Franz Ehmann

Blue room of humanity
Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane

Franz Ehmann has pursued his interest in installation and in the grand themes of life and death in the Blue Room of Humanity, his latest exhibition which turned one large room of the Institute of Modern Art into a metaphorical 'blue grotto'. Using a rich blue pigment Ehmann inscribed the floor with words and numbers orchestrated in careful calculations to form a notation of significant historical injustices, a catalogue of violence, atrocities, and memories lost. The text primarily drew connections to specific moments in the histories of Austria and Australia as part of Ehmann's constant defining of his role as an other, or 'foreigner', in Australia. The text relates, in part also, to the dispossession of the Aboriginal people, and could be read on one level as a call for reconciliation.

The Blue Room might be seen as exposing the evidence of our combined, mass sweeping of cultural, social and political history under the metaphorical 'carpet'. Situated as though floating on the text is a pile of blue pigment, juxtaposed in similar size and shape with a pile of small, plastic blue toy soldiers - guns and bayonets at the ready - along with some pieces of intertwined wax. Wax often features in Ehmann's installations and he has referred to its loose translation from the German wachs, as growth. The Beuysian quality of its inclusion is not lost, while the blue offers the work a melancholy, nostalgic quality which avoids sentimentality and cliché.

The text, written in several languages, but primarily German, along with the numbers, can never be seen as a whole, limited as the viewer is to a vertical relationship with the work. Ironically the viewing of the Blue Room necessitates walking on the carefully written languages, thus bringing about the room's ultimate, inevitable destruction. Ehmann employs ephemeral elements deliberately to deny his work material posterity, preferring to create an experience which can last only for a certain duration. In participating, one becomes increasingly aware that one is responsible for the demise of the Blue Room and thus for the passing of the history that Ehmann documents. We could read this as an intention of the work, that the viewer participates in a work-in-progress. The Blue Room of Humanity is subject to constant change and the meaning of the words and numbers is fixed neither literally nor metaphorically. The use of foreign languages alludes to our shared humanity but it also serves to highlight gaps in meaning and relevance.

The Blue Room is a metaphor for society's tendency to let go of lessons learnt through history. The catalogue for the exhibition points to the artist's intention to simultaneously reveal a present and remind of a past, an ambitious task at best. While Ehmann attempts to describe a general human condition, his work is always inscribed with personal meaning, thus the significance of the German text. Ehmann himself describes the blue room as an investigation of the German idea of lebensraum, which translated literally means 'living room' - thus we could see the blue room as a room for living in, a sanctuary. But Ehmann also points out that the term has other connotations for Germans, due to its association with the Nazi expansion into Europe in the search for 'living room', or space to colonise. The word has contemporary relevance in the light of the continuing Aboriginal land rights campaigns and the controversy over the Wik legislation.