Alena Williams, Alena Williams: Glass (on the work of WM) (2005)

At one time glamour, performance, staging was an apparent misreading of modernism. Critics like Michael Fried have written that minimalist sculpture’s greatest failure was its direct engagement with the viewer, its foregrounding of phenomenological concerns, its awareness of context. Somehow this is an unwitting, critical point of departure for the work of Wolfgang Mayer, which is above all a performative project that finds expression in words, line and form.

In 1999, Mayer built three objects covered in a fabric of mirrors: a tall rectangle on its side, a shorter cube, and a small box. A number of aesthetic transgressions took place with their use. As stipulated by Mayer, they could only be displayed when they served as stage elements for the performances of three drag queens-Sherry Vine, Joey Arias and Raven O. The surrounding space would be infused with a fragrance, intermittently emitted from the small box. Furthermore, any conceit of aesthetic autonomy these objects might have claimed as ÒdetachedÓ works of art was also negated through his adaption of the mirrored ball material to their surfaces. Much like Robert Morris’s cubes, their ability to reflect and refract the world around them, at once denied the existence of the object and rendered the viewer’s relationship with the object radically plain. Scripting the reception of these objects in this manifold way, Mayer invalidated their simplistic designation as ÒsculpturesÓ before they could even be co-opted into any sort of institutionalized structure. Clearly, it was a gesture only possible much after the demise of modernism, and long after the last days of disco.

Mirroring thusly emerges as one of the most significant forms of material and intellectual intervention in Mayer’s work. In solo performances and collaborative projects carried out with women’s vanity objects, make-up cases, and moveable, mirrored screens as staging devices, the actual ÒphysicsÓ of reflection not only explores the identity of the work of art, but also of the artist himself. By donning a range of elegant costumes, applying make-up in wild configurations, and repeatedly confronting his mirror image, Mayer appears to pose the question, ÒWhat is a reflection but an imagination of the self?Ó At times, the answer is almost immediately thrown back at the viewer. His black and white video `Mirror Ball II,‘ for example, depicts a large disco ball’s disintegration as it careens to the floor before the camera. Played back in slow motion, the ball expands into shattered pieces, and any semblance of escapist illusion or fantasy that the object may have once offered is destroyed along with it. Again the significance of the work arrives in the form of a question: ÒIf the rational mind seeks to frame the world and its contents into what Heidegger would describe as a ‚world picture‘-might it be better to simply obliterate the existing conditions and start again, rather than accommodating oneself to them?

An alternate world of glass is depicted in the artist’s elegant series of black and white photographs of chandeliers. Shot on standard 35mm film, the negatives are slide mounted and projected as a sequence of images on a wall in a darkened room. Rather than simply reflecting light, the materiality of their transparent surfaces takes on all new properties in Mayer’s reversal of tones from black to white. As their fragile form dissolves into the projected image, the particles of silver of which they are constituted increase in significance, and almost impossibly, the infinitesimally small looms large like a specter over the image.

This kind of particularization can also be seen in Mayer’s ongoing series of drawings. Reproductions of printed pages from texts by Woolf, Camus, Barthes, and Machevelli, among others, are drenched in watercolor, dismembered into smaller syntactical units, and then reorganized on to the pages of a drawing blatter. The pieces of paper coalesce around one another while suspended in a translucent paste. Mayer’s drawings not only represent an aggregate encapsulation of literary fragments, but they also seek to transcribe thoughts, dreams, poetry-deliver thoughts into-form. Dissection, disruption, and dispersion give way to spiraled rationality, and localize within circular centers. It is a process of textual occlusion and appearance that is rehearsed and performed again and again. (This strategy of repetition and circularity can also be seen in Mayer’s work `Je t’aime (BB-SG-JB),‘ in which two recorded tracks of the classic song are played simultaneously over and on top of one another.)

To be sure, his choice of texts is not arbitrary. Even in these seemingly unlikely forays, Mayer engages in a performance of self, by exploring the limits of another through their words. In one series of drawings, for example, he worked from Hilter’s ‚Mein Kampf‘-a text that represents one of the ultimate forms of self-actualization. If politics is a kind of aesthetics because-as Jacques Rancire suggests-it is a Òconfiguration of a specific world, a specific form of experience,Ó it becomes clear in this work what the assertion of self might indeed mean in relation to the world. The artist began the work as a means of coming to terms with historical facts. However, in his processing of material fragments, reflection ultimately transforms into action.

Mayer’s recent series of floral drawings, which take their cue from the early Western representations of botanical phenomena, diverge from the printed word. Here, the practice of collage takes precedence over what might be literally read in the image. Blocks of neatly handwritten texts sit alongside glitter that scatters as if by a whirlwind over watercolored flora in deep reds, oranges, pinks, and yellows. Coherence emerges from dissimilarity, and generates a kind of wild, brute materiality.

This activity marks yet another productive direction in Mayer’s work: a new kind of organicism that refracts the world by making use of its material base.

2005 published in Wolfgang Mayer „Work And Collaborations 97-05“

See Jacques Rancière, “The Thinking of Dissensus: Politics and Aesthetics” (2003). Paper presented at the conference ‘Fidelity to the Disagreement: Jacques Rancière and the Political’, organised by the Post-Structuralism and Radical Politics and Marxism specialist groups of the Political Studies Association of the UK in Goldsmiths College, London, 16-17 September 2003.