The respective artistic practices of MATTHEW COWAN (NZ) and JANA MÜLLER (D) address the role of museums and archives in representing identity and history and are intertwined with the potential of photography as document and performance. The starting point for the joint exhibition by the two artists is the artistic research of painted backgrounds in 19th century photo studios in Europe and New Zealand. Under the working title “Background of the Background”, collaborative works such as the installations and photographs shown in “Believing the Backdrop” have been created since 2021. In this show the two artists focus on New Zealand, referring to research materials gathered in museums and collections of early New Zealand photography. They show their subject matter in a subtle and playful way. “Believing the Backdrop“ presents itself in many ways as a multi-layered exhibition—conceptually and materially. Hand-painted photographic backgrounds, hang theatrically in the room, one overlapping the other. Floating in the room or embedded in the installations are framed photographs that take up the motif of the hanging fabric. The absurdity of a painted background for a photographic portrait becomes evident, while at the same time recalling portrait painting of past centuries. There too, a clearly defined image of the sitter was conveyed through specifically selected settings and attributes. Power, culture, virtue or the like could be conveyed through the style, setting and arrangement of objects. Through the media layering in the exhibition space, a large time span of (self)representations is reflected. Painted portraits have been replaced by photographic ones and today digital images are ubiquitous. The fabrics used in the photographs by Jana Müller and Matthew Cowan are in striking green and blue. These two colours are used for the so-called “blue screen” and “green screen” in film and television. These screens serve as placeholders for projections for any image to be projected onto them. In the work of the two artists, this stands metaphorically for longings and desires and above all for the infinite possibilities of backgrounds for staged (self-)presentation. The photographs can also be read as screens themselves because of the way they are placed in the room. Only at second glance does one realise that it is not a projection but a photograph that is being seen here. At the same time, the photographic motifs combine with the painted ones, so that photography and painting become blurred, as do reality and fiction —just as in today‘s world of images, where authenticity can no longer be clearly identified. The desire for self-optimisation, which is easier to realise in an image than on the physical self, is also influenced by film and advertising with perfect bodies. Müller and Cowan therefore also make the billboard opposite the exhibition space part of the show. The motif presents research material, but also a human being as an image within an image within an image. The question of identity and its staging—in reality or virtually—is an omnipresent concern of Jana Müller and Matthew Cowan. Especially in times of pandemic, the background comes into focus in digital encounters. The question arises: what significance do backgrounds carry from today‘s cultural perspective with a new understanding of how we present ourselves on Zoom, Instagram and other forms of image-based media? In this exhibition, the two artists move the background a step towards the foreground in order to trace the mechanisms of staging. The background becomes the literal subject of the image. What possibilities of staging do people appropriate? How do we create identity in the course of time? In the exhibition, people are rarely seen and yet they are the focus of the entire show.
Marion Scharmann, 2022
“It is an aphrodisiac. It is a nightmare. It is a commodity like any other. [...] It approaches us in all possible disguises, as warning forefinger and as scientific prognosis, as collective fiction and as sectarian wake-up call, as a product of the entertainment industry, as superstition, as trivial myth, as picture puzzle, as kick, as joke, as projection. It is omnipresent, but not ‘real’: a second reality, a picture that we make for ourselves, an incessant production of our imagination: the catas- trophe in our heads.” / H.-M. Enzensberger, Kursbuch 1978
That which is confusing and unsettling appears only slowly in the large-format photographs by Wiebke Elzel and Jana Müller. They are all quiet pictures, devoid of human beings, and contain hints of crisis, distress, or loss of control. Ashes lie upon the bed, shelves, and floor, or windows are barricaded with sandbags. It seems furniture has been only half-covered hastily with white cloth and white flags have already been hoisted. The photographs only imply an event involving the symbolic use of ashes, sandbags, white cloth and flags, leaving the observer in the dark as to whether the catastrophe is still to come, or if it has already passed. The tension prevailing in the pic- tures is stirring because every picture appears to contain its own story, which, despite all familiarity, remains mysterious and alien. “Flight” reveals a room with a high ceiling in which several chairs in the left half of the picture have only partly been covered with white cloth; the corner of a white sheet peeps out from a chest. The gaze of the observer is diverted to a door next to a window whose lower third is blocked from outside. The title of the work, the covered furniture—everything suggests that some- one had to flee. Perhaps through the door, which is now closed? Or has the moment before someone enters the room through the door been recorded in the photograph? Has the inhabitant of the house already returned and begun to remove the sheets from the furniture? The situation shown in “Ashes” is also ambiguous. Ashes are spread on all the furniture, and on the bedding and floor. But there is not the slightest indication as to where they have come from or what has happened. In all the pictures referred to, the view outside is in some way blocked. Something beyond the rooms is only implied by the source of the light in the picture or by half-closed windows.
