Monday, May 26, 2008

Art Space Talk: Dana Mueller

Dana Mueller is the second place finalist of the Next Perspective photography competition. The Next Perspective competition was sponsored by myartspace and HotShoe International. The winners of the competition-- Laura Pannack, Dana Mueller, and Rebecca Greenberg --were selected by the contest jury which included Henry Horenstein from the Rhode Island School of Design, Dr. Juliet Hacking from Sotheby's Institute of Art in London and Clare Freestone from the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Born in 1971, Dana Mueller grew up and lived in Thueringia, East Germany until the fall of the Berlin Wall. She immigrated to the United States in 1993. At the age of 25 she started studies in photography at Oxford Brookes University in Oxford, UK and in 1998 at the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University. Mueller has held an adjunct faculty position at the Art Institute of Boston since 2001. In 2007 she received her Master of Fine Arts in Photography at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, where she has studied with Barbara Bosworth, Frank Gohlke, David Hilliard, Laura McPhee, and Abelardo Morell. Mueller teaching assisted Nick Nixon in 2007 and assisted in publishing the documentary book "Inherit the Land" by Jack Lueders-Booth (2005 Pond Press).

She is the recipient of a 2008 Faculty Development Grant and the 2007 St. Botolph Club Foundation Grant. Her work has been shown in exhibitions at the Photographic Resource Center of Boston, The Art Institute of Boston, Boston, MA, the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Boston, MA, the Barrett Art Center, Poughkeepsie, NY, North East Space Time Exhibition, New Haven, CT, among others. Her work is part of the permanent collections at the Boston Public Library and the International Institute of Boston.

Mueller frequently travels and photographs in Europe, South America, and the United States and currently resides in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Fruchtländer (Fruitlands), Ayer, Massachusetts 2006 Silver gelatin print and burned print of German fields. 19th Century painter Caspar David Friedrich symbolic landscapes were part of a German idealism that had an affinity for nature, especially its wild and mysterious aspects, and melancholic, and melodramatic subjects. Skies, storms, mist, ruins, scattered tracks bore witness to the manifestation of the divine in nature. Later, German Nazis appropriated the notion of the symbolic landscape and directly tied German land and its forests to German identity.

Brian Sherwin: Dana, you were raised in Thueringia, East Germany. Your family remained there until the fall of the Berlin Wall. You immigrated to the United States in 1993. Can you discuss those early years and how they influenced you as an artist?

Dana Mueller: The work every artist creates comes from a certain belief system and such is shaped throughout the duration of one’s life. Our childhood greatly affects how we relate to the world socially, culturally, politically and psychologically. So every circumstance that we face, resist or embrace informs our choices in life as well as in art and so, yes, where I come from has always influenced me as an individual and the work I do.

Besides of growing up in East Germany, which has its own political and social context, I grew up in a village. The landscape and nature made a deep impression on me. Memories are also colored by the stories of my grandparents whose experiences especially before, during and after the war, marked me emotionally and mentally. In school we were taught about the wars, but our involvement as Germans were always politicized and simplified. It was only through my grandmother that I learned about the individual lives of people during that time.

Those human experiences stood in direct contrast to the politicized and official rendering of that time, especially in the history books of East Germany. So, early on, I knew there was a ‘hidden’ complexity to our history and the state-shaped collective memory was different. As a child I did not understand, but I sensed it. Only after the unification of Germany and also after later leaving my country did I achieve a kind of distance that led me to re-investigate and understand.

My current work Heimat-Land Narratives or On Memory takes me to landscapes where Germans have lived, worked, killed, died and survived within that context of human history. In particular I visited German POW camps in Massachusetts and New Hampshire where German prisoners of war were stationed and worked the fields for local farmers. How ironic that these German soldiers picked apples, tilled fields, and harvested crops for the American enemy. The banality of such work stands in complete contrast to the horrific actions by Nazis and German soldiers in Eastern Europe at that time. As an example, I would refer to Hitler’s Torched Earth Policy, where Germans marching towards Russia burned and destroyed the fields and villages. And when I photograph these landscapes I try to visually evoke these contrasts.
Apfelpflücker (apple picker), Middlesex County, Massachusetts 2006. Toward the end of the war Hitler ordered to form a special penal unit (Strafbataillon) composed of German dissidents and prisoners. The 999th Penal Division was sent to fight in Rommel's African Corps. While in Rommel's army many of the 999th disserted and surrendered to the Americans. It became known as one of the largest surrenders in military history, as over 150,000 men were taken prisoners and shipped to the Normandy and the US. One of the camps was at Ft. Devens, Massachusetts, where they picked apples and worked the fields for local farmers.

BS: You studied photography at Oxford Brookes University and at the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University. You earned an MFA in photography at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Tell us about your academic years. Did you have any influential instructors?

