A fixed camera observes the severed rear section of a beige Renault 14 in the centre of a large gallery. A pulley attaches the car body to the ceiling, cranking the vehicle upwards inch by inch until the vehicle is pulled apart. The car very gradually opens on one side like an oyster, held in midair, suspended in silence. This is the making of ‘Austerlitz’, 2010, for the exhibition Performative Attitudes at the Kunsthaus Glarus, Switzerland.
The work takes its title from Napoleon’s eponymous battle, one of his greatest victories for the French empire. But its name also contains the German word for oyster, (Auster), and the car’s colour resembles that of the shellfish. Germann’s career has included the series Ballungscenter aller Energien (which translates roughly as crowded agglomeration of all energies), 2007-8, and Der Werwolf von Wien, 2009.
The first, for which Germann was awarded the National Suisse art prize, comprised a souped-up motorbike, precious metals and a journey on the trail of German television detective Kommissar Schimanski; the resulting works consisted of drawings, strange devices and the results of experimental processes.
Der Werwolf von Wien followed the artist’s travels in Eastern Europe and was sparked by legendary folklore and a smattering of art history. The titular werewolf did not play a starring role in the exhibition at BolteLang gallery in Zurich last year, though the artist’s pet dog was an able familiar, which was portrayed with mean and hungry looks in several illustrations. Germann’s drawings communicate heady, invented narratives and complex mechanical objects charged with symbolism and superstition. Using materials such as silver, nails and organ pipes, some literally charged with electricity, his works comprise of elements and themes that migrate between one another with apparent ease, and sometimes whole works are carried over.
‘Messingtisch’ (brass table), 2008, is an installation work that features a low table on which the artist has placed a strange device. On closer examination the object is revealed as a trap constructed to hit one’s humerus with a bolt hidden under an elbow rest. Exhibited as part of the Ballungscenter project, this work reappeared in Germann’s werewolf exhibition propped against the wall, and thus abandoning its original function.
If one common thread can be identified throughout all Germann’s works, it is energy’s potential to change forms. When describing the work, his words are mercurial: ‘It was folly for me to seize on causal connections as I was soon wrong-footed by further foreign ingredients and impulses.’ Though his materials are solid in comparison, they carry a roving curiosity. On the subject of Austearlitz, he said jokingly that his interest arose in the great power and achievements emanating from a small man. His research began with a copy of Norvin’s eulogising biography of Napoleon, and has since moved from Austerlitz to oysters, to their cousin in mineral substance alabaster, to alabaster caves in South Dakota, to silver gelatin prints, to silver cake-slices carrying electric currents that force open oysters.
Germann initially trained as a cabinet maker before learning stone carving, where he worked in restoration before undertaking art studies in Zürich. If his postgraduate success has been rapid, it comes after many years of learning how to form works with his own hands. He is not an extravagant commissioner of fabrications, but invests countless hours in crafting his own objects.
Suspending half a car from the ceiling of the Kunsthaus Glarus was ambitious, but his aspirations do not end there. He hopes to work in Paris, where the column in Place Vendôme contains metal from the melted canons of armies vanquished in the Battle of Austerlitz.
Meanwhile, he is involved in a two-year mission to cross-fertilise Russian and French oysters, as well as working on a project to carve a massive mould in the shape of a doctor’s bag. He plans to blow a glass train engine in said bag. This mould has been weeks of work already, while on my recent visit to Germann’s studio a monitor rested on the movable safe from the Deutsche Bundesbank that is to make his breeding oysters’ home. His studio is a clean space of industry, where ideas and connections emerge out of laborious activity. Germann is himself the key that unlocks associative connections between objects. He is informed by a voracious appetite for reading, internet surfing and by acute observation of life experiences. The web of associations around Austerlitz is still coming into being.
It is difficult to describe how works that are romantic and funny manage to bear sustained viewing, but Germann’s sculptures resonate with many layers of understanding. Beginning with materials—basalt, silver, oyster shells or wood—that are powerfully potent with connotations, he constructs from them, systems and mechanisms that effect transformations of form using mechanical, chemical or supernatural energy (though whether these are alchemical fantasy or reality is rarely explicit).
Germann’s drawings are stuffed with inspiration borrowed from history, B-movies, pulp fiction novels, science and legend to form synthetic narratives that are both rational and comic. His many leitmotifs function as the veins and arteries of a sophisticated organism. His skill is to craft objects with a corporeal presence that do not overshadow but rather nurture associations, which continually relate to and inform each other, and together produce a rich, multi-layered combination of object and meaning.
Aoife Rosenmeyer is a writer and curator based in Zurich
Florian Germann, solo presentation with BolteLang Gallery, Zurich, Art Brussels, 23-26 April