As mysterious as the pictures seem to be, they are nevertheless not foreign to the observer. They make reference to images from the mass media which let us take part, at least as observers, in catastrophes and crises all over the world. The artists deal with media representations of catastrophes and human crises in their works and in so doing investigate the interaction of event and visual representation. Thus, their ‘quiet’ photographs enable one to pause and concentrate on the construction of the pictures, this, in turn, allowing one to ask questions concerning media-conveyed reality, mediareality, and the simulation of reality. They work with the ‘images in the minds of observers’, and, thus, also expose that which is suppressed and buried.
Their staged pictures use the suggestion of reality concomitant with photography, a suggestion that everything included in the picture and visible for the observer is not only real, but also believed to be real (1). But the pictures provide the observer with clues to decipher them and thereby to doubt their claim to reality, which seems inher 3 ent in photography. When the composition of the picture is laid bare, it is, however, possible to recognize a truth in the photographs which proceeds from the photography and can be located within the observer him / herself. Next, however, a little more about the clues which the photographs themselves provide for their decoding. Images of catastrophe must be able to inform the observer quickly and convey efficiently what exactly has happened. In so doing, it is important that the cause, the beginning of the event, or the site of the occurrence is visually comprehensible in some form. If the images cannot do that themselves, then a caption is necessary which explains them to the observer, or places them in a context. The pic- tures by Elzel and Müller function completely differently. Of course they indicate that something has happened — what has happened, however, remains invisible and is not explained further. But there are enough clues and signs in the pictures to encourage the observer to consider his or her own caption, or better yet, story. The observer’s own experiences and visual impressions then flow into these stories. Through the sto- ries which the observers applies to the pictures, he or she does not only conceive that that which is seen must have really been that way, but tries, more importantly, to get ‘behind’ the pictures (2). But this process flounders with the photographs by these artists because nobody can confirm the observer’s stories which therefore end up as individualised and variable fictions. In these pictures there is, rather, a type of anti- narration—the pictures are able to produce the illusion of a story by using narrative elements; however, a story is only seemingly produced. Wiebke Elzel and Jana Müller play with the desire of the observer to decipher relations and to develop a storyn from a snapshot or frozen moment. Thereby, they question the wish of a society to construct and connect itself through story (3).
Files become a theme in several works by Wiebke Elzel and Jana Müller. In “Files” they become towers, built between the doors of a hallway, and in “Headquarters” folders are draped around a desk. In the video “Sifting” we see two women in white lab coats enter a room and empty files out of boxes. Sorting, collecting, and archiving are also themes in two further works. For one project, the artists created a photo archive of places they discovered while searching for new settings for their works. Empty factories, apartments, and offices create an image of standstill and destruction. Motionless, like a sleeping Snow White, they appear to be waiting for their awakening. But one suspects already that this ‘waiting’ will be futile. The archive, whose individual photographs are exhibited as small prints, is a means for the artists to capture the moment showing change in a society in terms of its use or non-use of buildings. In another project, photographs of buildings from Heuersdorf capture a moment of change as well. The village Heuersdorf, not far from Leipzig, will be torn down in order to access the brown coal deposits below it. Over a period of years, the village has tried to prevent being taken over by the mining in- dustry, but to no avail. The village will be completely destroyed by 2008. After the ex- traction of the coal a lake will exist at the site of the present village. The photographs of Elzel and Müller show the buildings after being abandoned by their inhabitants. The pictures prefigure the nothingness which has been announced. A ghostliness in photography exists because the object, as one sees it in the photograph, disappears after the shot and can never again be captured in exactly that form. This ghostliness in the Heuersdorf series is magnified by the knowledge that the village will in fact disap- pear. Thus, the Heuersdorf photographs make reference to a paradox mirrored in art — exactly at the moment of disappearance, that which was becomes visible.
