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Too true, to (just) be beautiful

Roland Nachtigäller

Who does still believe an image? We know about the hair-raising retouchings of the Stalinist political propaganda, we know the stories about faked photographs of the CIA, we watched with enthusiasm how “Forrest Gump” (1994) stumbled through the historical moments of the American politics or how Woody Allens “Zelig” (1983) met legends like Josephine Baker or Al Capone and shook hands with Adolf Hitler. We know about the manipulative possibilities of the graphical and textual surroundings of an image, the seductive dislocations of accents by detail, contrast, confrontation, and combination while distortion, montage and color correction of the own hobby photographs at the PC with programmes like “Photoshop” or “Kai´s PowerGoo” by now became a largely popular amusement. Nobody believes an image!

Nevertheless, each morning the daily newspaper is dominated by the prominent title photograph, this image of evidence which shows the catastrophe, the politician at the meeting place, the handing over of an award, or the corpse in its puddle of blood. The news only becomes certainty when the first images arrive and unmistakebly proof that it actually happened like this. And never before the power of images in the media became impressively clearer than in the days after September 11, 2001. First television tried to realize, to make comprehensible, the unimaginable of this spectacular as well as disturbing event by showing the struck and later collapsing “Twin Towers” as a permanent background-loop for the various commentators. The next day almost each newspaper titled with a huge color photograph of the striking airplanes or the smoking buildings. In their repetitive stoic the authenticity of the images tilted into an ornament and became, however, precisely by this the incontrovertible certainty of a political and social reality that turned completely upside down. Everybody believes images!

In a visual cultural tradition which experiences its crucial impulses in the occidental history by a rationalistic and mechanistic thinking, the image always owns more authenticity than the word, may it be the spoken or the written one. Not human evidence, authentic testimony, but visual documents, films, photographs, even drawings (considering the illustrators at court or the drawings of archaelogical finds), constitute the final authority of credibility and are still able to eclipse each knowledge about the manipulability of images. It is the old story of the apostle Thomas who only believes when he sees with his own eyes. A story which farther updates in the longing for unambiguousness and commitment in a – above all medial – world that becomes more and more complex. One wants clear and unmistakable information (“facts, facts, facts”) which does not leave any questions open and whose remaining need of interpretation is widely covered by the flanking subtitle. Here the word is the vicarious agent of the image and together they enter into a steadfast unity of representation of facts which shall not leave room for doubt.

It is part of the oddness of this result that we basically know about this mechanism, that we know about the legitimate questions to such image-word-units of the mediaworld. Nevertheless it consistently requires art and artists to recall these structures with their questions and a language of forms which runs contrary to the customs. The works by Peter Anders also revolve around this conflict of the images and words: Around the reality on this side and on the other side of the pictured, around the imaginary and the medial images, around the image areas of words and the wordiness of images and – around painting.

To include

The series of the so-called Kammerbilder (chamber paintings) is a project by Peter Anders which he follows with tight formal consequence and poetical subversion already since 1998 in changing intensity. With a precise eye for the complexity of the seemingly banal and the sensation he isolates single exposures from the constant flow of daily images in newspapers and on TV in order to question them with pictorial means regarding their relations to the outer and inner world as well as their interconnection within a complex context of reception.

These paintings behind – or better – in wax are all media images, that is to say used, well-worn images which owned a clearly defined value of news in any newspaper or on any TV-channel at a definite day. And therefore their endurance is very short (if they do not come from the camera of a famous photographer or make the rare career of a historical moment): Normally they sink into insignificance and oblivion together with yesterdays newspaper. Peter Anders dissects these found images in an almost literal sense: By means of a photo-technical hardening which is calculated by the computer the artist decomposes them into up to ten different tonal values which he afterwards separately locks between thin layers of wax. The depths of the pictures are painted on the basis of a plywood board (mostly in acrylic), then the first layer of wax is casted over it and smoothened out with a scraper. Subsequently the next layer of the picture is painted in oil (colored or black and white), then another thin layer of wax follows until finally the brightest tonal values of the picture are covered by the final and polished layer of wax.

