Stefan Mayer is a sculptor. And as one might suppose at a glance, he is one who follows in the footsteps of American Minimal Art of the 1960’s, having devoted himself to the strict, reduced stylistic language characteristic of Minimal Art. This is at least suggested by the objects and the mural painting displayed in the exhibition De Magnete in the Cologne gallery Rachel Haferkamp: a large size, cool sculpture (Regal), various floor works reminding of variations on Sol LeWitt’s open cubes (Deklinationsmodule), and a mural pain- ting (Feldbild) faintly reminiscent of Frank Stella’s famous Shaped Canvas paintings of the early 1960’s. On closer inspection, the formal closeness to Minimal Art is, however, not quite convincing anymore. This is due to three aspects: In the first place the design of the works, which lacks the cool, technical precision of Minimal Art. The works and objects obviously were not made in a high-tech factory but rather by the artist’s own hands. Moreover cables can be found here and there, which seem to reveal that the sculptures same as the mural painting have more than a purely aesthetic function. And finally there is the title of the exhibition – De Magnete (On Magnets). It is a reference to the first scientific examination of the properties of magnets the Eng- lish physician William Gilbert from Colchester published in the year 1600 in London. Endowed with the promising sub- title Dissertation or New Scientific Findings upon the Magnet and Magnetic Bodies and the Big Magnetic Earth in Six Volumes by Wilhelm Gilbert Coloestrensis, Physician in London, in which the Pertinent Facts about this Subject (Matter) are expounded and explained Comprehensively and with Highest Precision based on a Wealth of Demonstrations and Experiments, this extensive study was the first to impart the insight that the earth itself is a gigantic magnet.
The same is true of Stefan Mayer’s works: They are not merely sculptures with an aesthetic function; at the same time they are magnets generating an invisible magnetic field, which superposes the natural magnetic field of the earth. Strictly speaking, they generate several different fields depending on the shape of the respective magnets. So, the exhibition includes both visible and invisible sculptures. This even applies to the mural painting, for which Stefan Mayer chose conductive colour which bears current, thus genera- ting a concentric invisible field as well. In order to inspire our imagination, Stefan Mayer simulated and visualized some magnetic fields he realized in Brazil by means of a computer program. They illustrate the propagation of the fields, thus showing the spaces covered by the magnetic fields, which are invisible in reality. However, when viewing the exhibits in the rooms of the gallery, the visitor, though being able to explore the effect of the magnets with a com- pass by himself, in the end must rely on his imagination to envisage the invisible fields.
Already in his former works, Stefan Mayer dealt with the phenomenon of magnetism, magnets and magnetic fields, a matter which holds a lot of symbolism: not only because magnetism is a global phenomenon having an extensive influence, but finally because every small magnet with its two poles can be regarded as a model of that big magnet – the earth we live on. In view of the fact that Stefan Mayer produced many of his works in the Southern hemisphere (Brazil), one could even go one step further to the effect of conceiving magnets as a symbol of a more and more polarizing world, of an ever increasing divergence between the First World of the North and the Third World of the South.
Stefan Mayer’s works do suggest something like this, but the way he actually proceeds makes it seem improbable that the artist aspires to such tremendous gestures. He prefers the small forms, i.e. minimum, hardly visible intervention. A characteristic example appears to be his project ParaSite (since 1998), in which he himself or friends of his installed small battery-operated electromagnets at different points of the world, in New York, Los Angeles or Vienna and others, thus superimposing the magnetic field of the earth locally and for a temporary period. Like parasites the magnets sett- led inconspicuously and accomplished their invisible mission in many different places. Something similar happened in his project Navegar (2000), where magnets were mounted to small boats floating down the Rio Xingú in Brazil, also super- imposing the natural magnetic field of the earth for a while, until they were – possibly – swallowed by a crocodile or dis- appeared some other way. Stefan Mayer even smuggled magnets into some of the works of a friend of his, the photographer Michael Wesely living in Berlin, thus having perpetualized them in his works, although invisibly.
There is almost something crafty about this manner of proceeding: Stefan Mayer discreetly passes his works into the world, making them change the respective place a little bit. The equipment he uses for these interventions is as sim- ple as possible: wires, batteries or solar cells represent the plain basic equipment suited to generate the magnetic fields. The same simplicity characterizes his work Peixe (fish) of 2005, which is absolutely amazing by the way it works. He transformed an iron core and copper wire into a fishshaped battery by putting the artefact on a styrofoam base and letting it float down an acid river in Brazil. So, the work could only function in an environment marked by pollution. In other words: The pollution was only revealed by the fact that the floating sculpture turned into a battery by the acidity of the river.
The shapes Stefan Mayer finds for his sculptures, such as the little boats in Navegar or the fish in Peixe, apparently have a connection to the place he chose (river) and to the function (floating). At the same time, however, they may also be understood as camouflage, the boats being actually a medium for carrying the magnets and the fish being actually a battery. A similar idea can be anticipated behind the works shown in the exhibition De Magnete: Resembling the sculptures of Minimal Art at least at a glance, they imitate classical artworks of the recent past. In this location they behave like museum objects, their true nature as magnets being veiled. Here again, the already mentioned parasitic concept can be observed: Apart from their aesthetic function, the sculptures assume the function of “hosts”, through which the magnets can be passed into the artistic context. Stefan Mayer is a sculptor. But obviously not one who primarily wants to follow the trail of American Minimal Art. Rather, his interventions unite the poetry of the invisible with subversive and idealistic elements. The visible part of his objects is only half the truth, because the more essential part is what happens in the invisible – the generated invisible magnetic fields, which superimpose the natural magnetic field of the earth. Hence, what Stefan Mayer actually does is build invisible spaces. But his works also have a subversive component: he mostly creates them inconspicuously in different places of the world and masks them as is suitable for the respective places. On the quiet, they penetrate the world and make places change just for a short time. No matter how invisible it may be, it can yet be measured (by means of a compass). Stefan Mayer not only turns our attention to the other side of reality, that is invisibility, but also to the idealistic side of art and its potential of change.