“Fear is that which does not deceive” (4) Even though human beings do not appear in the photographs by Elzel and Müller, their rooms are not empty, but marked rather by the actions of people: barricades have been made, objects have been covered or stacked, wrecked or organized. It is not the rooms themselves which have an eerie effect, but rather the fact that there appears to be no explanation as to why they have ended up that way. “The uncanny” prevails in the photographs and appears as that which is suppressed and secret or hidden, that which should not exist: our fear. In his essay “Über das Unheimliche” (“The Uncanny”) Sigmund Freud asserts, “[...] the uncanny is any kind of fear which goes back to something well-known and trusted.” (5) Freud’s explanations of “the uncanny” begin with an examination of the lexical ambivalence of the German words “unheimlich / heimlich” (uncanny / secret). He then ends with the thesis that “the uncanny” can be conceived of as a wave of fear perceptible in that moment in which “the familiar” be- comes foreign, due to the return of something suppressed. In terms of psychoanalysis, “this ‘uncanny’ [...] is nothing new or foreign, but rather something which has been well-known to the inner life for a long time, something which has become estranged through the process of suppression.” (6) These staged scenes remind us of real catastrophes which we seek to ban from our lives, be it in the form of a picture or a true occurrence. The fact that a society is open to attack through war, violence, or natural catastrophe has led to certain protective mechanisms. Among these is the process resulting from the medium of film, whereby the vulnerability of society is exiled to the realm of fiction where all conceivable forms of attack can be visualized, while remaining mere fantasies (7).
The images of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001 reveal in a forceful way how images serve to keep reality at a distance from one’s own life, even while showing something unbelievably and horribly real. The images of the burning and crumbling towers, the falling people, the chaos in the streets of New York, and the ruins of the World Trade Center did not show loss of control, but rather contained it within the moment of the attack. Even though the flood of images of the attack suggested that no angle or take on the situation had been left out, there were still only select images which could be seen. Although thousands died in the attack, no blood, corpses, or parts of corpses were to be seen. Western convention is to show these types of images of present conflicts only when the dead and injured are from the non-western world. One can thus claim that images of the dead and injured are not necessary because they do not serve to clarify the extent of disaster and would only serve the interests of curious spectators. But it is not criticism of such images in general which underlies the choice not to show the dead and injured of September 11. That this is the case, is shown by the images of the Tsunami victims—the force of the catastrophe is made clear primarily by the corpses on the beaches.
The ‘bloody’ images of September 11, 2001 were also not shown in order to maintain a status of invulnerability and to remove the reality of the horror (8). Edmund Burke maintained in “Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful” (1757) that the effect of the sublime is triggered by immensity, infinity, and suddenness. For Burke the condition which leads to the perception of fear as something sublime and to the sense of desire in fear is the distance between the ob server and observed, which, in part, can result from the recognition of the horribly beautiful as an imitation (9). On September 11, 2001 the distance of the television viewer to the event, the mantra-like repetition of the images, and the fact that the im- ages of the attack themselves imitated filmic portrayals of horror, led to a distance from the event and allowed an aesthetic perception of the horror. It was this aesthetic perception of the attack which raised questions about visual representation—questions which Wiebke Elzel and Jana Müller have also asked (10). There is something recorded in Elzel and Müller’s photographs, even if they have the effect of a still life in which nothing seems to happen. Without stating it directly, the pictures address an unsettling feeling of control loss, something which, in any case, is meant to be avoided. As a result they achieve an eerie or “uncanny” effect. Therein lies the truth which, as mentioned above, proceeds from photography. The photographs become true in that they address something true: our fear.
Lilian Engelmann from the Cataloge Wiebke Elzel and Jana Müller "White and Black Light", 2007
(1) In a conversation on Januar 7, 2007, the two artists said that they are frequently asked in which situation and in which locations they were able to take their photographs. (2) See Roland Barthes, Die helle Kammer, Frankfurt/Main, p. 111. (3) See Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everday Life, London 1984, p.186. (4) Jacques Lacan, in: Bernard Baas, Das reine Begehren, Wien 1995, p. 85. (5) Sigmund Freud, Das Unheimliche (1919), in: Sigmund Freud Studienausgabe, Psychologische Schriften, Vol. IV, A. Mitscherlich, A. Richards et al. (ed.), Frankfurt/Main 1970, p. 244. (6) S. Freud, 1970, p. 264. (7) Vgl. / See Georg Seeßlen, Krieg der Bilder – Bilder des Krieges. Abhandlungen über die Katastrophe und die mediale Wirklichkeit, Berlin 2002, pp. 32–33. (8) See Slavoj Zizek, Willkommen in der Wüste des Realen, in: Heinz Peter Schwerfel (ed.): Kunst nach Ground Zero, Köln 2002, pp. 61– 62. / The existence of such photographs is proven by one photograph, among others, of a female leg which has been torn off — this photograph first appeared in a collection of photography called Here is New York. A Democracy of Photographs, Alice Rose George (ed.), Zürich 2001, p.264. (9) See Edmund Burke ,Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, London 1757. (10) In a conversation with both artists on January 7, 2007, both said that the images from September 11, 2001 had, in a strange way, fascinated them. The question as to how one should deal with the effect that these images left behind, led to their idea of forming a joint endeavour, which began with the photograph “Ashes” (2002).
Wiebke Elzel www.wiebke-elzel.de and Jana Müller working together since 2001 continuously on photographic series.