26. März 2014

Johan Holten: Picture Descriptions

Finding a photograph with an adjacent text in an exhibition, we enter into an unwitting pact with the curator or artist responsible for the exhibition. We have faith that the text will make direct reference to the photo’s content; that it will help to explain what is shown. The text, or such are our expectations, ought to take over responsibility for decoding the image itself. Usually, the authority of the institution in which the exhibition is taking place leads us to accept this without further reassurance.

The same mechanism is probably kicking in right now. As the author of the text concerning the work Picture Descriptions by Ulrike Kuschel, in which the artist – who lives in Berlin – has collected together 60 black and white photographs, each with a text, you expect me to provide you with a description that simplifies your understanding of the work to such an extent that, if possible, you will have no further need to study the work yourself. Such expectations can be traced back to the cultural technique of exhibiting and the art-historical description of artworks, which has accompanied the gradual development of the modern museum and the academic discipline of art history since the 19th century. The title Picture Descriptions indicates that this cultural technique itself will constitute a central component of the work, suggesting that the descriptive text is not a neutral medium to convey content, but aims to guide the reader in his own study of this text category.

All this places the work by Ulrike Kuschel in a tradition of art works that have – since the 1960s – thematized the institutional practice of exhibiting itself in different ways: by directing the viewer’s attention, e.g. through a shifting and an irritation of perceptions, to the way in which content is conveyed and therefore perceived. From 1968 to 1972, Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers created the partly imaginary Musée d’Art Moderne: Department des Aigles, in which all the objects and descriptions of eagles included were provided with a label “Fig. 1”, “Fig. 2”, etc. As a result of the numbering, the objects were robbed of their physical presence and transformed into symbolic figures, given their meaning through the subordinate system of museum organization. Marcel Broodthaers thus employed the cultural technique of the museum to open up a space for reflection on this very institution.

Ulrike Kuschel, however, is not concerned first and foremost with the ordering system of the museum. As in a large number of the artist’s works, the subject here is the subordinate system of the archive in general and the picture archive in particular. The texts in this work therefore describe 60 images from the archive Ullstein Bild, where the artist has worked for many years. But the photographs presented alongside them were found by the artist outside the archive, and in a further step, combined with observations that Kuschel has written from a first-person perspective. Furthermore each image-text pair is given a date from the year 2005, e.g. 11.05.2005. This already triggers our first irritation, as the date does not refer objectively to the photograph itself but to the artist’s subjective observations, which are captured in the written entries below the dates.

In the image-text pair beneath the heading 11.05.2005, we find information indicating that this is an exterior view of the Reichstag building around 1905, while a monument to Bismarck, the first chancellor of the German Empire, can be seen in the foreground. A quick look at the photographs appears to confirm this information. Indeed, the building now known as the German Bundestag can be seen there, without the glass dome that is so striking today but with its original roof construction. In front of the building it is also possible to make out a monument, which – when we look more closely – does represent a male figure with a form that suggests Bismarck. The pact between viewer and author concerning the method of picture description appears to have been reconstructed, therefore, after initial, slight doubts arising from the title choice. The first two paragraphs of the text give information about the photographers, the Haeckel brothers, and the second paragraph does not disturb the viewer’s and reader’s returning sense of reassurance either. Perhaps he will now stop reading, since he believes he can guess the text’s remaining content. But those who read the third paragraph carefully will be astounded. There is talk of a number of women in dark clothes, and some children and a nanny are also described. The latter is even supposed to be pushing a pram through the scene on the photograph, but as we see, the image is actually empty of people. Apparently, the small figures represent a great contrast to the male figure of the monument, which appears overly powerful as a result. Obviously, the artist has again cancelled the pact between the viewer and the author.

Intrigued, we continue to read or turn to a second image and text pair. After three or four exemplary tests, we may have determined that the artist is playing a strange game with her descriptions. In no case do they seem completely contingent and yet they always deviate from the photographs – to varying extents.

For instance, the description of a house that was reconstructed shortly after the capitulation in 1945 using bricks from ruined houses appears to correspond well to the appropriate photograph, until suddenly, people – the builders – are described in such a rich detail that this cannot possibly be brought into harmony with the one tiny figure shown in the photo. The grandstand of the Reich’s party rallying grounds in Nuremberg is described meticulously in another text, and Hitler himself is described as standing in front of the flags. The photograph placed alongside it, however, is an aerial view of the rally grounds in Nuremberg taken from a great distance, upon which Hitler – even if he had been there at the time of the photo – would be scarcely discernible. Again and again, the viewer’s perception skids back and forth between the text and the image, led by apparently congruent similarities and noticeable contradictions, which clearly undermine the conventions of a picture description.

Finally, the viewer realizes that the artist is indeed awakening real photographs to life in her picture descriptions; photos which perhaps originate from the same period as the reproductions here, but show another situation, a differing perspective or sometimes even a completely different motif. But how can we be sure that the apparently factual information reflects historical facts? Where is the boundary between approximate knowledge and indisputable fact? Ulrike Kuschel takes the convention of picture description as a starting point from which to question productively the faith we place in picture archives as a correct reproduction of historical facts. She creates new, alternative truths and so points to the fundamental subjectivity of fact. The artist Ulrike Kuschel distorts our innocent view of the organizational system of the picture archive.

in: Dear Aby Warburg, what can be done with images?, Kehrer Verlag Berlin, 2012, p. 192-194. Catalogue published by Eva Schmidt and Ines Rüttinger on the occasion of the exhibition with the same name at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Siegen.