The Trades of Others, 2008, and Finding Chopin: Dans l’Essex, 2014
Through live performance and audio recordings of spoken texts, Vonna-Michell relays circuitous and multilayered narratives that combine personal anecdotes and historical research. Vonna-Michell’s narrative structures are characterized by repeated detours, dead ends, and streams of association. Dense conglomeration of photographic material, from film and slide projections to photographic prints and other ephemera form a “visual script” that is animated by the artist’s recitations. Integrating fiction and factual information, Vonna-Michell’s narratives address the nature of coincidence and contingency, often referencing his personal history and artistic production. His practice builds on a process that is both recursive and prospective with images drawn from his own archive, including those from previous works, continually reappearing in new configurations.
By splicing the lived with the learnt, Vonna-Michell’s stories and actions form a personal analogue to that monumental act of dispersal and investigation: the large-scale destruction of documents by Stasi officials in 1989, and the new government’s subsequent commissioning of archivists (nicknamed ‘the puzzlers’) to reassemble the mountain of some 600 million scraps. For a month in 2005 Vonna-Michell holed up in a GDR-era Leipzig bed-sit alone with his personal archive of photographs, taking 36 exposures of each image before painstakingly shredding each one by hand. This fragmented portfolio was later presented at his Glasgow School of Art degree show, the resulting photographic slides now used in performance, mementoes of a partial re-enactment and an end-point to his earlier body of work.
Other objects that Vonna-Michell uses in performance have an insufficient and temporary quality: in hahn/huhn, a conspiracy thriller that ducks into the tunnels rumoured to lie under Berlin’s Anhalter Bahnhof, three blocks of dry ice squat in a line between artist and listener, chilling the feet and offering a shonky reminder of the Cold War and the Berlin Wall; episodes in Finding Chopinare represented by a newspaper clipping, an egg carton and a stick of rock. So ephemeral are these carefully gathered props that many were allegedly stolen during an exhibition in Brussels in 2006, after which the artist replaced them with a seven-inch vinyl recording, Short Stories & Tall Tales (2007). The record is the only saleable item Vonna-Michell has produced to date, the token of a failure to maintain an archive that yet gestures towards the continuing possibility of circulation. An archive attempts a totalizing collection of information, but what if, as in the case of the Stasi, it is kept safe or destroyed, hoarded or dispersed?
Vonna-Michell’s practice reflects on the possibility of recording and transmitting history through the spoken and written word, tracing the associative complexities of how histories and rumours are told.
Tris Vonna-Michell lives and works between Stockholm and Southend-on-Sea in the UK. Recent solo exhibitions have been organized by VOX Centre de l’Image Contemporain in Montreal, T293 in Rome, Jan Mot in Brussels, Capitain Petzel in Berlin, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, Metro Pictures in New York, and Cabinet Gallery in London. Vonna-Michell’s work has been included in exhibitions at the Tate Britain in London, Moderna Museet in Malmö, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Secession in Vienna, the Shanghai Biennial, and the Yokohama Triennial. Vonna-Michell was nominated for the 2014 Turner Prize, and was awarded the Baloise Art Prize and Ars Viva Prize for Fine Arts in 2008. He studied at the Glasgow School of Art, the Städelschule in Frankfurt, and Emily Carr University in Vancouver.