Deceleration of Images
Photo-Poetics at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle

They create sensitive still lifes for the 21st century. Artists such as Elad Lassry, Lisa Oppenheim, and Erin Shirreff deal with people’s perception of images and their circulation in the digital age. “Photo-Poetics” introduces this new conceptually oriented generation of artists. The exhibition project, which came about in cooperation with the Guggenheim Foundation, now celebrates its premiere at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle. Beginning in November, the show can be seen at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Modern life means acceleration: mobility, industrial production, communication. Even back in his day, Friedrich Nietzsche saw that the speed with which technology changes our perceptions could quickly become a challenge. “With the tremendous acceleration of life, mind and eye have become accustomed to seeing and judging partially or inaccurately, and everyone is like the traveler who gets to know a land and its people from a railway carriage,” he wrote in 1878. In the postmodern age, Paul Virilio prophesies a paradoxical end stage of this acceleration, something he terms “racing standstill.” Due to digital communication, in which images are transmitted in real time, there is the threat that people will enter a state of total regression. They stare motionlessly at flickering screens, which enable them to be everywhere at any time. Ultimately, however, this leads to “faceless momentariness,” to a coma-like state that the French philosopher calls “media ghettoization.” One of the most important side effects of the digital revolution is the lack of “authentic,” haptic experiences. Instead of photographs, records, and books, which we can take in our hands, we have digital files that are stored in Clouds. Images are no longer tangible objects, but arbitrarily transmittable and manipulable file formats. Precisely this development is critically examined in the so-called Post Digital art and the international photographic art scene.

Photo-Poetics is the title of the exhibition that Jennifer Blessing curated for the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The cooperative project brings together ten artistic positions from the USA and Germany, which, as Blessing puts it, “investigate the nature, traditions, and magic of photography at a moment characterized by its rapid digital transformation.” Important proponents of the West Coast scene such as Elad Lassry, who was born in Israel and now lives in Los Angeles, are represented at the KunstHalle, as well as the Canadian artist Erin Shirreff, who lives and works in New York City, and Kathrin Sonntag from Berlin. All of the them, says the Guggenheim curator, “attempt to rematerialize the medium” – be it with elaborate printing processes, the use of disappearing analog technologies, through photo installations or artist books. This return to the original materiality of photography has little to do with nostalgia, but instead with an interest in extremely contemporary experiences and questions: How do images circulate and what do they express? How do image editing programs influence our self-image, the way we present ourselves, our notions of beauty and perfection? In this exhibition, the “poetic” is viewed as a kind of deceleration, as an antidote to the countless images vying for our attention day in and day out. We can think about the complex yet reduced images in the exhibition the way we contemplate Japanese haikus and concrete poetry.

Indeed, the photographed mobiles that the New York artist Sara VanDerBeek constructs from archive pictures, ring-shaped objects, and threads are like complex thought games. In one of her works, she combines extremely varied motifs, including photographs of ancient goddesses, sculptures by the Russian avant-gardist Alexander Rodchenko and the great American sculptor David Smith, and a close-up of a birth control pill. Naturally, this exceedingly beautiful, fragile construction not only addresses formal issues such as balance, heaviness, and lightness. The title of the photographic work From the Means of Reproduction (2007) alludes to a speech by Margaret Sanger, the early feminist and women's rights activist who coined the term "birth control." But VanDerBeeks “photo sculpture” also refers to the artistic vision of male grandeur, matriarchal culture, and the reproduction of images and ideologies.

Representatives of the so-called Pictures generation, including Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince, explored in the late seventies how mass media and advertising images influence ideological convictions, gender roles, and longings. It was their smooth surfaces, their unscrupulous appropriation of images, and their cool and often sexually charged subjects that brought these artists international success. Today’s photo poets share this distant coolness, this power of seduction. They, too, frequently work with appropriated pictorial material. For instance, Elad Lassry’s Portrait 1 (Silver) is based on a publicity photograph of the Hollywood star Anthony Perkins, while Anne Collier for May/June 2009 (Cindy Sherman, Mark Seliger) photographed two copies of L‘ Uomo Vogue with Sherman on the cover. However, the artists featured in the show combine the strategies of the Pictures generation with approaches from Conceptual Art and Minimalism. These movements were not only serial, but also poetic. Many works by artists such as Lawrence Weiner and Yoko Ono were language based, akin to concrete poetry. And in the formal language of the Minimalists every detail, every decision for a material, color, or size speaks volumes.

Erica Baum picks up on this tradition in her 2008 series Naked Eye. In the series, Baum photographed paperbacks from the sixties and seventies. We see not the cover or the back of the books, but the pages between the covers – as though one is opening the book to read it. The succession of colorfully dyed cut edges, texts, and photos on half-open pages conveys the impression of an abstract, two-dimensional collage of vertical strips of color, images, and text. In fact, however, it is a photographed, reduced “sculpture” in which an era of media and pop culture is condensed.  
Lisa Oppenheim’s series The Sun is Always Setting Somewhere Else (2006) shows the extent to which mass media images even impact our most private feelings and longings. It is based on photos of sunsets that U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan put on the Internet. They not only show “postcard views” of the glowing reddish-orange sky, but also silhouettes of tents and tanks. In her photographs, Oppenheim places these pictures in front of a sunset on the beach of Fire Island and thus brings the war, which is hardly reported on in U.S. media, back home, so to speak.

While many of the gestures in Photo-Poetics are minimal, the references are political or institutionally critical. In Claudia Angelmaier’s contribution, titled Works on Paper, the actual works are less important than the museum and the context in which they are shown or marketed. Her series shows art postcards like the millions sold in museum stores. However, Angelmaier did not photograph motifs, such as Gerhard Richter’s famous rear view of Betty, but the back of the cards. From this perspective, the actual motifs can only be recognized schematically and are overlain by title information, museum logos, and barcodes. Each of these artworks is confronted with its own reproducibility and commodity character.

Most of the pictures in the exhibition are still lifes taken in studios. Often, the object character of the motifs and the photographic work itself are stressed, for instance when Elad Lassry presents his enigmatic photos of cats, green tomatoes, and plastic eggs in frames, whose paint takes up the bright colors of his pictures. Leslie Hewitt also combines photography and sculpture. Her series Riffs on Real Time shows assemblages from personally and politically charged materials: images from family photos, books, and magazines such as Ebony create a multilayered panorama of African-American culture in the USA. “The works in Photo-Poetics, rich with detail, reward close and prolonged regard,” writes Jennifer Blessing. “They ask for a mode of looking that is closer to reading than the cursory scanning fostered by the clicking and swiping functionalities of smartphones and social media.” The photo poets take a radically different approach. Their images impress due to their formal clarity and beauty. They look simple, and are often still. Yet like poems they reflect personal and collective reality, discourse, and sensitivities in a subtle, associative way. All they need is time.

More on Photo Poetics and the artists in the exhibition in an interview with the curator Jennifer Blessing and the features on Elad Lassry and Anne Collier.

7/10/2015 – 8/30/2015
Deutsche Bank KunstHalle

11/20/2015 – 3/23/2016
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
New York