Michael Müller

25 Jan – 02 Apr 2011

To sing of Being, its escaping wing,
to utter absence in a human chord
and recreate the meaning as we sing.

– 'Lament for Passenger Pigeons', Judith Wright.

The human skill of drawing underlies some of the most fundamental signifiers of culture, like the letters that make up an alphabet or the symbols that encode and decode faith and science. Over the course of civilisation, drawing has performed a variety of functions and one of its central uses is to render visible that which isn’t obviously present and to identify it. In Michael Müller’s art, lines – the basic element of drawing – arrange themselves with nearly obsessive precision, determined to open up an intimate, private world to the observer. 

Symbols, because of their dependence upon the draughtsman, are often the expression of symptoms rather than conditions. Müller’s is an intensely private visual vocabulary for intimate narratives because his art is inspired by his own experiences. His German-Indian parentage allows him to straddle both Eastern and Western cultures. This experience is repeatedly manipulated in Müller’s works, particularly those that are part of this exhibition. Growing up in Germany, Müller’s idea of India was that of a seemingly infinite cultural, philosophical, religious, geographical, architectural and musical diversity. This perspective has remained the starting point of his artistic analyses that visually articulate an encounter between the East and West. It isn’t a simplistic or wide-eyed ingénue’s vision of India, however. Müller has journeyed across India numerous times and divides his time between Berlin and Ladakh. His understanding of the concepts that feature in his art is far from superficial. His works are the result of a persistent exploration that has taken many forms over the years. 

Born in 1970, Müller began as a student of sculpture and art at the Düsseldorf Art Academy. Today he is perhaps best known for his drawings, but as the variety of media in this exhibition show, Müller comfortably utilises different media when his subject demands it. Pieces of Music and Colour has ceramic pieces, drawings and paintings. All the works navigate between Indian and Western cultural beliefs, and are concerned with the interplay between order and disorder that Müller seems to consider the crux of a belief system.  

The ceramic piece Being boring - Structure of Eden (2010) uses traditional mosaic techniques to suggest a far from traditional idea. The white tiles in the upper area are arranged in an orderly structure that implies both boredom as well as an established pattern of practice that doesn’t require understanding to be replicated and followed. The disintegration of the tiles’ pattern creates a crowd in the lower area of the picture and questions the rectangular framework of the work. Yet, a certain amount of regularity is retained thanks to the white colour. As in some of Müller’s older ceramic pieces, such as A Portrait of Dr. Aziz and Mrs. Moore (2008), the frame is in a state of disintegration, which subtly points out the arbitrariness of the shape of the painting and directs the viewer’s attention to the space outside the boundaries. Originally conceived as a wall for the Garden of Eden, the frame encloses the white innocence of paradise, supposedly the object of our earthly ambitions. Yet is it possible to long for a paradise whose enclosed order denies understanding? And is it not a contradiction that paradise does not have space for knowledge but is the site of bored repetition?

The second ceramic piece in the show is Der Anfang (The Beginning) (Megh) (2010) and it also deals with the principles of order and disorder. Order is represented here by the strict grid pattern. The irregularities within the green-blue colour spectrum form the disorder. Curiously, the colouring appears to detach itself from the structure, as if it has an independent, graphic identity that symbolises the story of water and vegetation, which is recalled in Megh, a monsoon raga from Hindustani classical music that celebrates the rains that are so critical to the continuation of life in India.

In Hindustani classical music, ragas are always attributed to a season and, more frequently, to a certain time of day. The Vedic Hindus divided the day into praharas, roughly three-hour segments that they believed best reflect the rhythms of nature. Musicians and artists attributed a certainly emotional quality to these changes from one time of day to the next, so creating a framework that prescribed ragas to specific times of day depending upon the emotions suggested by the notes that composed the raga. Beyond a very basic structure, the raga is completely open to interpretation and improvisation, unlike European music with its specific notation. This means that every performance, good or bad, is unique and cannot be replicated because the raga is rendered as much by the notes as the unquantifiable emotional and spiritual quality with which the music is imbued. 

Musikstück (Piece of Music) (Megh) at daybreak (2010) and Musikstück (Piece of Music) (Madhuvanti), played wrongly at noon (2010) are among the pieces that use the raga as a frame of reference. Müller recalled the instructions of the ancients while creating them and allowed the ragas to guide and accompany him through his day and his work. Consequently, the unique notation he developed and displays here becomes almost like a record of a performance, even though during the process of creating the work, Müller was technically the audience. Referencing both the traditions of shruti and smriti, Müller loads the surface of his work with overlapping layers of colour that are an artistic analogy for the persistent repetition involved in the traditional training of Hindustani classical music.

The images are also divided into two parts so that they portray the anatomy of a raga. The upper (and larger) part with the pencil drawing symbolises the main note that underpins the raga, known as the vadi. The vadi is the most frequently played note within a raga and is referred to as the note that lords over the others in the raga. The narrow strip at the bottom is painted and a depiction of the tonal colouring of the raga. The melody of the raga is translated into colour by the notes that accompany, support and swirl about the vadi. In the same manner as the raga provides a framework within which the piece of music moves freely, Müller’s work is enclosed within this basic framework, but the drawing within doesn’t adhere to any obvious structure. His characteristic pencil drawing moves across the canvas with the spontaneous energy of the melody that inspired the art.

