by Virginio Sala
Last day in Frankfurt was a wonderful, sunny autumn day, perfect for a long walk in the city – just a short visit to the fair, where the doors were open for the general public, and the stands were, as usual the weekend, too busy for a fruitful visit. The amusing part was the long trail of young people coming out of the trains in costume: cosplay at the book fair.
Frankfurt is a city of some appeal, mostly modern with high-rise glass-covered buildings, but with traces of its old history coming, sometimes unexpectedly, in sight. The Zeil, the commercial avenue, was full of people strolling along the stores, but just a block away there is a small, quiet park I didn’t know of – and very few people enjoying the peace and the sun: really refreshing and relaxing, after three days in the crowd.
Anyway, my destination was the MMK, the Museum für moderne Kunst (Museum for modern Art), just near the cathedral. The building itself is fascinating: opened in 1991 (yes, another anniversary for 2011: MMK’s first 20 years), it was designed by the Austrian architect Hans Hollein, and its unusual triangle form (that earned it the “Tortenstück” [pie slice] nickname) enables a very peculiar layout of the internal spaces, whith a central room spannig the three levels and multiple flights of stairs that open surprising perspectives – from certain rooms you can suddenly catch a glimpse of part of another room, at the same or at a different level. The geometry of the place creates unsuspected and gratifying contaminations.
The MMK offers now two exhibitions, both opened the 25th of September: The Lucid Evidence (an impressive show of a small part of the over 2600 photographic works featured by the museum, one of the largest collections of international contemporary photography), and Not in Fashion (an exhibition about fashion and photography in the Nineties) – totalling almost one thousand of black and white and color photos. The MMK’s web site provides much information about the exhibitions, and the catalogs are commercially available, so I’ll not try to duplicate it here; I’ll offer just a few personal impressions.
The image (Elisabeth Berkley stuck in bamboo bushes) that was used by the organizers for the cover of the presentation flyer was shot by Bettina Rheims, a French artist born in 1952, and is for sure one of the more remarkable images of the show, as in general the complete series of photographs in the room dedicated to this artist: all female portraits, in color, full of sensuality, with a glossy beauty that borders on fashion photography but at the same time with a sort of restrained quality.
The first thing that the visitor can see, in the central room, is a wall covered by photos of the Japanese artist Nobuyoshi Araki – an impressive and somehow disturbing collection of women and nude works from the series Tokyo Comedy; but what impressed me most was the photojournalism section, in particular the works of Anja Niedringhaus (born 1965), who from 1993 to 2000 was in the war zones of the Balkans and shot a stunning series of images, amidst many difficulties as a woman in an exclusively male domain. A few paragraphs from the Jean-Christophe Ammann’s presentation are worth mentioning:
It is a true rarity that this type of photographer even continues to exist. I mean those photographers who have a “view of the world”, which is not subject to the cynicism of the “sensationalist image” as part of the race in the print media to achieve the sales figures. The “view of the world” presumes less a moral than an ethical stance, curiosity, and an understanding of what is happening, a lack of prejudice in encountering what humans do even if their actions are strange and incomprehensible, a intuitive feel for the fact that each event is a special case.
Photojournalism always has to do with people. It is always following people. To summarize: photojournalists with a “view of the world” create pictures that always contain a document. However, a document alone never ever contains a picture. By “picture” I refer to the composing eye which,as If shooting from the hips: recognizes. I am of the opinion that something like that cannot be taught It is a talent that you either have or you don’t. Without a “view of the world” the composing eye loses its way in the coincidental nature of every moment and can likewise only capture an extreme situation as a document. The composing eye of the photographer is the eye of an artist. Even if the person does not see him- or herself as an artist. The composing eye presumes a vantage point with an inherent “view of the world”.
It’s very hard to think that what Anja Niedringhaus shows us happened just around the corner. These photographs seem to costantly raise the unanswered question: why? Just yesterday, four Italian soldiers were killed in Afghanistan … Why?
I’ll not leave you with this sad note: I’ll mention the Jeff Wall’s fascinating Odradek, Taboritskà 8, Prag, 18. July, 1994 – an image showing a complex geometrical composition and suggesting a light suspension, with the movement of the girl on the stairs, the strong contrast between her fresh look and the rusty and ageing look of the ambient, an ageing without nobility, but somehow balanced by the contrast between the diagonal lines of the stairs and the vertical lines of the pillar.
“Odradek” comes from a short story by Franz Kafka (Die Sorge des Hausvaters, from the collection Ein Landarzt) – and Kafka’s text is duly reproduced near the big photo. The beginning:
Die einen sagen, das Wort Odradek stamme aus dem Slawischen und sie suchen auf Grund dessen die Bildung des Wortes nachzuweisen. Andere wieder meinen, es stamme aus dem Deutschen, vom Slawischen sei es nur beeinflusst. Die Unsicherheit beider Deutungen aber lässt wohl mit Recht darauf schliessen, dass keine zutrifft, zumal man auch mit keiner von ihnen einen Sinn des Wortes finden kann.
(I do not have here an English translation… and I will spare Kafka an awkward attempt of mine at translating this passage – I’m confident that someone will provide a quotation from a valid source.)
I’m sure that it would be possible to write a full book about this (enigmatic?) image.
There was no literary accompaniment to the series of portraits by Thomas Ruff, a German artist living in Düsseldorf (you can see an interesting article about him on the Tate Magazine, but somehow, I don’t know why, they reminded me of the very first page of A. S. Byatt’s The Virgin in the Garden (1978), where Alexander, entering the London National Portrait Gallery, reflects on the words “national” and “portrait”:
They were both to do with identity: the identity of a culture (place, language and history), the identity of an individual human being as an object for mimetic representation.
Focusing in this case on the notion of portrait: I’m convinced that the portrait has to do with identity, but not only on the person “as an object for mimetic representation”. There is something more in it: the relationship between the person and her/his (in this case photographic) portrait seems to me more complex than that. As soon as Ruff shots a portrait of Petra Lappat (you can see the image here), the portrait becomes for us part of her identity. And seeing it exhibited ant the MMK in Frankfurt adds something to her identity… I don’t know where this could take me. But it’s intriguing that Ruff’s portraits, and not other images in the same exhibition should evoke this idea.
Let’s close with An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, a series of photographs by Taryn Simon that is also a book published by Steidl in 2007 – there were thirteen to see. Some depict not easily seen conditions or places (as the Olympic National Park, Washington), some border on the disturbing (Standard Patient, University of California Los Angeles Medical Center, Westwood: the standard patient is a professional actress who is trained to simulate a real patient for testing the diagnostic competence of the students; or the Imperial Office of the World Knights of the Ku-Klux-Klan), but at the end there is also a little humor, with a photo of the Braille Edition of Playboy (realized by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped).
I can tell you less about the Not in Fashion exhibition, because I visited it last and I was running out of time (planes do not wait), so my concentration was fading. But that’s a pity, the subject would deserve some attention. For those who will be able to visit Frankfurt in the near future (this exhibition will close January 9, 2011; The Lucid Evidence will be open until April 25), a few words from the official presentation, just as an appetizer:
In the 1990s, the fashion scene was fundamentally reinvented specifically by the medium of photography. The decade gave rise to a new generation for whom personal identity, individualism and a self-defined style were of crucial importance. Back then, the joie de vivre of the generation of 20-30 year old creative minds thrived on music, subculture, intimacy and fashion. […]
The exhibion at the MMK demonstrates just how radical and innovative this new generation was and highlights the strong impact it has had on the visual arts to this very day.