Late September with a few hours to kill in Lausanne I chanced upon an exhibition of maps at the Musée de l’Art Brut. When I asked the lady at the desk for a ticket to the cartographer’s exhibition she hesitated:
— you mean Michael Golz?
Like many of the artists on show in the museum’s permanent collection Michael Golz evades easy categorisation. Art Brut is produced by outsiders, by people who have little formal training and don’t necessarily self-identify as artists. It’s the work of marginal but highly creative individuals – of the mentally disabled, institutionalised, imprisoned – of individuals slightly on the edge.
Michael Golz is one of them, a recently discovered artist, outstanding mapper and eccentric character. In the 1960s he started documenting Athosland as a child with the help of his brother Wolf and today his oeuvre includes maps, pictorial representations, linguistic inventions and a glossary of neologisms specific to Athosland. He has also produced a series of substantive guidebooks that set down the customs and habits of the creatures that inhabit Athosland.
His mother penned the exhibition’s biographical note and tells us how her son suffered brain damage after having been vaccinated for small pox. He woke from a five-day fever changed and withdrawn - his mental development had regressed and he had lost his spark. But when he re-learnt how to hold a pencil, he started to produce incredibly personal drawings and appeared to have developed a new artistic talent.
Golz grew up spending term time in a residential home that nurtured his talent and holidays back home with his family, filling the pages of his diaries with drawings and cartoons.
As a young adult he moved into an affiliated community for young people with learning difficulties and trained as an organic gardener. Today he lives in sheltered accommodation where he continues to attend art therapy workshops. Since being discovered by the art curator Alexandra Gersdoff-Bultmann Golz has quit his job as a gardener and works full time cultivating Athosland. His work was first shown in 2012 in the Art Cru Gallery in Berlin. Several shows followed, including the Outsider Art Fair in Paris and the Positions Art Fair in Berlin. He has already been named as one of the winners of the 2018 “euward 7” – the most prestigious prize for outsider art.
The exhibition at the Musée de l’Art Brut showed a short film of Golz greeting curators with plastic shopping bags full of maps, crinkled and edges covered in adhesive tape. Together they work on the puzzle – tip toeing over his life’s work in socks to slot together a motorway section or an industrial park. Like many urban agglomerations Athosland has grown significantly since the sixties. Golz has been filling sheet after sheet of paper with careful topographical detail that fit together in perfect scale. His first maps on a few individual sheets of A4 date from 1977 – but he has now amassed over 160 sections that fitted together cover a surface of 14m x 17m square metres. These are accompanied by eight folders of 2800 pages of drawing that detail life in Athosland.
The exhibition in Lausanne only managed to show a small selection of it, indeed the maps overtook the dimensions of the gallery, covering the floor, and continuing all the way up the walls to the ceiling.
It would appear that Golz’s unbounded imagination struggles to be contained within a single room. A wooden gangway led visitors over the maps, inviting them to venture into Athosland, and for those who wanted to observe it at a safe distance, a pair of binoculars dangled from the side of an info panel – underlining the sheer size of the mapping project, of its scale and ambition.
More than an imaginary world, Athosland has become a life-long project that has grown over more than five decades into a comprehensive region, spreading out from the centre to encompass the surrounding sprawl of extended urbanization. The maps are accompanied by a series of colourful drawings in felt-tip pen, crayons and rock-pop florescent pink highlighter. Drawn in perspective they detail everyday life in the magical Athosland. The pictures provide a window into Golz’s endless almost photographic imagination and the resulting images combine prosaic semi-industrial landscapes of late twentieth century Germany, with traditional rural idealism and a good dose of fantasy.