Although Western music in general is much more structured by nature, Müller finds an equivalence between the openness of “minimalist music” and Hindustani classical music. Musikstück (Piece of Music) (in C) played at a late hour (2010) is a work made to accompany Terry Riley's composition “In C”. Riley is known to be a pioneer of minimalist music, which he developed in the 1960s. However in the 1970s, he studied Indian singing traditions and even taught classical Indian music for many years. Riley employed the technique of “pattern-music” in his compositions. The numbered musical phrases can be repeated as often as is desired, with each musician himself deciding when it segues into the next phrase. Shifting and overlapping rhythms are acceptable. Riley only stipulates that a common metre (played by one instrument in the orchestra) be adhered to, which ends up performing a role similar to the vadi. The repeated structures allow endless variations in the basic pattern of the music. Repeated “loops” communicate uniformity to the listener but it isn’t a dogmatic repetition because the shifting time axis gives the repetitions distinctive characters. In Musikstück (Piece of Music) (in C) played at a late hour, Müller reflects these shuttling forays between the boundaries of structure and non-structure using form. For those who are aware of Riley’s connection with Indian music, he is a personification of that encounter between Eastern and Western cultures that has intrigued Müller and Riley’s music is a creative dialogue between seemingly opposite traditions of performance. 

Navigating between cultures is, of course, a centuries-old practice and Müller remembers this in his distinctive way in Kreuz des Südens (Southern Cross) (2008). For sailors in the 16th century, the constellation of the Southern Cross was the guide as they made their way between the East and West. As seen repeated in Müller's artwork, there is no representation of the real night sky of the Southern Hemisphere. Pencils of varying hardness are applied in several layers. The stars have not been scratched out but are precise omissions. The work provides the viewer with a personal image that Müller creates to denote the starry sky. Here the Southern Cross is a symbol of longing, a creative and dynamic mechanism that serves as both motivation and guide as one navigates between one’s idea of self and the simultaneous sense of being the Other. The interplay of disorder and order here is mesmerizing.

But the meeting of cultures isn’t always fraught with tension in Müller’s art. Chandigarh-Auroville-Utopia-Express (2010) presents a Utopian yet very rooted conception of paradise. The work constructs India as a country that allows Utopias to be realised; a site upon which the abstract ideas of visionaries cross into a different plane of reality and hold out the hope of creating an equilibrium. It is also perhaps the most autobiographical of the works in the exhibition with its undisguised focus upon the link between India and Europe. Chandigarh was designed by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier. Auroville was conceived and realised by France-born Mirra Alfassa, whose life changed dramatically when she encountered the philosopher Sri Aurobindo (after whom Auroville is named). Utopian as they may be, the two cities are very different. Chandigarh is conceived with a strict geometric structure that emphasises functionality and Modernist aesthetics. On the other hand, Auroville symbolises freedom and independence, specifically the independence from a state or a government, which is relevant when one keeps in mind that Le Corbusier was commissioned to design Chandigarh upon Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s request. 

These two outstanding cities are presented in Müller’s art through architectural attributes. Chandigarh is symbolised by Gandhi Bhawan, which like many other Le Corbusier structures was constructed from exposed concrete and once defined the cityscape. Auroville is represented as a collection of small individual buildings that make up an overhead view, in the same manner that people from 45 nations are collected under the roof of this universal city.

The diptych A Case of Exploding Mangoes during the Monsoon Season (2008) presents a completely different framework for the relationship between East and West. The left half of the diptych shows rain as an intense shower, coming in strongly at an angle to indicate the monsoon. The technique by which Müller achieved this effect is intriguing. He leaned the green-primed canvas at an angle against the wall and worked with two different types of paint on it: water-soluble and water-insoluble oil paint. Müller applied the paint to the upper edge and let it run across the canvas, creating multiple layers of mutually repelling paint. The process was repeated numerous times to achieve the effect of heavy rain. The right side shows a typically grey, rainy day in northern England. It is a monochrome grey surface with a few concentrations upon a green-blue strip. The effect is not so much of rain as humid air, a light but constant drizzle, veiling everything in grey. 

Müller’s works are not realistic imitations of a recognisable reality but rather the world as reinvented by the artist, crafted using his personal understanding of a variety of theoretical, philosophical, literary, mathematical and cosmological systems. By immersing himself in his chosen themes of cosmology, the creative power of disorder and order, and freedom and openness of cultural systems, Müller moves between the two cultures that are intrinsic parts of him. His imagination points out to the viewer connections and differences, creating new pathways between intellectual terrains that are diametrically different and yet strangely complement one another. Clemens Krümmel describes Müller’s art as a “cartographic presentation of inner visions”. Conventional meanings dissolve in Müller’s world and in the map he draws, symbols become unwaveringly minimalist abstractions, breathtaking in their intensity, that evolve into an eloquent code that needs to be sensed rather than cracked.