Almanac of Contemporary Aesthetics
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STIMULUS VORTEX

With references that can be traced across diverse cultural contexts, from Disney to advertising to techno, the work of Berlin-based artist Michel Majerus was a monument to millennium aesthetics. His über-influential “painting in the expanded field” was post Internet in its essence—describing a world of visual overload, mass surveillance, and exponentially accelerating commodification.

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WORDS BY SARAH JOHANNA THEURER

One of Michel Majerus most well known paintings, Split (2002), features the logo of German ice cream brand Langnese. The painting, like much of Majerus’ work, introduces fissures into the surface of our sticky, visually oversaturated consumer culture, letting our imagination run amok. Today, the work is part of the Boros Collection in Berlin, whose owner famously earned part of their wealth with mainstream advertising campaigns that evidently influenced Majerus’ work. Born in 1967 in Luxembourg, Majerus died tragically in a plane crash in 2002, while travelling from Berlin to Luxembourg. This means that he had less than a decade to develop his body of work, which today is key decode today’s image ecology. In 1996, aged just 29, Majerus’ was offered a prestigious survey at Kunsthalle Basel, and in 1999, he participated in the 48th Venice Biennale curated by Harald Szeemann, where the artist covered the facade of the main pavilion with a mural using digital prints, wall paint, and polystyrene mirrors that reflected the buildings surroundings. As Jennifer Allen wrote in her Artforum review, Majerus “[transformed] the Arsenale into the space behind a painting”. Majerus was clearly thinking big scale, both in a spatial and temporal sense. He wrote “Fürs 21. Jahrhundert” (For the 21st Century) over his portrait of the renowned German techno DJ Sven Väth. Like his subjects, Majerus is now a canonical figure of the ’90s. He painted with a computer and projectors and turned his paintings into elements of visual environments that reflect the experience of a post-Internet world.

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Curator Daniel Birnbaum, now the director of the augmented reality art production company Acute Art, referred to Majerus’ work as “painting in the expanded field” as he often installed pieces not only on the walls, but also on galleries floors. His large paintings take inspiration from billboards, mixing acrylic on canvas, lacquer on aluminum, and digital print on synthetic fabric. Mirrors turn the floor of the gallery into a surface, reflecting both works and visitors moving through space. The estate representing his work, based in the artist’s former studio in Berlin, says that he used to tinker with the scenography of his exhibitions. Specifically designed wall structures, scaffolding, and rigs were an integral part of his environments and these architectural arrangements turned the installations into moving images. In addition, Majerus’ multi layered paintings altered perception, projecting an accelerated Euclidean space in motion. Taking joy in confusing spatial coordinates within the painting plane is an attitude which can be found in the Russian avant-garde, De Stijl, and the all-too-often-referenced Pop superimpositions alike. The work of Michel Majerus moves along these lines at high velocity. His works seem animated, harnessing the visual logic of computer games. In the mid-nineties, the computer had become the ubiquitous visual machinery, suggesting multi-dimensional spaces that couldn’t be reproduced in our everyday perceptual space yet. During the German national elections in September 2002, Majerus covered the iconic Brandenburg Gate, then under renovation, with an enormous digital rendering of the so-called Schöneberg Sozialpalast, a graffiti-covered housing block. Majerus had fully embraced working in a mediated world. The most apt description of post-Internet—not as a category of art criticism, but as a state of consciousness—comes from Douglas Porter’s short Losing Sleep (1996), which portrays hacker Bill Hutton talking about how the hyperbolic state of constant technological stimulus has become normalized. “The idea of horizontal-ness is intimidating,” Hutton says.

“The increasing role of machines in all areas of life, but most prominently in the creative process, is deeply inscribed in Majerus’ work—without a beginning and an end.”

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He longs for a time, “back when I had a TV and a remote and a cable …that pulse, that shudder of images … images, not in the sense of an object but an overloaded data stream just pouring through your head …  an overwhelming mental complexity that cannot be blocked or filtered …  a stimulus vortex that pulls you out of the flesh.” One might find this same sentiment in Majerus’ works such as Depressive Neurosis (2000), or The Means of Deception (2000). Against this backdrop, “post-Internet” does not describe an aesthetic, but a way of relating to the world—a world of an exponentially accelerating and ever-expanding commodification of (living) material. When he is not able to sleep at night, the hacker takes walks describing the scenery as, “just you and the blinking traffic light, the bodies regular motions.” It’s techno, the trance induced by rhythmic movement and dancing in the club, that saves his life, allowing his “collapse into the organic,” the only remedy to this constant state of hyper-sensitivity. In the same year that the video was produced, Richie Hawtin’s plastic man and Jeff Mill’s axis-logo were used as subjects in Majerus’ paintings. The increasing role of machines in all areas of life, but most prominently in the creative process, is deeply inscribed in Majerus’ work. The painting Smudge Tool was created during a residency in Los Angeles in 2001 and the title directly refers to Photoshop’s blurring tool. Generating the patterns on a computer, projecting the image on the canvas, and finally executing the premeditated painting in acrylic, renders the work in the image of an abstract painting—a simulation of what an abstract painting is expected to look like. If abstraction is the model of a reality without a real, the painting is hyperreal. By the same token, Majerus registers the material conditions of a reality that stands in opposition to the alleged dematerialization of the digital world and presents us with a false authenticity.