This method oddly carries the picture away from the eye. It is a form of covering up the view; the dull layers of wax which are mostly mixed with lightly colored pigments pervade the decomposed image with a fine haze which seems to have moved between the single layers. The closer one gets to the works the more they elude themselves from clear recognition, and only by stepping back the piled up motif regains a stronger optical unit. Thus Peter Anders takes away the argumentative sharpness of the reporting photograph, takes away its claim of infallibility, and positions with each layer of wax a new zone of uncertainty into the painting. The seemingly rational and objective surface of the documentary suddenly opens up and reveals its actually evocative core of projections, fantasies, and emotionalization. While emphazising the strategies of medial communicating Peter Anders is obfuscating the photographic image as well as probingly questioning the social document – it is at the same time preserved and discovered, carried away and unmasked.

This strategy is intensified by the careful choice of titles which combine in proven tradition of the legend the visual with the textual information. However, his titles open up new spaces of association which finally plunge the viewer into the ambivalences of ambiguousness: “Fariah, fariah, ho” (2000) entitles Peter Anders a painting of a heavily loaded wagon which is pulled by a tractor and carries the last properties of fleeing Kosovo-Albanians. “Lustig ist das Zigeunerleben” (How much fun is the life of a gypsy) childhood memories are echoing with it and one feels terribly lost between a romantic longing for the supposed idyll of travelling people, the slightly sentimental and dull green of the monochrome wax panel leaning against the painting, and the knowledge about the dramatic events of the genocide in the Balkans.

These Kammerbilder draw the viewer with tempting sounds and on confusing tracks deep into the marshes of our visual memory which are interspersed with will-o´-the-wisps, fogs and mire holes. A photograph of the burnt out National Library in Sarajevo forms the basis of “Eine Ruine mehr” (One more ruin) (2001) which at least equally reminds of the romantic remains of a medieval monastery and entices with an associated deep blue wax panel in the mysterious darkness of the night while the title with its allusion to Arnold Böcklins “Ruine am Meer” (1880) transfers the overall impression to a Memento mori in principle. “Asche zu Asche” (Ashes to Ashes) (2002) also holds these ambivalences which are sometimes only hard to bear: One sees a poor park, shaped by crossfading white, with bushes, single bare trees, and innummerable white sheets of paper which reminds of the edge of a garbage dump or the wretched slums of megacities like São Paulo. And while one – looking at the title – is still involved in the manifold association from christian funeral-ceremonies to David Bowies “Ashes to Ashes”, the information that here it is about a newspaper photograph of the overwhelming heaps of ashes in the side streets around the collapsed World Trade Center hits like a slap in the face.

By isolating single images or even selecting a motif within a found image, by separating photograph and news from each other and letting the image speak for itself or with a new title, Peter Anders alters the semantic field of the illustration. What seemed to be so clear and unambiguous in the context of the newspaper unveils its ambivalence and throws the viewer into the expanse of doubt: How much projection is at the bottom of a “documentary” photograph, how much scope for interpretation and ambiguity occurs between an image and its title, what of the illustrated is really to be found in the image? And, above all: What the detail or the accompagnying text does to or can do to an image, is this a falsification brought >from outside or is it still a hidden part of the documented itself? Do the free hovering connections of meaning between image and text, between detail and complete view, between information and interpretation, between the visible and the projection even unearth a reality of the representation which otherwise would have been undiscovered?

To brace

For the exhibition at Städtische Galerie Nordhorn Peter Anders has expanded the series of Kammerbilder with a distinctive group of smaller formats. Starting point of his work have again been newspaper photographs which this time though all come from the local section of the regional “Grafschafter Nachrichten”, namely those editions which correspond to the dates of events the allready existing Kammerbilder are about.

