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If you do everything right, you’re doing it all wrong

Measuring, weighing and other instructions for use in Mia Unverzagt’s art

In an exhibit of Mia Unverzagt’s work, everything should always be well organized. While viewing the artist’s show with her at the Künstlerhaus Göttingen, my presumably well-trained curatorial eye could find fault with almost nothing – except in the back room, on the left side of the right wall. “That picture is crooked,” I said, speaking clearly and succinctly, but Mia wasn’t at my side and didn’t hear me. Actually, I did not really intend to recommend that this error be corrected, and besides, Mia might have realized right away that I had consciously chosen to formulate my criticism so that it would be recognizable as a quote. I was in fact quoting the comedian Loriot, who emphatically remarks, in one of his most brilliant skits, that a particular “picture is crooked” – after he has, in trying to straighten that very picture, wreaked utter havoc in a room where he is waiting for an appointment. His well-meaning attempt to properly align a painting that is hanging on the wall sets into motion a calamitous chain reaction. I didn’t want to risk that sort of thing, and so I decided not to touch the not-quite-straight picture at all. Better to have everything else be in order and let one photo remain a wee bit crooked. I do not think it is a coincidence that Mia Unverzagt’s exhibit immediately brought to my mind Loriot, the best-known post-WWII German comedian. After all, he succeeded like no other in skewering the stiffness and the exaggerated sense of propriety and order that we Germans sometimes display. Historically, Loriot’s humor also stands precisely for the period of time in which Mia Unverzagt’s work is situated. It was a time when the venerable values of propriety and order were still widely operative and being upheld by much of the post-war generation, but at the same time the generation of 1968 was radically questioning those same values. For her part, Unverzagt has compiled numerous textbooks containing diagrams and instructions about how to do things in an orderly and proper fashion; these artifacts also stand for the “good old days.” She makes neat comparisons between order and disorder. For example, one diagram shows us how to correctly organize different utensils in a toolbox. When Mia Unverzagt translates this type of image into embroidery, it feels like a school punishment, intended to drive home to us the importance of sorting things in an orderly way. Embroidery, knitting and crocheting have long been considered typically feminine activities. In the 1980s, Rosemarie Trockel introduced the feminine activity of knitting into “high art.” She did this as an offensive tactic – and as a way of ironically confronting the (still) male-dominated art world’s failure to take women seriously. At the same time, irony is being deployed here to pull “high art” down onto the ground of mundane facts. For example, in one sculpture made of metal, Unverzagt has represented the act of taking a person’s body temperature. The sculpture suggests a similarity between post-war textbook images and that same era’s forms of abstract art. For one of her embroidery pieces, Mia Unverzagt, with her keen sense of the abyss of absurdity underlying all that is thorough and orderly, has selected a motif that becomes entirely surreal in that particular medium – a diagram of all the missteps that can occur when someone is taking photographs. However, if we understand what the diagram is trying to teach us, and if we then look at the large photographs in this exhibit, those images seem to intentionally display almost all of the mistakes that a proper photographer is supposed to avoid. The motifs are blurry, the field of view poorly selected, parts of figures cut off – and above all, it is entirely unclear, without further explanation, what the blue-smocked people depicted in the photos are even doing. “MESSEN – WIEGEN – ORDNEN” (“MEASURING – WEIGHING – ORGANIZING”) shows us a room where there are, in addition to heaps of garments, fabrics and objects, also a large number of articles and instruments that can be used for measuring and weighing. In this series of photographs, participants have chosen something to wear from a selection of housedresses dating from the 1940s to the 1970s. The artist then asks them to measure, weigh and arrange the objects in the room, which has been set up in advance. However, aside from the basic conditions set forth by the artist, no instructions are given as to just what is to be done. And then Unverzagt spends several hours observing her collaborators with an analogue single-lens reflex camera. But what is a “photo performance”? Generally we understand a performance to be an artistic undertaking that occurs in front of an audience and that may be documented for posterity in photos or on film, like many of Joseph Beuys’ pieces, which we would otherwise be familiar with only from hearsay. But there are also performances that take place without an audience, in which only the artists themselves, and the individuals who are directly involved, experience the event itself, and where the filmed documentation itself is the work of art. This is true, for example, for many self-presentations that Bruce Nauman or Vito Acconci performed alone in their studios and recorded on video around 1970. In Mia Unverzagt’s photo performances, there is sometimes an audience; for example, on one occasion she has men in flowered aprons that date from the former German Democratic Republic take part in guided tours of museums and exhibit spaces in the city of Bremen, and she photographs those activities. But for these projects, on which Mia Unverzagt’s contribution to the special exhibition of the 2014 Bremer Kunstfrühling (Bremen Art Spring) was based, the audience was not notified in advance. These activities also provided her with the material she then used in order to create the photographic exhibition. Something similar is going on in this exhibition. The fact that “documentation” of the action actually seems to have failed in photographic terms is, of course, intentional. After all, the fact that we don’t actually receive any “useful” information about just what the individuals are doing has to do with the fact that the photos do not provide the “correct” framework. A photograph does not automatically depict the world; instead, what it shows depends on the selection of the “correct” standpoint, the correct depth of focus and the correct field of view. Otherwise, the picture is literally “outside of the frame” in both formal and social terms. In her art, Mia Unverzagt repeatedly scrutinizes the ways in which our lives and the society in which we live are shaped by social rules and constructs. This has also been the subject of a great deal of academic work. For example, American sociologists like Erving Goffman and Richard Sennett have investigated how “frames” or scripts shape and govern our social behavior. The “scripts” that organize the film of life are no longer the same ones as in the 1960s. The teachings from that time seem antiquated and ridiculous to us now. But with her presentation, Mia Unverzagt implicitly asks us whether the instructions that govern our lives today are not perhaps equally clichéd and inflexible, and whether we are, perhaps, simply not aware of it. The rules to which we have to conform are, in any case, no more lax than they used to be. Therefore, the question of what we experience as order or disorder is always, in part, a question of one’s standpoint. And perhaps it’s not the picture that is crooked – perhaps it’s the viewers themselves, those who want to straighten it, who are way off track.

Ludwig Seyfarth