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Artist Feature

Every week an artist is featured whose single image was published by Der Greif. The Feature shows the image in the original context of the series.

Ben Alper - terrain vague

Jun 09, 2017

Ignasi de Sola-Morales, the Catalan architect and historian, coined the term “terrain vague” to characterize urban areas marked by vacancy and indeterminacy.  These ubiquitous spaces, strewn across our contemporary landscape, are rarely acknowledged and even less frequently inhabited. When in a terrain vague space, it is often difficult to determine its boundaries; they fluidly dissolve into the spaces that surround them, making it difficult to delineate where one ends and another begins.

 

They are sites that foreground the process of construction and deconstruction and underscore the ambiguous transition from one state of “being” to another.  As a result, these spaces evoke a strong sense of being in between histories, function and time.  This also activates them to explore a number of seemingly diametric relationships – those between presence and absence, inscription and erasure, preservation and ruination and appearance and disappearance.

At its most elemental, this work is an examination of space – both physical and psychic.  It is my belief that our experience of the world is dictated by a few fundamental and interacting spatial and perceptual operations.  It is through these processes that we arbitrate the physical world we encounter everyday.  The brain filters and reconstructs what we see to make it coherent and orienting.  By destabilizing spatial associations within the photograph, I hope to broaden the exploration of space – acknowledging it both as a corporeal experience and a mental construct.  It is this duality, between the physical and the cognitive, that I am attempting to call attention to in this work.


Artist Blog

The blog of Der Greif is written entirely by the artists who have been invited to doing an Artist-Feature. Every week, we have a different author.

Femke Dekkers

Jun 14, 2017 - Ben Alper

For my last post, I wanted to share some work by Dutch artist Femke Dekkers, whose studio-based constructions fluidly dissolve the boundaries between photography, sculpture, drawing, painting and installation.  Her photographs occupy a similar conceptual territory as Bernard Voïta’s – whose work I posted earlier this week – in that both artists are capitalizing on photography’s unique ability to play with space and illusion.  From a feature over at Lens Culture, Dekkers writes:

 

“I mark out sections of space using the camera. Within these markings I tentatively create compositions that produce a frontal and balanced image. As I use analog cameras, I always work towards the moment of the photographic “click”. Sometimes, I feel that I am painting more than taking photographs, using the space in front of the lens as my canvas.

 

The title of my new series is “Stages”, which not only refers to the different stages in which the installations find themselves, but also to a stage on which the photograph ‘takes place’. Each work in the series is a decor made for a particular camera standpoint.

 

I paint, or attach, materials on the walls and floors and let forms materialize in that way. In fact, they are almost empty decors. At first, I wanted this work to refer to photography with its flat, rectangular shape and its different formats and negatives. After working for a while, more ‘action came on stage’, which created space for other forms to evolve as well.

 

I try to make the tension tangible between my desire for the ideal and my inability to achieve it. It is this impossibility that lies at the foundation of my work: the tragedy of striving, which always results in the not quite perfect.”


Arnold Odermatt

Jun 13, 2017 - Ben Alper

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I only recently discovered the work of self-taught Swiss photographer Arnold Odermatt.  Since 2013, Steidl has released four monographs from his expansive, almost overwhelming archive – On Duty, Off Duty, After Work and Karambolage.  Odermatt was a police photographer for the town of Nidwalen from 1948 – 1990.  And while he’s perhaps best known for his psychologically taut and eerily beautiful photographs of car accidents, I’ve decided to share some images from After Work.

 

Odermatt’s career in the fine art photography world is not that dissimilar to Vivian Maier’s ascension to that same revered place.  One important distinction is that Maier’s work was discovered after her death, while Odermatt is still alive today. However, both of their trajectories are marked by similar “discovery” narratives, a circumstance which often creates a kind of retrospective mythologizing – an attempt to fortify the artist’s stature by ascribing them cult status.  I’m often wary of these motivations because it shifts the emphasis away from the work and toward the personality of the maker, but both Odermatt and Maier’s work stands firmly on its own merits.  

 

In the case of Odermatt, I was immediately struck by the precision of his images.  They are at once formally exacting and emotionally detached, a combination which aligns with his biography as an evidentiary photographer.  However, his photographs are vastly more than mere records of an ordinary life lived in Switzerland.  So many of them possess an undercurrent of strangeness and theatricality.  I’ve thought a lot about what imbues Odermatt’s best images with these qualities and, for me, it derives from a stringent attention to detail, an ability to limit contextual information and a predilection, whether conscious or otherwise, toward the surreal.  


There is also an uncanny stage-like quality to many of the environments found in Odermatt’s pictures, almost as if his subjects are automatons in a world that exists solely for the photographer’s scrutiny.  In some of them, this is heightened even further by the implementation of an omniscient point of view. He seems to hover above or alongside the dynamic world, carefully observing it, but existing outside somehow.  

 

Diane Arbus once said: “If you scrutinize reality closely enough, if in some way you really, really get to it, it becomes fantastic.” This is how I feel about Arnold Odermatt’s work.  The mystery, strangeness and wonder that punctuates his work is not the result of an attempt to distort reality, but rather the byproduct of seeing it with as much clarity, precision and commitment as he did.

 

You can see more of his work here.  And you can find the Steidl books here.


