Christophe Van Eecke
There are few things so enchanting as to happen upon the first flowers of spring. Suddenly, after the bleak midwinter, we are engulfed by a sense of life. It is such a quickening of the senses that we experience when we encounter the work of Regula Maria Müller. In Regula's work, art no longer imitates nature but seems to emulate it. The realm of the natural and the realm of the imaginary seem to merge and bring forth forms of exquisite beauty.
In Dreaming by the Book (2001) Elaine Scarry asks how the human imagination works. One of the remarkable things she notices, is the ease with which we imagine flowers. If we imagine a human figure, a horse, a landscape or even a human face, it is very difficult to see all the details in our mind's eye. But a flower emerges in full detail with very little effort. One of the reasons for this is the fact that we feel imagination taking place in our mind, and that is to say: in our head. We have the odd sensation that images imagined are projected onto the inside of our forehead. To imagine a horse or a landscape, the image must be reduced in size to fit it into our mental projection room. But flowers are just the right size to fit the inside of our head. That is why, when they emerge, they immediately emerge in full detail.
Another reason why we so easily imagine flowers is what Scarry calls (with a word borrowed from Aristotle) their rarity: the fact that their petals are thin and veil-like, so that one can see the light shining through them. Things imagined, Scarry writes, are rarely solid. Images in the mind have a ghost-like quality: they appear to be weightless and hover before the mind's eye. When the object imagined shares this gossamer-like quality in real life, it is very easy to imagine it. That is why it is very easy to imagine a fog, a veil or a ghost, which are all sheer substances, but it is difficult to image a car, a face or a building. Flowers have the frail quality of veils and fog and are therefore easy to summon before the mind's eye.
When we look at Regula's work, it sometimes seems as if these images have been taken from our mind's eye and introduced into the real world. Looking at her photographs of flowers with beads sown on to enhance their texture, we feel as if imagined flowers have been made real. By adding beads, threads and pieces of blown glass to her works, Regula reproduces the detailed intensity that we associate with the images of flowers in the mind. In doing so, her images enhance the fragility and preciousness that we already know to be present in flowers. By clothing objects' shapes in tactile fabrics, shimmering beads, glass and joyous colours, Regula enhances their vivacity. In fact, their vivacity is enhanced to the point that they seem more alive than reality: they have the intensity of precious objects imagined.
In this process, Regula seems to invert the normal process of artistic creation. Normally in art, we expect the artist to take some elements from life and make them imaginary or introduce them into a work of fiction, which may be a poem, a painting, a novel or any other work of art. Elements from reality are used to create an image of the imagination. In Regula's work this relationship is inverted: it seems she has used precious materials to take an image from the imagination and make it real for our perception. Suddenly, we are confronted in the real world with objects that seem to belong in the realm of imagination, as if they have been lifted straight out of the mind's eye and been put there for our physical perception. In their elaborate beauty, Regula's images and objects seem hyperreal and preternaturally beautiful.
We must understand this process correctly. In a sense, all art makes the imaginary real. One could say that a writer dreams up an imaginary character and its world and then makes it real in the form of a novel. A filmmaker makes a fantasy real in images, as a painter makes it real in colours on a canvas. But the final work of art is never an exact copy of what the artist had in mind. Artists never paint or write by numbers, as if the completely finished image of a painting was already in their mind and all they had to do was translate it, dot by dot, onto canvas or paper. There is a distance between the work imagined and the work created. In Regula's works this distance seems to be suspended because the works seem to have been lifted straight out of the mind's eye, without the mediation of material creation.
Obviously, this is only seemingly so, for Regula's works are the result of craft. But in her work, imagination does seem to become real because Regula reproduces the felt experience of imagining: she shows us what flowers actually look like in the mind's eye. To look at her works is, as it were, to dream with one's eyes open or to see one's daydreams materialise before one's eyes. In Regula's work, flowers do have the immediacy and vivacity that they only seem to have in our imagination (or in some new kinds of very sensitive digital photography, which reveals the most incredibly minute details of flowers and petals that the eye never seems to notice in real life). In this sense, Regula's works, despite their generally modest size, are overwhelming: they are objects from a world of plenty.
This world of plenty is also present in the forms Regula creates and in the motifs she introduces into her work. In Regula's work nature is bountiful. Calyxes, lascivious tongues, frilly blossoms, colourful corals, orchids, seashells and anatomical details of the human body are everywhere apparent, creating a sighing, heaving and delightful garden of Eden. If these forms could sing, they would sound like the lustful sighing and breathing in the music of Björk. It is a fertile world in constant shimmering motion. And it is a motion from within, the self-perpetuating dynamic of organic growth moving out from the hidden core of these organic forms and blossoming out towards the world.
The forms come out and greet us.
Because Regula's works are so closely connected to craft, they are usually of modest and human size. Inspired by Erasmus' The Praise of Folly, Regula has recently created a series of crowns for the nine vices that follow in the train of Folly. These crowns can be put on a person's head. Erasmus' work turns the world on its head: Folly herself praises the virtue of folly and other vices. It is an ironic work full of wisdom about human nature and our desire to be deceived. Reality, Erasmus seems to imply, is not very interesting: it is fantasy that attracts us. Just as Regula's works invert the normal relationship between reality and imagination by making imagined objects real, Erasmus presents us with the possibility of a reality that is the inverted image of the world we actually inhabit. There is great relief in such an inversion: it holds the promise of liberation from constraints, from suffocating rules and prescriptions, and it holds the promise of fun and pleasure.
Many motifs in Regula's works are lifted from fairytales, legend and other realms of fantasy. There is an orb and the apple of Eve (deliciously succulent source of sin), there are homespun boots with twigs growing out of them, there are corals and anemones from the sea (home to the little mermaid), there is colour everywhere, and all of it is teeming with life. This is such stuff as dreams are made of, and if our little life is rounded with a sleep, we can only hope that Morpheus will cover us in a dream-world akin to the universe that Regula creates. Regula's work takes many cues from the natural world, but it is not mimetic: it shows us the world as it should be and as we would like everyone to perceive it. It shows the world as plentiful.
The tactility of Regula's craft is inviting in yet another way: we feel tempted to touch these works. But at the same time they seem too fragile to touch. They attract and repel. In this they are also like some flowers: gorgeous cups to behold, but treacherous to enter. Many an insect has been tempted by the seductive colours and shapes of flowers that are flesh-eating, poisonous of venomous (Yes, flowers can be venomous, although the word seems to imply an element of free will. It is usually people who are venomous. But are flowers not human too? Capable of love, lust and deception?). This darker side of nature is equally present in Regula's work, lurking in details. Red and blue tongues, obscenely red suckers with glass cups, seductive corals in which to get lost: temptation is a hazardous thing. But the thrill of danger is half the delight, and would roses still be pretty if they did not have thorns to sting? Would we not rather call them by any other name than to have to give up on the delicate joy of trying to pick them without being stung? Beauty should not always be too readily at hand, especially not to touch: we should desire it from a distance. That way, we truly desire, never grab hold, and can come back tomorrow to look at it again.