What no one sees, by Jana Papenbroock
A vast collection of photographs. Each image lasts 10 seconds before the next one appears. The pictures are personal. Most belong to to family albums thrifted on Berlin flea markets, spanning eleven decades of German history. Due to rapid technological advancement that made cameras available to amateurs earlier on than in any other European country, the precious private documentations offer glimpses of interiors from the beginning of the 20th century onwards, with the one great obliteration in most family albums being the Holocaust.
Some photographs from the period show erasures. Where the were once traces of Nazism on living room walls, there are now bad spots, smeared over parts, cut out holes. One picture is particularly striking that depicts an erased area on a wall, yet in the reflection of a window the deleted Nazi photograph reappears, to the apparent oblivion of the eraser. What has been silenced subtly sickers through the images. What is commonly not exhibited or under-represented in most family albums, is extensively on display here : eroticism, the escapes from discipline, private orgies and transgressions, exuberant celebrations, - the moments of physical relief from dominion, rules, uniforms and conventions-, the sage eyes of wild animals and children, gardens, woods, paths.
It feels somewhat intrusive, watching personal memories, that were not intended for your regard, blown up and aesthetisized for the strange eyes of a public. It is joyful, stimulating, sometimes slightly shameful, peeping through the key hole, it is amusing, also sad, sometimes trivial too.
I feel entangled in a projection of the artist, an intimate view which at times bewilders and then again delights me. Like everything one does, sees and says is always an externalisation of the soul, the collection also shows the passions and obsessions of the collector. I see tenderness, playfulness, delicateness, wittiness, sexual charge and escalation in the collection. Well, I guess every collection is escalating. I wonder if the collector feels exposed, too. The photographs are endearing, mystical, many homoerotic, some chintzy pelvis shots, some sublime treasures, like this picture of a lonely, historical elephant in a concrete zoo (now that is my revealing taste speaking here...).
Where do you focus ? What do you recognize ? My mind starts detecting a past, creating a fleeting, delirious narrative, open, porous, breathing, unfinished. The order of the images is neither imposing nor dictating, just suggestive, setting your reflections off. What is lost time ? All these seemingly randomly connected little dots in space. Moments and experiences divided and linked by unknowable forces.
It is so strange seeing German history looking so French. It somehow reminds me of Fassbinder, his oscillations between France and Germany, his free-spirited life, the speed, the burning, the refusal and revolt, the vanity, the great love for true-false characters and their eruptions. There is something libertine in the photographs, something that to me seems French : a freedom of speaking from the point of view of desire. Regarding history with desire. Not objectifying periods and governments in positivist facts and figures, but showing their ghostly reverberations in bodily postures, hair-dos, dresses, facial expressions, poses, in the brief moments that transgress what is philistine and predictable.
It makes me sad seeing all the various limitations of forms : the performed choreographies of festivities, Christmas and communion, the confinements of a house, the limited possibilities of movement, and ergo also of thought. Why do people often get so stiff when they grow older ? Where does the swing go ?
I enjoy looking at the images of people getting up to no good, fooling around, doing yogi-like deformations in underwear in their gardens, falling asleep drunken at dinner tables, kissing, bicycling, dancing. The little escapes. The little ecstasies. It charms and touches me.
The question of possession goes through my mind. Who owns these pictures ? Who owns our subjectivities ? And by what are we subjectified ? How are we owned and posessed by one dominant history and then again all the smaller outlandish stories too ?
I think it was Richter who once said he makes his photorealistic images blurry because out-of-focus is more precise. Maybe that’s true, but then again, it’s also just a style. What is a precise image anyway ? This collection of photographs is in many ways accurate like clockwork and at the same time hazy like a cloud.
The work makes me wonder why one doesn’t seriously endorse gracefulness as a political stance. The pictures are indeed graceful. Looking at a life and not only at the order of a life, the laws that subject it. Looking at a life...
How can this already be it ? An almost endless collection curated by a French artist in Berlin, an alien in Berlin. What does it amount to ? All these stories moving like the leaves of a tree, pointing in various directions, moved by the same wind. Their meaning is incomprehensible. You cannot make sense of a big picture, neither a great nor a national narrative. It is an abundance of manifold faces and places, eyes, bodies and performances in time, evocative but not determinative.
You can try deciphering the traces, putting the lost time into its supposed chronological place, anticipating the direction of evolution, dwelling in a certain nostalgia and romanticism (-though not really in the case of Germany) and since I don’t like thinking nostalgically anyway, I try to put my attention on discovering patterns and formations, trying to look at the pictures without falling prey to their auratic seductiveness.
How can one be radically modern, like Rimbaud requested, with your feet in the swamp of history and an ancestry attached to you and eventually surviving you, whose search and reach is so utterly obscured ? We never actually know what we are photographing, as the subject continuously changes autonomously, depending on current paradigms. We are always being photographed by time, captured by time and its arcane endeavors that reveal our radically heteronomous conditioning and entanglement.
Maybe one shouldn’t try to be modern and to see everything with new or innocent eyes. Everything is old, a palimpsest, the outlines reappearing through the different, new layers, disappearances going hand in hand with the appearance of supposedly progressive novelties. Like the photographs : their materiality changes in time, the paper, the colors and decorations, the subjects’ dresses and poses, but the continuity of the human face is pervasive.
Sometimes there are little series, when the artist decided to maintain the integrity of a family album and you can observe their transformations through the years. Why do we form families and houses ? Why are the houses squared ? Like the photographs, with four walls confining the inside. Always four sides.
What the artist undoubtedly proves, is that a serious hermeneutical tool and potential lies in trying to understand and assemble time with a body and a mind : to take reason just as much into account as desire, ecstasy, dreams, projections, the (alleged) naiveté and playfulness of mystical belief. I wish we could openly speak like these images do in our day-to-day expressions, showing without shame what we desire and enjoy, celebrating and honoring everything we love, being silent about what cannot be understood, and searching for a life before death. It takes a lot of courage to do that.