Bringing life into the living room

by Thomas Mießgang8 September 23

Upon invitation of Tangente, Christian Philipp Müller aims to invigorate the redesigned Domplatz with artistic interventions and imbue it with new meaning. Thomas Miessgang on the Swiss artist and his work.

Credit: Christian Philipp Müller
Credit: Christian Philipp Müller

Recent drone footage captures the complexity and contradictory character of St. Pölten’s Domplatz, the central church square: from a bird’s eye view, you see the goings-on on this rectangular square enclosed by buildings. Strewn cars remind us that this place was an inner-city parking lot for a long time; a thick concrete slab obscures the archaeological excavations of the past twelve years, which uncovered the bones of a long-abandoned cemetery and finds from the Roman settlement.

At the same time, it is evident that great effort is put into redesigning the square: there are trucks and cement-mixers, a crane, timber constructions, as well as tarpaulins half-drawn over a precisely demarcated square. It juts diagonally into the site.

Credit: Christian Philipp Müller
Credit: Christian Philipp Müller
Credit: Stefan Silvestri
Credit: Stefan Silvestri

The Domplatz is a transitory space with a rich history, and it is also the largest public square in St. Pölten – next to Rathausplatz. Since the municipal government and the diocese decided to transform it into a car-free zone and the architects Jabornegg & Pálffy were commissioned with its refurbishment, the focus has been on finding new functions and ways to charge it with new meanings. “The square has been cleaned up dramatically in the last few years,” says Swiss artist Christian Philipp Müller. “It has become the parlour of the city, so to speak, and ought to be, by definition, a showpiece of St. Pölten – but what is needed now is a fresh breath of life.”

In his aesthetic practice, Müller seeks conditions where art can emerge: he meticulously investigates the socio-political, historical, and sociological dimensions of places in order to arrive at clever design interventions with an inclusive, inviting quality. This also applies to the Domplatz in St. Pölten – a square that should not only be visually anchored in the minds of the inhabitants but in the historical mindset, too. “People who frequent this space need to reclaim it as their own.” Now, he says, the task is to look in the rear-view mirror in order to see ahead.

In his many decades of work in and with public spaces, Christian Philipp Müller has developed strategies to access places and milieus he previously knew little about, both topographically and in their historical depth. For example, one reference project that bears certain similarities with St. Pölten is A Balancing Act at the 1997 documenta X  in Kassel: the square in front of the Fridericianum was his departure point for a critical reinterpretation of two large-scale projects by Walter de Maria (The Vertical Earth Kilometer) and Joseph Beuys (7000 Oak Trees), which had been commissioned and realised as part of earlier editions of the major art event. Müller used archive material, newspaper reports, and documentary recordings to compile an archaeological assemblage, which he translated into a performance that allowed visitors to experience Friedrichsplatz as a stratified deposit of a multitude of different functions and design interventions.

While his work in St. Pölten is not about art in public space, Christian Philipp Müller’s aesthetic approach is comparable: “At an early stage, I went to the City Museum  of St. Pölten and asked the director to explain more about the square and its significance within the urban fabric, beginning from the Roman city.” This exchange marked the starting point for his artistic project: underneath the numerous superimposed epistemological layers, archaeologist Roland Risy had found the remains of a chapel and, even deeper, a Roman bath built in a circular shape. These structures, buried under the mercurial fortunes of the city, will now be brought to light again – at least as a metaphor. On the concrete slab that seals the church square, Müller intends to recreate the original shape of the Roman building. However, his ambition is not to reinstate the function of the bath, as the artist explains: “I want to bring long-forgotten elements from history to the surface and pose the question: What does this have to do with the present day?”

Credit: Christian Philipp Müller
Credit: Christian Philipp Müller

A key figure in his project is St. Florian, a Roman official who converted to Christianity, and then became the first Austrian martyr. For Müller, this intermediary figure between the pagan worldview of the Roman Empire and the religious doctrine of emerging Christianity is a perfect allegory for an playful interpretation of the local situation: “I want to turn this place, so steeped in history, into a site of delightful encounters and discursive exchange, and use the metaphor of water to trigger a flood of emotions.”

For Christian Philipp Müller, the energetic quality of the square could be charged with the idea of pre-Christian joie de vivre, which he intends to celebrate through parades and rituals without religious connotations. “My aim is simply to add a human scale to this place – to reveal a contemporary  dimension that comes, in the end, from the Romans.”

Text: Thomas Mießgang
Fotos: Christian Philipp Müller und Stefan Silvestri

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