The many secondary towns and villages of Athosland provide all of the necessary amenities to its inhabitants. Traditional half-timbered houses, rows of orchards, churches, post-offices, banks, cafés, organic shops, cinemas, but also sex-shops and discos. When Golz maps he is not inventing an imaginary world, he is merely rendering tangible a word that exists very clearly and precisely in his mind and transcribing what he knows onto paper. Since the beginning of the project, the landscape has undergone modifications. The artist will return to parts of the map to update it in order to maintain its accuracy, for example relocating the main airport or renovating the historical centre. And potential collectors should keep in mind that Golz could call back the pieces to modify them.
Today Athosland is a fully-fledged network of motorways, train-tracks, and rivers that cross over mountains and valleys. Michael Golz can name the destination of any train featured on the map – and tell you if it is running on time. And in case you air-conditioning in the trains fails, all of the train stations are equipped with swimming pools so the passengers can have a dip and cool off.
Beyond mapping, Golz has also developed a series of traditions and customs in Athosland. The inhabitants of Athosland live in an ideal world, they can pay using buttons – and when they run out of buttons they can use grass or leaves. There is a magic button to resuscitate the dead and robots allow the workers to take endless holiday leave. In Golz’s fantasy world locals lounge by the river next to vegetable patches where hamsters do the weeding. There is no need to wear clothes, everybody has long hair, urine tastes of apple juice and excrements of bratwurst. It’s an original take on the many utopias of 1960s Germany.
Golz has a gift for making the strange familiar and the familiar strange. A motorway intersection creates a connection into an uncanny world of “Cratschwurst” gigantic sausages that distribute broth that is used as carburant for “Butato” large cars with several levels and bedrooms inside – and that’s without mentioning the “Brucktiere” animals as big as elephants with mouths large enough to fit in ten to twenty people.
There are also baddies in Athosland, and these are documented in eight thick folders of drawings and descriptions of nasty monsters called “Teufels-ö-Ifiche” or “Glätschviecher” (glacier monsters) that terrorise the locals. There is a constant menace of pollution from the gigantic factories, the “bübsfabriken” that emit nauseous fumes. Markus Landert, director of the Thurgau art museum writes that in Athosland, « there are workshops for disabled people, where everything is ugly, kitsch music is played on loop, and black tarpaulin is pinned up at the windows to stop the light coming in – giving everyone a terrible headache. »
Athosland is an autobiographical space that reflects the artist’s fantasies and fears. In his glossary, Golz has a special word for these old memories from his childhood, he calls them “dotschsachen.” The production of the guidebooks with their cartoon animation dates to the family summer holiday road trips and many of the towns are named after people who were close to him, a girlfriend, a tutor at his school, or the family dog.
Today Golz notes another technique for naming places in his glossary: “the motorways develop whilst I am listening to music: if I hear a word repeated several times in the same piece of music, such as “Börldaun”, I make a locality. If the piece of music lasts five minutes I build a 50 km section of motorway to the next locality.”
In Michael Golz’s world everything is connected within a mega-narrative of which he is the master story-teller. With his maps, and pictures, and invented words, the stories come to life, and he leads us through them, guiding us and loosing us in his analogue fantasy world. To reach into the mind of Michael Golz is both an exciting and intimidating prospect – but one which puts outsiders’ art right in the centre stage of imaginary and cognitive mapping today.
↬ Alice Hertzog.
Sources and bibliography :
Exhibition : Michael Golz « Journey in AThosland » 9th June- 1st Octobre 2017, Musée de l’Art Brut, Lausanne.
Film : Athosland, by Philippe Lespinasse et Andress Alvarez (33 minutes, in German with French subtitles), co-produced by lthe museumof “Art Brut” and the art museum of Thurgovie.
Publication : Michael Golz, Athosland, Le pays d’Athos, musée d’art de Thurgovie, 2017, 63 p. with texts by Markus Landert, Christiane Jeckelmann, Michael Golz & Renate Golz Fleischman.
Michael Golz is represented by Art Cru gallery, Berlin
Read also : « Les cartes magiques de Jerry Gretzinger », by Philippe Rekacewicz, 21 May 2016.