ZAMEK Culture Centre

ARTIST-IN-RESIDENCE: "The Life Story of Cornelius Johnson’s Olympic Oak and Other Matters of Survival"

FInal exhibition of the project OLYMPIC OAK TREE
Christian Kosmas Mayer
The Life Story of Cornelius Johnson’s Olympic Oak and Other Matters of Survival

opening: 27.10. / hr 7 p.m.

During the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which was organized by the Nazis, every gold-medal winner was given a small oak seedling in a pot in addition to their medal. Cornelius Cooper Johnson, the US-American high jumper, won his discipline with a new Olympic record. A few minutes before the awarding ceremony, Adolf Hitler left the stadium so as to avoid having to invite the Afro-American athlete into his box. After his return to the USA, Johnson was insulted a second time by a head of state, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not invite him and other Afro-American athletes to a reception at the White House for participants in the Olympic Games. The social and economic discrimination of Afro-Americans at the time applied equally to Olympic winners like Johnson and Jesse Owens.

Just ten years after the Berlin Olympics, Johnson died of pneumonia on a US navy ship,
as a poor man. He had planted the small one-year-old oak that he was given in Berlin in the yard of his parents’ house in today’s suburb of Koreatown in Los Angeles. Nearly eighty
years later, Christian Kosmas Mayer searched out the tree and found an impressive full-grown oak. In his work The Life Story of Cornelius Johnson’s Olympic
Oak and Other Matters of Survival, Mayer combines this story of one oak tree with contemporary themes that can also be seen in relation with the tree.

Today, the house is lived in by a Mexican family that immigrated to California in the nineteen-seventies to find work. They take care of the tree and have built up their own personal relationship to it, not based on the memory of the Olympic winner. This oak was abused by the Nazis as a symbol of nationalist hegemony, but today it seems to be showing how absurd this original idea was. Los Angeles is one the most multicultural and popular cities in the world, representing the victory of a reality that is diametrically opposed to everything the Nazis dreamed of. Nazis, like “Reich Govenor” Arthur Greiser, whose former office in Zamek Mayer will use for his installation. Almost untouched since Nazi times, still wearing original wall intarsia depicting acorns and oak leafs, this office will become an
important part of the work itself, connecting it to Poznan and its own history.

For Mayer, it is important to tell the story as an unfinished one: With the help of a plant physiologist, Mayer was able to clone small shoots from the oak in a Los Angeles laboratory. In Mayer’s installation these in-vitro seedlings return to Europe as a sign of the future, in order to transform the story into a family history that has not yet come to an end. The fact that official permission to bring these seedlings into Europe due to the risk of introducing a tree disease rampant in California was refused, and thus they had to be brought to Vienna unofficially, is a further significant part of this story about questions of existence and survival over the years.

Christian Kosmas Mayer is a Vienna based artist whose exhibitions and projects engage questions of memory, preservation and rediscovery. He is concerned with testing the methods with which these issues can be tackled in an aesthetically surprising way: techniques of reversal, of compressing and stretching time, of looking at things from both ends at once. Christian Mayer sets up situations in which beauty is found in the way one thing leads to another. His works have been shown in numerous exhibitions internationally, amongst others at mumok, Belvedere, Manifesta 7, Sao Paolo Biennale, pf Gallery, Culture Centre ZAMEK Poznan, Camera Austria, Kunststiftung Baden-Württemberg, Galerie Nagel Draxler, Galerie Mezzanin, etc. Mayer is also co-editor of a magazine that appears under different names each time, depending on the font it uses (

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