Tris Vonna-Michell

2008 FutureGreat, selected by Mark Sladen

By Mark Sladen

“With an egg timer set at five minutes I’m going to tell you a story the story is in six acts act one to act six chronological order however due to an intervention act seven which happened in 2006 will be the first starts here preface 2006 I returned to a small dark room in a museum…” The most immediately striking aspect of the performances of Tris Vonna-Michell is their delivery, which is rapid, breathless and mesmerising. Words and phrases tumble over each other, the thrust of the narrative threatens to become lost in repetition and diversion, but through it all the artist speeds on with the charisma of a natural storyteller.

Vonna-Michell was born in 1982, brought up in the English coastal town of Southend and went to college in Falmouth and Glasgow before completing his studies at the Städelschule in Frankfurt in 2007. His characteristic format is a spoken narrative that interweaves personal anecdote, historical research and conspiracy theory; a narrative performed in an installation setting that might include slide projections, scattered photocopies and other props. His works, which include hahn/huhn (2004), Finding Chopin: In Search of the Holy Quail (2006) and Down the Rabbit Hole (2006–7), have in the last year been included in events such as Performa 07 in New York and seen at venues such as Witte de With in Rotterdam and Cubitt in London.

One recent work, Papierstau (Paper Jam; 2007), takes as its jumping-off point the destruction of Stasi files in East Berlin in autumn 1989. The artist read a newspaper report about attempts to use computers to reconstruct documents from 16,000 sacks of shredded paper – detritus left behind by the East German secret police. Vonna-Michell was inspired to visit the city, and his narrative relates the original episode to his own experience of living alone in Leipzig for a month in a Soviet-era bedsit, destroying his personal photographic archive with a hand-operated shredder. The story’s focus on the destruction and reconstitution of archives offers a useful analogy to Vonna-Michell’s work, an ongoing paranoid exercise in the retrieval of personal and historical knowledge. 

This article was first published in the March 2008 issue.