The first retrospective of John Miller’s work in Germany, ‘An Elixir of Immortality’ provides a comprehensive overview spanning from the 1980s to the present. Exhibited at Schinkel Pavillon is a divergent and at times incongruous body of work, including sculpture, video and painting. Miller refuses to be pigeonholed or swiftly pinned down, punctuating his work with a beat of wry humour along the way. However, the commentary across the exhibition is unifying; whether chasing the significance of the everyday or interrogating, even mocking, established hierarchies of power, Miller is interested in processes, specifically when these processes are subject to interruption and deterioration.
The early work, ranging from 1986 to 1992, introduces the famous ‘John Miller brown’. There is the storefront mannequin in a suit lacquered with paint (later purchased and repurposed by Martin Kippenberger), a defiant ‘NO’ spelt out as two rugs and brown impasto sculptures. Alluding to the Freudian association between excrement and currency, the repeated use of the colour and faecal shape in these sculptures critically questions the values of our world. ‘Feet of Clay’ (1988) presents two separate statues atop obelisks. The upright structures give a sense of authority and hierarchy, neatly undermined by the excrement-like lumps through which each are formed. Captured in the process of decay, the sculptures are relegated from a status of power to one of rapid decline.
‘We painted naive slogans on the side of our camper’ (1992) operates in a similar manner. Occupying the entrance to the exhibition, a sword is set in a floor sculpture. Playing on the legend of King Arthur, impervious stone is replaced with a muddy, glob-like mound, the sword a plastic alternative to Excalibur. The well-known image is democratised here, shifting the narrative from an exclusive challenge preserved by legend to one that could be literally anyone’s for the taking. As Miller himself notes, “removing the sword would hardly present a challenge.”
The most recent work is also the exhibition’s most ostentatious; ‘Mourning for a World of Rubbish’ (2020) occupies the centre of the upstairs space. Fragmented structures of columns, plinths and steps are covered entirely with gold-leaf. The neoclassical forms call to mind ancient ruins of times long passed; however the work is firmly rooted in its contemporary context. Scattered across the structures is a booty of the banal. Here the mannequin has been diced; a discarded hand is littered alongside water bottles, weaponry, bread rolls and trinkets.
Though having had previous incarnations, ‘Mourning for a World of Rubbish’ features the new reference to the Lustgarten bowl. Commissioned by the Kaiser in 1828, the bowl was later adopted by Hitler and provided the backdrop to rallies during his power. Miller explicitly references the architecture of Albert Speer, who worked for the Nazi regime. ‘Ruinenwert’ (ruin value) was Speer’s architectural approach, which focused not on the immediate functionality of a building, but rather on how its structure would stand for many years to come. It explored how structures, as ruins, could continue to quote and preserve the past.
Though programmed a year in advance, the exhibition here feels eerily prescient. This year has seen the debate around statues that occupy public spaces reach boiling point, with critical thought given regarding the figures platformed and the problematic history they perpetuate. Although Miller is not commenting directly upon this discussion, the work references the perennial distortions of history which have been preserved for centuries. Though we may find the concept of Ruinenwert discomforting, the core notion manifests itself in many areas of our society.
Occupying the surrounding walls is an arrangement of paintings; two form part of Miller’s ‘fake social realist’ paintings that reference a moment from the Civil Rights Movement protests and a pornographic scene respectively. Two more are borne out of the artist’s short-lived practice of creating a painting per day; in one, a sexualised Batman stands at a cliff edge, while in the other a coquettish nun peers out at the viewer. Joining the cultural and the historic, the sordid and the saintly, Miller leaves no stone of society unturned.
The act of daily painting points to a ritual in Miller’s practice which has been more successful in his photographic work. Initiated in 1994, ‘The Middle of The Day’ is an ongoing project, documenting scenes between the hours of noon and two o’clock. The photographs do not stand alone as strong images; neither is that what the artist intends. It is an amalgamation of moments from the window of time when many of us are between shifts at work: an interruption to the working day in which nothing of great value is necessarily achieved. We eat, read or scroll, and temporarily unwind before returning to the rest of our day. Miller’s daily images chase this time of seeming insignificance, paradoxically recognising the significance it carries.
The chase runs throughout Miller’s oeuvre. It is with a keen eye that the artist looks at our everyday and structured realities, moving in turn to discover or to interrogate the significance of each. Whether dismantling hierarchical structures or observing the rituals of our routines, Miller is an astute observer. Although covering four decades, ‘An Elixir of Immortality’ is incredibly relevant, calling into question the very things with which we continue to grapple.