Petit Journal #62: Tris Vonna-Michell
"Finding Chopin: Endnotes 2005–2009"

Tris Vonna-Michell (born in 1982) is a consummate storyteller. For several years now, the young British artist has elaborately constructed tales that he speaks aloud to listeners in a typically rapid-fire delivery style. His vocal reveries are based on both elaborate investigation and chance encounter. It is thus that Vonna-Michell combines fact and fiction, the carefully controlled and the merely coincidental, the concrete and the imagined, the contradictory and the plausible. The resultant stories are his art form and when, as during an exhibition, he cannot always be before an audience, he often records his narrations so that the almost breathless staccato of his voice gives life to the material stuff that remains. And stuff does remain: every narrative is accompanied by images and objects, scraps of detritus or snapshots of memorabilia, that somehow stand in for the artist’s own experience of a particular place and time. They sit parallel to his aural collages, as if serving as reminders for the artist and ambiguous evidence to his listeners for the meaning or origins of a story. Still, you could say that he is telling a tale even when he leaves these images or other objects in a space like clues that continue to whisper about the wild and incomprehensible connections between disparate people and events. These sit within installations that are frequently makeshift ensembles in which simple room partitions and wooden tables or vitrines set the stage for obsolete technologies (cassette recorders, slide projectors, turntable players) and seemingly mundane arcana (toothpicks, cartons of quail eggs, plastic egg-shaped timers, biscuit crumbs). Yet whatever the explicit subjects to which his voice and installations turn (a crumbling post-industrial Detroit, a forgotten 1980s film, secret German tunnels, three similarly named men, the artist’s family’s move to Southend-on-Sea), his actual subject is, perhaps always and inescapably, History. And the ways History—of necessity and by definition—tells and hides, constructs and, ultimately, lies.

For his project at the Jeu de Paume, the artist’s first solo exhibition in Paris, Vonna-Michell has extended his several year-long research on Henri Chopin, the relatively obscure but important figure in the French post-war avant-garde, father of the typewriter poem, a sound and concrete poet, painter, graphicartist and typographer, independent publisher, and filmmaker who was, for some years during Vonna-Michell’s youth, his next door neighbour. The strange fact of such a figure living in proximity to the future storyteller-artist (who would, like Chopin, go on to use his voice as a central medium) became fodder for Vonna-Michell’s imaginative investigations.
The young artist spent years orchestrating missed encounters with the poet and one brief meeting before Chopin’s 2008 death changed the terms of the project, which Vonna-Michell had initially entitled In Search of Chopin. Now Vonna-Michell again pays homage to Chopin after having embarked on a trip to Paris where, for one last time, he endeavoured to find evidence of the deceased poet’s prolific but largely unknown output. As with most the “searches” that the artist undertakes, the point is not so much the outcome as the journey, recorded in this case by way of what he found on Parisian streets while ostensibly looking for traces of Chopin. What Vonna-Michell collected, mostly, were odd scraps of paper and trash that he randomly came across in Paris. None evidently manifests Chopin. But they say much about Vonna-Michell: his eye for detail, his attraction to the abandoned, his indebtedness to avant-garde poetry and collage, and his interest in constructing something from what history has relegated to the margins. His resultant installation, including documents, sound pieces, and countless slide images, poignantly records what is nothing less than a search for origins—of the artist himself, but also of the postwar avant-garde.

Elena Filipovic,
curator of the exhibition