Originally a print-maker, Stephen Mueller discovered through lithography that process was really where it’s at. Bam! Instant performance artist. In conversation with him in the parking lot of Eastern Edge Gallery the other day, fresh from another five hours in his plexi-glass and mirrored box for “Please Don’t Go,” his solo exhibition and performance piece showing until June 16, the artist describes how he came to endurance-based performance art through the highly technical medium of lithography.
“I began making litho prints without any image because I liked the process of making them more than anything.”
Lithography requires an intense and ultra specific and complicated process of chemical washes, acid baths, registration and inking of the limestone that, honestly, yours truly has never really figured out. This lead Mueller to his current practice; one that highlights process over image — or, for that matter, anything necessarily having to do with an art object. He discovered that the act of creating the art had more meaning for him than the art itself, if you know what I mean.
Thus, the aforementioned plexi-glass box.
Just big enough for Mueller and two small workstations, the box offers us a view of the artist in what almost looks like a coffin. The glass has been treated with a substance like those used in two-way mirrors, so that we can see him inside, but he can’t see us. In fact, all Mueller mostly sees is his own reflection.
At one station, Mueller uses a Braille slate and stylus to impress the shape of inscribed characters onto the paper. At the other station, two holes in one of the walls of the box allow Mueller to cut with a scalpel the impression out of the paper, in kind of the same way scientists in a lab handle dangerous material. The cuttings are then stored in small glass containers, like specimens or evidence of some kind.
And what is the Braille message that Mueller excises from the paper?
“I miss you.”
Which brings us to the fear of death, and to Terror Management Theory (TMT), which states that the anxiety we feel from death determines our behaviour in both our day-to-day lives and on a societal level. TMT contends that fear of death is countered by various tools we’ve devised, not least of which is ritual. Religion, ideology, consumerism and, yes, even art making can then be viewed as strategies by which we can deceive ourselves about the nature of our brief time on the planet, and can continue in our lives without completely losing our minds, as it were. Art as cognitive dissonance. We know what’s true, but we can’t allow ourselves to think about it.
The phrase “I miss you” then takes on a second meaning: not only a nostalgic yearning for friends, family, or (for me) political or artistic movements from the past, but as a yearning for something that applies to the future. “I miss you” as in “I missed out on what’s going to happen in the future because I’m not around anymore.” A “Sorry I missed your party, but I’m dead” kind of thing.
Having said that, don’t die.