer whose job involved itemizing the objects when they were brought to Europe: “They are materials I will be using to make art.” The artist had long since made the chairs into art in her head, but we can surely excuse her imprecision here, for the customs officer could not have understood that at the time. Perhaps it would have eventually made sense to him if he had had a chance to see – with some irritation, perhaps? – those same objects in an “artistic” context at a later date.


Recently, visitors to the furniture fair in Cologne or to avant-garde design shops have been encountering a new trend: assemblages of recycled objects that have been reworked and made into new objects, ones that are recognizably utilitarian only when viewed in the broadest of perspectives. At the same time, we note with amazement that a 1949 glass table by Carlo Molino has been auctioned off for 3 million euros at Christie’s, or that Marc Newson’s “Lockheed Lounge,” which a few years ago could be purchased for about 10,000 dollars, today costs a million (and can be seen in Madonna’s “Rain” video). Objects that we have in the past called furniture are being bought and sold as works of art; Mia Unverzagt, for her part, has transformed existing and hitherto functional chairs into works of a conceptual art of communication.


The form, materials and condition of each individual chair in these four exhibition rounds all tell us stories. We, the viewers, in addition to passing judgment on the how comfortable and useful the chairs might be, also make associations on the basis of those stories. In this work, Mia Unverzagt has unobtrusively succeeded in representing transience and usefulness. She has no need for sociological or pedagogical proclamations here, for the objects speak with humor and imagination of lived lives, and in doing so they draw on a reservoir of abundance that we are rarely privileged to sense so directly and so clearly.


The chairs are transformed, as are our own perceptions of art and life, present and past, usefulness and artistic activity.


Wulf Herzogenrath