Reinhard Mucha rearranges and reconfigures commonplace furniture and hardware to create symbolic images. His sculptures and installations, combining concise constructions and subtle details, mix realism and abstraction to reveal allegories in the everyday. As a student at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in Germany in the mid-1970s, Mucha was steeped in the forms and theories of American Minimalist and Conceptual Art. But where his American counterparts emphasized rationality and anonymous materials, Mucha stressed intuition and found objects, viewing himself as a “craftsman tinkering in the gap where art ends and daily life begins.”1 Today, he compares his approach—a precarious feat of exacting control and imaginative play—to a circus act. He is both an impresario marshalling materials and a magician conjuring meaning from thin air.
The sculpture O. T. (Oberer Totpunkt/Top Dead Center) (1982), composed of two chairs—one right side up, the other inverted—sandwiching a white museum pedestal, exemplifies Mucha’s speculative, investigative process. Conceived on the spot for an exhibition in Düsseldorf, it transforms generic museum fixtures into an emblematic sculpture. The title plays on the German abbreviations for ohne Titel (untitled) and oberer Totpunkt (top dead center), the apex of a piston’s stroke. With its bracket of chairs echoing the Taoist yin and yang emblem, O. T. suggests the interplay between the viewer, the work of art, and the movement and balance in an engine. Its familiar ingredients, Mucha notes, lend the work the realism of one-to-one scale, which bolsters its less palpable associations.
Untitled (Oberhausen-Osterfeld Süd) (1986), a diptych consisting of an empty vitrine and a panel-mounted grouping of photographs, illustrates a more circular aspect of Mucha’s method. The black-and-white images document an event in a Kunstakademie classroom near Düsseldorf’s main railway station on Christmas Eve 1981. Aligning a writing desk and work cart to make a locomotive and a string of inverted tables to represent freight cars, Mucha constructed a three-dimensional diagram of a train. Above it, he built a pedestrian overpass using stepladders, tables, and a fluorescent tube lowered from the classroom ceiling to the underside of the bridge’s span. Five years later, the artist combined these photographs with a glass-fronted case constructed from a discarded window. Resembling those displaying railroad timetables in German stations, the case is equipped with a handmade metal vent and an official-looking engraved plaque bearing the work’s title, the names of two regional stations, and the year of the original installation. Two painted lines extending from either side of the nameplate, like the irregular mat surrounding the largest photographs, remind us this work is an artist’s composition as well as the thing it represents.
As in many of Mucha’s works, which since the 1980s have become larger and more intertwined with the spaces in which they are displayed, the layers of meaning and allusion in Untitled (Oberhausen-Osterfeld Süd) are intricate. For example, many critics have suggested that the gray felt lining the inside of the display case and the adjacent panel refers to Joseph Beuys, a legendary professor at the Kunstakademie, who used felt in installations and performances espousing art as a mystical force for social change. However, Mucha says the idea comes from childhood memories of shop windows in which colored felt formed backdrops for merchandise displays resembling tiny theaters. In fact, he views the heart of his work as a form of stage-dressing—using objects from the world to make images of the world and show ways that things work in it. Similarly, many have interpreted Mucha’s interest in technology as having been inspired by Bernd and Hilla Becher (also teachers at the Kunstakademie), whose photographic typologies of industrial structures analyze form and function. Mucha shares the Bechers’ interest in machine-age aesthetics (he has been a railroad buff since childhood), but also a fascination with what he calls “collective biography,” the common experiences that shape us. The country’s vast railroad network is so central to German life, Mucha notes, that there is even a common phrase—“I only understood ‘train station’”—uttered as a non sequitur in a confusing conversation.
The palette of Untitled (Oberhausen-Osterfeld Süd)’s materials also evokes German landscapes, both physical and psychic. The work’s gradient of grays suggests the drab landscape of the industrial Ruhr Valley, home to Düsseldorf as well as Oberhausen and Osterfeld, the latter two cities once important steel, coal, and railroad centers. Additionally, Mucha knows viewers see their own reflections in the blank vitrine, and that peering into it “creates a form of silence and emptiness and loneliness.” This mood, he says, is appropriate for a work commemorating an event for a handful of students spending Christmas Eve in an empty classroom. It also is an apt memorial to the rail age, a shining achievement of nineteenth-century mechanical and social engineering—forever haunted in Germany by its role in the Holocaust—which is gradually being supplanted by less sensible and communal means of connecting people and places.
All direct and implied quotes taken from a telephone interview with Reinhard Mucha by the author, January 10, 2004. ↩