DM: At Oxford Brookes University I took my first photography class, which was called Thinking Photography, a theoretical class where we looked at Cindy Sherman, Robert Mapplethorpe (who had a retrospective at the time in London) and Jo Spence. For someone who knew little about the history of the medium--what a way to get introduced. Each one of these artists, for better or worse, were controversial and in ways wonderfully provocative and it made me realize that there was tremendous diversity and possibility within the medium to express oneself, which I wanted to embrace.
After Oxford Brookes I seriously wanted to study photography and enrolled into the Art Institute of Boston. There, I would argue, I became a photographer. I soaked it all up and to this day my most important professor and mentor, Bonnell Robinson, pushed and challenged me, always expecting the highest of standards from each one of us, besides sharing her inexhaustible knowledge of photography’s history and process, and the arts. She has been an immense influence on so many students there. Support goes a long way and the entire photography faculty at AIB has been incredibly supportive, including Christopher James, Jack Booth and Jane Tuckerman.
Another kind of memorable experience I had was when I was teaching assistant for Morten Krogvold, a Norwegian photographer, at the Maine Photographic Workshops. He is an artist who lives and breathes what he does. A force of nature to be reckoned with. Fascinating to hear him speak about his own work as well as that of others. To this day I remember his lecture on Edvard Munch and also Bergman’s Cries and Whispers.

During graduate school I was fortunate enough to study with photographers Laura McPhee, David Hilliard, Abe Morell, Frank Gohlke and Nick Nixon. Each one of them I got to know as extremely committed photographers, wonderfully intelligent and who are active and successful in what they are doing. I found in them integrity, authenticity and at the same time modesty in regards to who they are as artists—a combination I find to be rare these days. I was lucky.
Aussichtsturm (lookout tower), Horseneck Beach, Massachusetts 2006. German submarines were spotted along the American coast. Admiral Karl Donitz, the commander of Germany’s U-boat fleet began attacking merchant shipping from Maine to Florida. Termed Paukenschlag (drum roll), Donitz called the operation "Happy Time."

BS: I understand that you also have experience teaching. You have held an adjunct faculty position at the Art Institute of Boston. How do you find balance between teaching and creating your own work? I've interviewed several instructors and they often mention that it can be difficult to find balance...

DM: There is never enough time to do work when teaching, because I live from my teaching. The time really to photograph is during the summers. I don’t find that to be a problem, because the teaching somehow always informs you as a photographer and once I have a good amount of time to photograph I get completely immersed and it does eventually enter the classroom where my photography informs the teaching. So, the two can go hand in hand once one has committed oneself to both professions. But, it is hard to leave it behind during the teaching year, I start to itch and miss it terribly.

BS: It is my understanding that you travel often-- having photographed throughout Europe, South America, and the United States. How have those travels influenced your work?

DM: Well, we Germans travel a lot. To the dismay of some...

But on a serious note, those travels for me are both personal and photographically inspired. Especially significant are the various landscapes that Germans inhabited, sometimes imposing themselves through conquest and other times finding exile. I would like to return to South America and travel to Argentina and Chile at some point. As you probably know, there were substantial waves of German immigrants during and after the Second World War. Erich Honecker, the former East German president, and his wife sought refuge in Chile during the fall of 1989.

The investigation of one’s national identity is not only local--contained within its own borders—the diaspora has global implications as well.
Theresienstadt (Terezin), Bohemia, Czech Republic 2005. Swimming pool for German Nazi guards and their families beyond the walls of the Terezin concentration camp. The families of the German officers who ran the concentration camps were living just outside the camps, where they schooled, fed and entertained their children.

BS: Tell us about the thoughts behind your work. For example, is there a specific message that you strive to convey to viewers? What are your goals as a photographer?

DM: There is no answer or message other than that the work is a constant investigation and questioning, especially of German identity. Trying to understand what happens is, I think, a fundamental instinct in us humans. Also, our relationship to the land and how we construct the meaning of a landscape and its importance in forming national identity. I want to share this inquiry with my audience.

BS: What are you working on at this time?

DM: I will be traveling to Italy and Croatia by the end of May where I will continue my landscape work. I also want to return to another chapter of my earlier work by going to places where German writer W.G. Sebald traveled. Later on in the year I also will travel to Texas and New Mexico to photograph former German POW camps, or what’s left of them. It will be interesting to compare and contrast these various landscapes.
Apfelobstgarten (apple orchard), Ayer, Massachusetts 2006. As the Germans marched East the entire urban population was to be exterminated by starvation, the fields and houses were burned.


BS: Do you have an emotional connection to your work? Or are you more connected to the process? Is the finished photograph nothing more than a reflection of the process that interested you... or is it the unification of that process and the emotion, methods, and techniques that you utilized?

DM: The connection to the work is all that combined. Process-wise you need to know what your choices are and be able to apply them to the work. Conceptually you need to be connected to what it is you are trying to discuss, that means knowing your subject. Your technique and method are always informed by the content and concept. The medium of photography lends itself so fittingly to the discussion of memory, history and identity.

A photograph it is a moment in time—a document of something that truly existed.
But that moment has passed as soon as you take the photograph. John Berger and Roland Barthes so brilliantly have written about this. It’s a little death. And in time that truth shifts, and we start to romanticize that reality. We feel nostalgic about the past. The image becomes an abstraction of something that existed.

The same is true with memory or history. With time, the experiences we remember become increasingly inaccessible. History in a way is an archive of loss. So when I photograph, I know that those experiences and meanings might already be lost, but to me the quest for understanding is why I photograph.

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the goals that you have?

DM: Thank you for inquiring about my work!

You can learn more about Dana Mueller by visiting her website-- www.danamueller.net. Dana is a member of the www.myartspace.com community. You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page-- www.myartspace.com/interviews.

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin

1 comment:

Clair Dunn said...

I can't believe there are no comments here.

A friend of mine recommended I take a look at the work of Dana Mueller, and in doing so I found your interview. Thank you so much for giving Dana a chance to speak in words. And, she speaks as well as she sees.
clair