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Lena Mai Merle - Animal Crossing
Location: EMDE GALLERY - Mainz
Lena Mai Merle's "Animal Crossing": The Question about the Thing – by Birte Fritsch (curator at the Museum Zentrum für verfolgte Künste)
The entrance to the exhibition is marked by a large-format portal picture: "Mein Gesicht, ein Pauschalist (My face, lump-sum payed)". The title refers to so-called face filters in apps, which are arranged here floating in space.
Face filters, which actually always pop up whenever a face is captured by a camera, or rather when an algorithm recognizes features that add up to a face - only to subsequently superimpose new features on it, and that mask or at least conceal such features, with the total result really only adding up to zeros and ones.
Face filters are part of an augmented reality that has been hovering around us all for years; they are mask and masquerade - part of a millennial-old tradition combined with pixels in the present. Here we encounter them detached from the face, significantly presented in a format that corresponds to the displays of our end devices in all their proportions. The representational level is removed here from their use in the digital world, we encounter them as entities, as reality(ies) of a new representation, illuminated by auspicious light - a fixed point in space, in an absolute vacuum. This then, is the threshold into the work of Lena Mai Merle.
This playing with and around virtualization will meet us yet again. In "Mein Gesicht, ein Pauschalist", however, we first find ourselves facing husks that give us clues as to the reason for their existence: where the face no longer has any physical limitation, where self-image and the image of others develop hybrid lives of their own, where we can make out narcissists and a ventriloquist who is actually a soliloquist. In its monologue with itself, the picture seems like an anticlimax of the "Picture of Dorian Gray" yet it is at the same time the only work in the exhibition that does not refer to a thing, but rather to a thing in itself. That which otherwise awaits, piece by piece, for the automatisms of its activation, Lena Mai Merle brings to life on canvas.
The transition to her sculptures is made by crossing the threshold of digitality. Set up in the background, piercing space, they take on three dimensions and project into the fourth dimension with their AR component. The representation image with face filter operates as a representation image, the augmented reality parts of sculptures are not face filters for the sculptures, but function according to (almost) the same principle.
"Image is image and also object," says Lena Mai Merle. "Animal Crossing" brings objects together in the image and in space, in different dimensions.
In the sculptures enhanced by virtual reality, we encounter topoi (rhetorical motifs) of transfigured piety and everyday fetishization: the drunken monk as the Dionysian homage to drinking for its own sake. In the kitschy trifle lie the cherished motifs of folklore and the glorification of consumption. Consumption in general is a motif throughout the entire exhibition: in capitalism, the object’s consumption is always embodied in its use.
The protagonist in the picture "Not even with savoir faire will fate favour the pesterer" draws her curtains and thus the window through which she could look at the world and at us. In the privacy of the pictorial space on the other side of the canvas, she finds herself in the company of her objects.
As a viewer standing in front of this window, perhaps recognizing Vera F. Birkenbihl in her, wearing (very revealingly) an "Up Another Level" shirt, there is certainty in her gaze. Next to her stand porcelain figures, one facing the interior - as if they have a life of their own. While Vera looks out of the window the question remains as to what extent objects have their own agency here, or how should we read them? It is exactly at this mental crossroad that, "Animal Crossing" is frozen: Way too human, non-human leaves the viewers to fathom the anthropocentric environments of the pictorial worlds themselves, where reality(ies) is/are expanded by the imaginative, sensuality of the objects.
Vera, meanwhile, draws her curtains, protects herself and her objects from the gaze of others and allows them and herself intimacy. It is here that the things and their history - their meaning - (continue) to live. "To me they are dear objects" Lena Mai Merle quotes herself and all of us humans in conversation. The historicity of things always resonates in the continuum of time and is an evocation of the present. Here we encounter the objects' independent existence and narrative, which is nevertheless man-made, constructed: "only from the corner of your eye, you can sense that they have a life of their own," says Merle. They all have a particular shape and a form (Gestalt) that they take on.
“Objects have an unruliness”,“ says Lena Mai Merle: she gives the example of the chair in the bedroom on which the laundry is piled up, despite everything, seemingly incessantly, rather than it being simply just a chair. Some things are something other than just themselves.
Therefore, it is already a principle that the meth in "Chrystal Meth" refers to the Greek μέθοδος (methodos) and not to the drug, though it can certainly be read ambiguously, just as objects can be read here always playing at least "one" role. "My point is not to show: Hey, that was the nineties" says Merle, looking at the picture. Pointing to the mermaids, she adds: "ultimately, these are just anthropomorphized fish". Yet despite their stiffness, the plastic dolls depicted in the painting have another anthropomorphic reference component that lies at the heart of their arrangement and lends tension to their constellation, thus placing them in a further reference space that can be read as human. They have a supposed exchange, are in dialogue, moving in a field of tension, although they are immobile.
In her performance, Lena Mai Merle literally moves in the same field of tension, only on the other side of the scale: she stages furries. Furries are people who want to look like cute, stuffed animals, people who imitate toys i.e. the objectification of an aesthetic of harmlessness that goes beyond the trivial, and in this, withdrawn agency. In the furry, one meets the anthopomorphization of the furries, where aesthetic choice is precisely not about representing wild animals, but to be like "human animals". Chimeras with an upright gait that create their own being in the in-between, in displacement; a relationship of transference to their own "cuddly animal ego". Merle takes up this form-shifting as a concept by placing tattoos on the fur object, creating a multiply coded anthropomorphic being; and by applying windowcolour to her paintings.
"Animal Crossing" operates on the boundaries of the gestalt and thing dichotomy: "I'm a Furry in a female body" and everyone is invited to see themselves in relation to it.
In this way, Lena Mai Merle's works can break the space between viewer, object and medium - creating a new space by adding oneself as an object, just as AR sculptures are projected into space. The object becomes the thing in itself, an aesthetic experience, a reference space that refers to concrete objects as much as their experience in the interplay of wine, display and dimension. In the end aren’t we all customized sculptures?