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. (…)

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