Text:Stephan Berg

Elmar Hess holds noth­ing back. And this means: here is some­one who real­ly gets seri­ous about the idea that by rad­i­cal­ly and obses­sive­ly con­cen­trat­ing on the self, one’s own his­to­ry (-ies), desires, con­flicts, dreams, and fears, a kind of world­li­ness is attain­able that can tell us some­thing about the uni­ver­sal, some­thing that goes beyond the pri­vate.

This is a risky propo­si­tion because its mix of nec­es­sary mega­lo­ma­nia, self-styl­iza­tion, and unspar­ing can­dor makes it of course vul­ner­a­ble and open to attack. But it is also absolute­ly extra­or­di­nary be-cause it lacks all polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness and, more­over, in its asser­tion that the pri­vate has the pow­er to shape and trans­form real­i­ty, it touch­es the molten core of all artis­tic activ­i­ty. (…)

With La Mère Per­due, his lat­est work thus far in this visu­al­ly pow­er­ful oeu­vre, Hess, in the round dance of his par­al­lel stag­ings of sub­jec­tive and uni­ver­sal assess­ments on val­ue and loss, has cre­at­ed a rather hushed – and for this very rea­son – impres­sive work. With a series of four, mul­ti-media staged rooms, inter­twined like chap­ters, the artist devel­ops three, var­i­ous­ly inter­lock­ing, par­al­lel nar­ra­tives. The first two rooms are ded­i­cat­ed to the voy­age of the Mona Lisa, which was trans­port­ed to New York in 1962 on-board the ocean lin­er France for an exhi­bi­tion at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, where it, flanked by two mil­i­tary police men, drew crowds of vis­i­tors. The third room presents a Super-8 film of a child’s birth­day par­ty in the ear­ly 1970s. Home alone, a boy unwraps a present that has been left for him on a cof­fee table by his par­ents who are away on a busi­ness trip. The present turns out to be a mod­el kit of the France. In the fourth room, the orig­i­nal assem­bled mod­el of the ship is locat­ed in a dis­play case, which, like the Mona Lisa, is guard­ed by two mil­i­tary police­men. Par­al­lel to this, we see on a mon­i­tor an aer­i­al view of the France on its final jour­ney to the scrap­yard. From an air­plane, the nar­ra­tor, played by the artist, looks down on the scene, which simul­ta­ne­ous­ly serves as a trig­ger for his mem­o­ries of the lone­ly birth­day in which the mod­el kit of the France func­tioned as an emo­tion­al life­line. The exis­ten­tial dimen­sion of the boy’s rela­tion­ship to this ship is strength­ened by the fact that he lat­er learns from his moth­er that the France – which no longer turns a prof­it – has been tak­en out of ser­vice pre­cise­ly on his birth­day.

Ships play a major role in Elmar Hess‘ work. In the form of the Unit­ed States (Rela­tion Ship), the Queen Eliz­a­beth 2 or even the France, they are not only metaphors for a lost, glam­orous time, but are also an aes­thet­ic coun­ter­point to a gray real­i­ty dom­i­nat­ed by sys­tem con­straints and the nor­ma­tive pow­er of the fac­tu­al, and thus also an expres­sion of the yearn­ing of the nar­rat­ing, artis­tic self. Juli­ette Gré­co, for whom Picas­so had designed the ceram­ic tiles of the Bar de l’Atlantic, sang on the France’s maid­en voy­age, and the artis­tic elite from Sal­vador Dalí to Andy Warhol and Ten­nessee Williams met on the ship.

The par­al­lel devel­op­ment the artist cre­ates be-tween him­self and ships, which he brings to life in full-scale instal­la­tions and in mas­ter­ly-jux­ta­posed, edit­ed mon­tages of reen­act­ments and found foot-age mate­r­i­al, occa­sion­al­ly goes so far that he him­self becomes a ship. In anthro­po­mor­phiz­ing and ensoul­ing the mate­r­i­al world, the artist’s pic­to­r­i­al lan­guage touch­es on aspects of myth­i­cal thought and also makes clear the work’s inter­nal entan­gle­ment with itself. In this con­text, the title La Mère Per­due is aimed at the word­play with the French con­so­nance of Mer (sea) and Mère (moth­er), and like­wise links both terms with an irrev­o­ca­ble loss. The absent moth­er, the boy who builds the mod­el of a ship, and the ship on its final voy­age as the artist’s alter ego become the over­lap­ping ele­ments of a ref­er­ence sys­tem that encir­cles an exis­ten­tial gap and posi­tions his very own val­ue sys­tem against this ele­men­tary void.

The equat­ing of the Mona Lisa and the child’s mod­el kit of the France gets to the provoca­tive core of this rela­tion­ship: on the one hand, the life-shap­ing, sub­jec­tive sig­nif­i­cance of a lone­ly birth­day par­ty, and, on the oth­er, the cul­tur­al, sem­i­ng­ly objec­ti­fi­able val­ue of Leonar­do da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Already head­ing toward its demise, the France links both of these things togeth­er, trans­form­ing it here into a real and sym­bol­ic trans­porter of gen­er­al cul­tur­al val­ues as well as an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal, pri­vate expe­ri­ence. (…)