Beyond the Rainbow
Rarely has a German artist produced work so closely bound up with America, as has Bjørn Melhus. For almost two decades – since Das Zauberglas – he has transposed himself to the American media landscape. Soundtracks of American films are his source material whereby he often takes a synchronised German version and then personally replays a role in playback, i. e. re-synchs the film. He thus combines two elementary techniques of cinematic cultural exchange: whilst American films are synchronised for release in Germany, German films that appear to be of interest to the American market are licensed for a total re-make. The German method adapts language and voices to correspond as closely as possible to the original whilst the American method – quite the reverse – tends more cannibalistically to swallow the foreign product whole and thereby rob it of its roots and independence.
Media criticism seems implicit in Bjørn Melhus’ method. Somewhat stranger and more provocative however, is the thematic content of his work, namely his use of American media characters as a means of coming to terms with his own childhood. The three parts of this programme, which can be read as a trilogy, are central to this process. The first is Weit Weit Weg, in which Bjørn Melhus appears as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz and attempts to make contact with the world over the rainbow, namely America. What initially appears to be a comical and hopeless attempt to bring together the real Bjørn Melhus and the imaginary character from his childhood TV world takes a tragic turn when we learn it is dedicated to Melhus’ sister, Britta, who committed suicide. The rainbow is in Weit Weit Weg a symbolic medial bridge between two worlds and, at the same time, a bridge between the living and the dead. Dorothy’s androgyneity is a reflection of both Britta and Bjørn Melhus; he replaces that which is irreplaceable (1).
Whilst in Weit Weit Weg Bjørn Melhus dreams of America from Sasnak – an acronym for Dorothy’s hometown, Kansas – in Auto Center Drive he has arrived there. Teenager Jimmy, the All American Rebel, stalks his way through the Californian desert to meet idols of his youth such as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, all of whom he plays himself. Protected by another mythical screen character, the silent, terrifying bodyguard, he seems unable to make any contact: dreams remain unattainable in the homeland of dreams; the fantasised world of childhood is irredeemable. Dorothy, the one now abandoned, appears only marginally, as a homeless alcoholic. Her wish to return home, so often repeated in Weit Weit Weg, has not been fulfilled: “there is no place like home”.
It is therefore consistent if nonetheless surprising that the third part of the trilogy, The Meadow, was filmed in Germany – without making explicit the exact location. Together with his bodyguard and a huge American road cruiser an older Jimmy now drives to the forest to look for the characters from his childhood world of film – and also in the meantime from the work cycle of Bjørn Melhus. Audio quotes are drawn from James Dean films, Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden, and the dramatic world war Disney film, Bambi. The colourful figures of American screen mythology from Weit Weit Weg and Auto Center Drive have now grown pale in the dim light of a German forest. They stutter something about the open, free world, about the meadow it is imperative to reach and which they will, however, never reach. Captured in long, patient takes, even the chic American road cruiser seems to acquire a monstrous inner life; it looks like a wicked, prowling beast. Promises conveyed by the media in childhood not only remain unfulfilled but become somehow threatening. All the comical, light-hearted elements of Bjørn Melhus’ early works are missing in The Meadow: there remains only an undisguised view of the abyss.
(1) The tragic sibling motif features even more clearly in The Oral Thing, in which Bjørn Melhus plays a brother and a sister in an American TV confession.
(2) Although The Meadow is itself part of an independent trilogy comprising three works: The Castle – The Meadow – The City.