Tilsit is a very large wall-mounted sculpture that consists of a rectangular, box-like structure made from plywood and covered in thick grey felt that is secured at each side by staples. The sculpture has no visible open sides and is hung flush to the wall. A piece of Plexiglas has been attached to the flat front plane by means of clips. The sculpture’s scale, its rectangular shape and the darkness of the felt give it an imposing geometric presence.
This work was constructed by the German artist Reinhard Mucha in 1987, most likely in his Düsseldorf studio. Mucha often discovers the constituent parts of his sculptures and installations in exhibition venues; the materials used in Tilsit (felt, plywood, glass and metal) can all routinely be found in a gallery environment and are used for the packing, storage or display of artworks. In 2004 Mucha explained the importance of using ordinary materials, describing himself as a ‘craftsman tinkering in the gap where art ends and daily life begins’ (quoted in Kamps 2005, p.406).
Tilsit takes its title from a train station in a former East Prussian city that was annexed by Russia in 1945. The theme of the railway has been central to Mucha’s work since the late 1970s. Before enrolling in art school he trained as a mechanic and developed a fascination for Germany’s national rail system. In 2004 Mucha described how the idea of the railway is buried deep in the German psyche (Kamps 2005, p.406). Tilsit is related to a series of sculptures and installations, including Kalkar 1988 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), that are constructed from found objects and fronted with glass, and each titled after German train stations whose names contain six letters. The critic Jerry Saltz has described these sculptures as taking on ‘the presence of a boxcar’, adding: ‘you can imagine yourself on the outside looking in, or even the other way around – looking out through these dark windows. These works are like trains in the grey overcast dawn – little or no light illuminates their insides (they feel inaccessible this way), adding to their solemnity and mystery’ (Saltz 1994, p.80). Mucha has said that for the viewer, seeing their reflection in the glass surface of his sculptures ‘creates a form of silence and emptiness and loneliness’ (quoted in Kamps 2005, p.406). Tilsit, like many of Mucha’s railway-inspired works, evokes personal memories of train travel which he says are a part of humans’ ‘collective biography’ (quoted in Kamps 2005, p.406), as well as national memories of a pre-war Germany.
The critic Roberta Smith has linked Mucha’s recurrent use of grey felt to the work of the German conceptualist Joseph Beuys (who taught at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf where Mucha studied), adding that these felt coverings make Mucha’s sculptures ‘seem shrouded and absorbent, as if they are mourning their previous lives’ (Roberta Smith, ‘Art in Review: Reinhard Mucha “Collected: Recollected”, Luhring Augustine, SoHo’, New York Times, 29 October 1993, http://www.nytimes.com/1993/10/29/arts/art-in-review-220293.html, accessed 22 August 2015). In 2004 Mucha claimed that his use of felt ‘comes from childhood memories of shop windows in which coloured felt formed backdrops for merchandise displays resembling tiny theatres’ (quoted in Kamps 2005, p.406). There is a sense of the theatrical about Tilsit; the felt of the sculpture forms the backcloth and the viewer’s reflection takes centre stage. Mucha is aware of his role in setting a scene, stating once that ‘I stage the stage’ (quoted in Saltz 1994, p.79). His work bears the influence of mid-twentieth¿-century constructivism, minimalism and conceptualism, and he was also part of a group of artists called the ‘model makers’ that included Katharina Fritsch and Thomas Schütte, who created artworks that ‘allowed them to expose reality in a staged and therefore distanced way’ (Germann 2015, accessed 24 August 2015).
Tilsit can be considered an extension of Mucha’s installation Wartesaal (Waiting Room) 1979–82, 1986, 1997, which has been described by the critic Martin Germann as a ‘meta-work’, ‘a semiotic reservoir’ for his wall sculptures (Germann 2015, accessed 24 August 2015). Wartesaal features organised stacks of 242 German railway station signs each bearing a different pre-war station name consisting of six letters. The name Tilsit falls into this category and is part of Mucha’s wider project to map a vanished topography of the railway.
Jerry Saltz, ‘History’s Train’, Art in America, vol.82, no.1, January 1994, pp.78–81.
Toby Kamps, ‘Reinhard Mucha’, in Jonathan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter, Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, collection catalogue, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis 2005, pp.406–7.
Martin Germann, ‘Give Me Shelter – Making Time: The Workpieces of Reinhard Mucha’, Frieze, no.18, March–April 2015, http://frieze-magazin.de/archiv/features/entsicherte-zeit/?lang=en, accessed 24 August 2015.
Supported by Christie’s.