Tal Barel

Jun 12, 2017 - Ben Alper

A friend recently pointed me in the direction of Tal Barel‘s work.  Her series Fool’s Gold is a cryptic and at times oblique examination of empirical institutions.  Drawing parallels between the photographic process and the museum, both of which are vessels for classifying and presenting information, Barel’s images, on the surface anyway, seem to project and uphold the authorial voice of the institution.  Objects of seeming importance – a Greco-Roman bust or an oversized crystal – are presented singularly, with physical and psychological space provided for careful consideration and scrutiny.

 

However, as you make your way through the images this authority begins to breakdown. Barel’s subjects are so isolated and disparate from one another that the institutional logic and continuity that often upholds our belief in the system begins to weaken.  What we’re left with is a mounting sense of artificiality – a world of knowledge so constructed and antiseptic that it calls into question the very processes of ascribing historical and cultural value. Ultimately, for me, these photographs are about power.  They point toward decisions and motives made behind closed doors by influential and often anonymous people. They are like shadows of shadows.

 

You can see more of Fool’s Gold here.


Bernard Voïta

Jun 11, 2017 - Ben Alper

I happened upon the photographs of Swiss-born artist Bernard Voïta a few years ago and was immediately drawn to their spatial complexity, play with illusion and sense of disorientation.  The work exists in the lineage of Jan Dibbets’ series Perspective Corrections, where three-dimensional forms drawn in string, pencil and tape, and situated on walls, floors and lawns, are rendered flat and two-dimensional through the implementation a precise photographic vantage point. The work is a conceptual meditation on the disparity between perception and representation – between what the eye sees and what the camera sees.

 

Voïta’s work challenges the viewer with a similar kind of spatial language. While Dibbets’ forms often present themselves simply and appear to project themselves out of their environment, Voïta’s sculptural installations are more chaotic, optical and destabilizing.  Circular white objects are situated precisely in a largely black space to create a flattened diagonal pattern.  Other times connected black hoses snake around a white room and take the poetic form of an associative line drawing.

 

I’m also fascinated by his use of vernacular objects.  Each installation seems to be comprised of the quotidian objects that surround him – coffee cups, hoses, chairs, lamps and paint. Essentially, the stuff of daily life, the stuff that many of us likely have in our own homes. Voïta’s images transcend being mere spatial or perceptual exercises because they contain within them touches of domesticity, and thus humanity.  They are also expressions of his curiosity, ingenuity and deep understanding of photography.

 

In a time when digital manipulation and collage permeate the photographic landscape, it’s hard not to read his images in light of those developments. However, where many artists now utilize digital editing software to construct or deconstruct photographic space, Voïta relies solely on physical objects, an understanding of perspective and a strong inclination toward abstraction.

 

You can see more of his work here.


Mårten Lange

Jun 10, 2017 - Ben Alper

The great cyberpunk science fiction writer William Gibson once said, “The future has arrived — it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”  Gibson’s quote, which can be traced back to the early 90’s, underscores the global disparity in technological development and access based on wealth and geography.  In the roughly 25 years since he first issued this incisive statement, this divide has only widened.  It no longer requires that vivid an imagination to view the globalized megacities of the world through Gibson’s dystopic lens.  Many of the most prevalent themes in science fiction – surveillance, control, collective consciousness, alienation, simulation, and authoritarianism – are accepted facets of the 21st century.

 

Mårten Lange‘s The Mechanism, recently published by MACK, is an allegory of contemporary life in the urban environment.  Often claustrophobic and isolating, the images that comprise this body of work depict the modern city as an oppressively homogeneous space.  The edifices in these pictures are nearly indistinguishable from another, bound together by a combination of anonymity and geometric severity.  It’s not at all apparent whether these photographs were made in a singular city or a constellation of them.  And that feels like the point. With the exception of a few subtle markers – one billboard depicts a robotic finger touching a human one with Japanese writing on it – there is very little geographic specificity. This is ‘anyplace’, or more aptly ‘no-place’.  It is an archetypal representation of a commercial city in an age of standardization and uniformity.

 

This ubiquitousness is at once reassuring and disquieting.  And while so many of Lange’s images possess an intense stillness, I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a menace stirring somewhere.  This is heightened by the formal language of the photographs themselves. The gaze is flat, distant and unemotional, the cropping tight and rigid. The images feel almost authorless, as if they were taken by an automated surveillance camera rather than a sentient being.  My speculation is that Lange used a telephoto lens to make the majority of these photographs.  Many of them are marked by the compression of space that results from this kind of photographic capture.  The world seen through this kind of lens is a world without depth, life or dimension.

 

When people appear in the images they are dwarfed by the vastness of the urban landscape. There is something actively dehumanizing about the scale shifts that occur between the figures and structures.  In some of the more unsettling images there’s a palpable sense of voyeurism, as if the people pictured exist within an urban art farm, of sorts.  They are observed in their “natural environment”, but are blissfully unaware that they are being watched.  The people in these photographs are not individuals so much as symbolic markers of the dislocation of our technological urban centers.

 

Lange’s vision of urban life is sobering.  The Mechanism casts the modern city as a place of power, control, opacity, alienation and loss of individuality.  The work’s capacity to evoke all of this is its ultimate strength.  It’s like being on the dark side of a one-way mirror and looking out.  Instead of seeing our own reflection, we are afforded a moment to look at and consider some the power hierarchies and measures of control exerted upon us by the contemporary metropolis.  And while they may, like the buildings themselves, remain somewhat impenetrable, taking a step back and examining our relationship to the built environment is a crucial first step.

 

You can pick up a copy of The Mechanism here.