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A year after Doug Porter’s video was shot in 1996, Michel Majerus shares his thoughts on images and memory in a lecture that could have been directly plugged into the hacker’s monologue, “ … there is never a chance of suppressing the memory of an image. This is generally the case with the past or the ephemeral … The desire for more pictures becomes a flow of moving images … There will be countless images as long as there is a desire for acceleration. Whether it is new pictures or the repetition of the same plays a big role. In general, both have priority at the same time.” Majerus describes a typology of image regimes, each of which establishes relationships between understandings of images and reality—relationships that can be traced across diverse cultural contexts, from ice cream advertising to the music scene. Majerus proposes the image as a sensorially perceptible form that mediates agential relations both among and between humans and the larger world. In 2000, Majerus commissioned the video artist Till Vanish, cocreator of the visual identity of Berlin’s Love Parade, and then resident at the Berlin club Ständige Vertretung, to create a graphic animation for his one and only video installation, Michel Majerus. The video is a looped, stroboscopic interplay of light and image-body typography, that disintegrates the artists’ name into formless energy. His painting series “MM” thus appears as “memories of an image,” like snippets taken from a boundless moving stream of images that have left the aesthetic system of painting. He exposes a “circular, Moebian compulsion for objects, pictures, media” (Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulations, 1988) introducing us to painting as a potentially fluid medium that melds space-time and images together, sweeping along everything.

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His painting, I’m sure that 100 years ago it wasn't a problem (1997), resembles the limited, but endless, round of a Carrera racetrack. Maybe it’s a concrete realization of the “frantic standstill” as described by French philosopher Paul Virilio and others; trying to grasp the reconfiguration of a temporal sequence of digitization. Without a beginning and an end, without a prelude or a climax, this painting is a monument to millennium aesthetics. It exists in a seemingly “contextless acceleration without destination,” (Simon Reynolds, Generation Ecstasy, 1998) not unlike techno music. Digitalization has increased exponentially since then. Immersive sculptures by his contemporaries such as Olafur Elisson, but also works by younger artists—think of Avery Singer’s paintings or Jordan Wolfson’s animatronic sculptures—continue to build on his legacy. Early on, Majerus’ work stood for a critical awareness of the over-consumption of images, an excess of photography, and mutual mass surveillance. His “Tron” paintings from 1999, one of which is part of the permanent collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, captures the still relevant concern about political, technological, and artistic control.

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Each of the “Tron” paintings consists of dispersion wall paint, dependent on numerical Pantone color codes, directly applied to the wall, and a silk-screened canvas element placed in the upper right corner like the “x” button on a computer’s graphical user interface, which had been introduced with Windows 95. The canvas combines the advertising image for the 1982 film Tron and part of the headshot of German hacker Boris Floricic (1972–1998). Floricic, a founding member of the Chaos Computer Club, who disappeared on October 17, 1998, and was found hanged from a belt five days later in a Berlin park. Although the death was ruled a suicide, relevant media expressed their doubts. Floricic, who worked under the alias “Tron,” had devoted his life to unraveling the intricate webs of government security and surveillance. Tron the movie, follows a protagonist who is transported into a computer mainframe and must retrieve information hidden in the system, in order to find a way out. Majerus made direct reference to the media coverage on the case when choosing the title of his 1999 exhibition “Sein Lieblingsthema war Sicherheit. Seine These: Es gibt sie nicht” (“His favourite topic was security. His thesis: it doesn’t exist”). This story reminded Majerus, and reminds us, that we can only observe a limited area of the system that we are part of, and similarly we are a part of the system of visuals that we employ to observe the world. Majerus mobilizes the stringent linear history of art (and representation) into a temporarily suspended place. Relayed through time, Majerus’ work melts time like ice in the sun.

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Artist Michel Majerus (Luxembourg, 1967–2002) is considered a key figure in the ’90s art scene. The legacy of his work is essential in understanding how advertising and technological progress inform visual culture in today’s mediated world.

Sarah Johanna Theurer (German, b. 1988) is associate curator at Haus Der Kunst, Munich.

PORTRAIT PHOTO CREDIT: ALBRECHT FUCHS
ALL IMAGES COURTESY OF MICHEL MAJERUS ESTATE, BERLIN, AND MATTHEW MARKS GALLERY, NEW YORK.

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