A quick scan of the already considerable literature on Tris Vonna-Michell shows that he was born in 1982 in Southend-on-Sea, UK—or in Rochford, or Leigh-on-Sea—and that he lives in Stockholm and London, or in Southend. There is agreement, though, on a seminal project: it involved renting a room in Berlin and shredding childhood snapshots. No surprise, then, that Vonna-Michell’s work inclines to a particularly slippery kind of autobiography, deploying hurried monologues to accompany teasingly suggestive photographs.
For his spare installation at X, located in the former Dia building in Chelsea, he declined to provide any orienting material at all: no labels, not even titles or dates; it was not clear, in fact, where one work ended and the next began. In the first room one encountered—a dark windowless space—were two slide projectors, one showing images of goldfish in a tank, the other mostly paper towels seen close up. This second projection included shots of a small architectural model: perhaps of the rooms in which this exhibition was installed? It went by a little too fast to verify the hunch. The glass of the aquarium is gridded with safety wire; close-ups flatten the tank, and also the peeling paint behind it, into elements of a lush abstract composition, and reveal a suspicious similarity between the wall in the photos and the one at X. Both hints are misleading. In fact, the fish tank and model were shot in Japan; the only images new to the installation are the paper towels: they are the kind in use at X.
In the main area, big and filled with natural light, similar false promises were on offer, along with one easily overlooked bit of good-faith self-reflection. On the tops of three folding tables were nearly identical photographs of a whitewashed, aging interior not unlike X’s. (This work, hahn/huhn, is dated 2003-09.) The photos each show a niche papered with a photo—two depict buildings, one is a street scene—that is torn at the top to fit the recessed curve. The first is almost intact, making the niche look like a window onto the scene in the photo-within-a-photo; the last is almost completely torn away, affichiste-style: a dashed illusion.
Barely audible voices filled the air in this room, and headphones and chairs were set up next to each table, so you could sit and listen to an urgent tale of unsatisfying travel. Time is running out, the speaker frets; he won’t be able to take the shot he wants, find what he’s lost, put a stone on Primo Levi’s grave. At intervals the rate of speech accelerates beyond intelligibility; then the speaker takes a deep breath, like a diver about to go under again.
In the same big room, a couple of odd, ’60s-ish projectors with screens fitted into their sides presented arty, black-and-white photos of more architectural fragments, along with the odd paper towel. Toward the rear, a pair of stacked slide projectors threw abstracted images onto a single patch of wall; unsynchronized, they overlapped unpredictably. A final dark room held two more projectors and a monologue on speakers. Again, the subject is harried, even haunted travel, the photographs of airports and bleak urban locales.
Back in the main room, a live-feed video of a staircase, shot from overhead and looking just like a still image of skewed, nested rectangles, was screened on an ancient-looking Sony Trinitron monitor. Produced in a closed-to-the-public part of the X building, this is the single, utterly unprepossessing bit of bona-fide site-specificity.
Vonna-Michell’s work has been described as post-medium; it could also be called post-conceptual, since it is not about information but its degradation and loss. The experiences that the artist is reporting seem to have gone through an event horizon and been rematerialized as antiquated technology and inscrutable imagery, thoroughly scrambled but lovely to look at, in a grave, melancholy way. Despite the artist’s faster-than-fiber-optics delivery, the thwarted search for self, like the lonely, ruined architecture, makes him seem a weary—if charming—Romantic.
Photos: View of Tris Vonna-Michell’s installation Prelude, 2009, two slide projections; at X. Partial view of hahn/huhn, 2003-09, photographs under glass on tables, audio, chairs.