Rory MacLean meets Michael Müller
Michael Müller, a 43-year-old Berliner artist, has plotted a bold and original course through life, in part due to his remarkable background. His Indian grandmother had married an Irish soldier who abandoned her as soon as she’d followed him to England. As she had no money, her daughters had to be given up to an orphanage for years. In time one of them fell in love with a German man, despite him speaking no English and she speaking no German. Their son Michael grew up in Germany detached from his Indian heritage, which was all but denied by his mother. At school near Mainz he knew that he was different from his classmates, not least when told that he couldn’t play Jesus in the Christmas play as he didn’t have blond hair…
‘I began to realise that things were never as I was told,’ he said when we met in his Berlin home. ‘And in that doubt I began to test myself, to find my own way to understand and explain the world.’
At the age of 16 Müller first heard Indian music and saw a photograph of Tibetan monks. The experience ‘sparked’ something in him and — as soon as he was able — he went to India and Ladakh where he spent much of the next 15 years. But not before a spell at the Dusseldorf Art Academy where he studied with Magdalena Jetelová.
‘I had believed with every fibre of my body that I wanted to be at the Academy, but when I started, I had no idea why.’
Rather than formal art school education, it was India and travel that inspired him, leading him first to create a remarkable series of vast maps of imaginary places, the largest of which is now 22 metres long and, he says, will take him the rest of his life to finish.
‘A map is a way of understanding the world,’ said Müller, recalling his travelling days. ‘I asked myself, “How do we understand the world?” We have so many belief systems but none of them can be proven. How do we know what we like, what is beautiful or tasty? Where do individual aesthetics come from? For me, it’s down to training, to our upbringing and environment.’
Müller’s questions then led him to consider the nature of written language, and to invent his own. His refusal to loan a German edition of Robert Musil’s philosophical novel The Man Without Qualities to a non-German-speaking friend led him to translate the book for her into ‘K4’. This invented language, which began as an intellectual exercise, now consists of more than 400,000 different characters, each of which has been hand-drawn by Müller. ‘For me, the work moved more and more into the realm of art, because ultimately it is not simply an invented language but a means of the mapping of information.’
Müller’s intense drawings, paintings and three-dimensional ‘performative’ sculptures are diverse, challenging and provocative: his four-metre-square drawing of a fish Mola Mola spirals out from the centre as if in meditation, reflecting back to his days in a monastery; his Selfportrait of Ibrahim Vitalis al Said — created as he fasted through Ramadan — explores the Arabic equivalent of his name and hence his identity; in Supernova translated poems — and so meaning — are explored through a series of languages such as Urdu, Tibetan and Karen; his 300 panel Index of Arbitrariness, incomplete (Index der Willkür, unvollendet) considers how languages are used socially and politically. In his especially powerful, recent work Weltempfänger: Ich-Oper, a woman voice’s echoes out of an old radio. As she speaks she realises that her body doesn’t exist and — in a script written by Müller — she begins to conjure imaginary friends to explain the world to her.
‘When I start a work I don’t have a visual motif in mind,’ he said. ‘I don’t see the connection between content and medium. Often a work can exist in my head for years before I settle on the means to visualise it. To my mind an artist’s life must always be busy with research and contemplation. The final product is less important.’
Müller’s art is simply a framework for him to ask questions, and then to provoke us to do the same. For example at his latest Berlin show at the Thomas Schulte Gallery, visitors were kept at the entrance while indoors — behind closed doors — a haughty art historian talked about the works on display, then asked the paintings themselves if they were art.
‘In the canon, through established and accepted values, we are told what to believe, what is good and bad. I don’t accept those dictated choices,’ said Michael Müller in conclusion, pushing back his thatch of black hair. ‘I need to discover for myself what is good or bad, beautiful or tasty. At the core of this search is my desire to understand the wonderful world that surrounds us.’