Thus a form of “image chamber” was created for Nordhorn, a more notional than architectural space which develops between the two groups of paintings. According to his mode of operation Peter Anders as a start leaves the references among the paintings in the dark, so that the viewer is forced to search for clues of what is only to discover by looking at second glance. Each of the wax panels created for Nordhorn in 2002 has a counterpart among the former paintings about the world affairs and is connected with it across the exhibition space by an imaginary line of event. The works are rather confrontations than juxtapositions; pairs of paintings which leave a freedom for the viewer to move and orientate himself mentally as well as physically. And so the correspondences come together only slowly while one, coming from the ruin painting of the National Library once built in neo-moorish style and the subtitle with its rich association, arrives at the objective and simple date-title of the locally applied painting of the Osnabrück zoo. In a quiet and unagitated way these paintings report about the parallelism of events, about the unspectacular coexistence of sensation, catastrophy, and everday event: While the front pages of the daily newspapers report about the successful ignition of a nuclear test in Pakistan the local section reports about a leisure time rallye in Uelsen, while ETA re-establishes the bomb attacks in the streets of Rossa the Nordhorn fire fighters organize their rotative driver saftey training, and while in New York the first pictures of the airplane crash into the World Trade Center are taken the photograph of a spectacular airshow in Rheine is to be found in the morning daily.

With this visual parallelization of events, with the pointed combination of simultaneous news from the globalized information pool of the news agencies, Peter Anders is far away from playing the “provincial life” off against the world affairs. In fact he tackles with classical means of painting the visualization of a simultaneity of the world which only in its aggravation is macabre. Despite of highest sending speed and broad media capacity fate does still not take the dramaturgy of the coincidence of events into consideration. The installation of the pairs of Kammerbilder is at the same time an intelligent as well as oppressive appearance of an often thoughtlessly spoken “Life goes on”. Aders opposes the big machinery of dismay and the false suggestion of the all-embracing information from the out-of-the-way parts of the world with the local news whose artistic reviewing he attends to with the same care and the same esteem.

The repeatedly layered and carefully sealed paintings in wax at the same time recede their motif into the distance. The original motif goes through a continuous process of disintegration via photograph, print in the newspaper, and rescanning, and at its end the almost romantic saving of the image by means of the manual process of painting and sealing recedes the displayed even more. With the hazy and muted colorfullness of his paintings Peter Anders increases the suggestive power of the medias battles of reporting to a painful development of awareness and at the same time intersperses the paintings with a concentrated peace for the close look.

It is a strange coincidence – the swift images of the current affairs are confronted by means of artistic care with a distinctive slowness while enclosing the motif in the ageing-resistent layers of wax confronts the fleetingness of the snapshot with an idea of eternity. Whereas the layering of the image into a spacial dimension seems like a final immobilization of the displayed, the material properties of the wax with its physical condition between liquid, soft, and cured carry back the aspect of the variable and movable into the images. The wax prevents the colors from lighting up but it also protects them from vanishing, and even in a cured state it remains sensitive and fragile and therefore open for a further inscription of the incidents into its surface. Not only with Peter Anders the waxen plate virtually and symbolically becomes the medium of memory and history, becomes a metaphor for memory.

To break up

Whereas the Kammerbilder transport the idea of intimacy, of the direct encounter of work and viewer, particularly by their indication as a series of works and their imaginary spatial bracing, the installation “Zu schön, um wahr zu sein” (Too beautiful to be true) (1998-2001) also formally broaches the issue of the restricted space of the private. Peter Anders has created a simple wall construction for the three large format paintings which, despite of sizable insights and passages, conveys the impression of a closed cabinet. What you see is one nests structure per wall in differing colorfullness and projected into a plane, while the fourth wall remains blank. Seven extremely upright formats are leaned against its outside which show painted tools (a pruning saw, an apple picking tool, a nest box, a tool for supporting branches, a ladder and a long stick).

The impression of a silhouette is conspicuous, an impression which increases while looking closer and discovering how the depicted is cut out from a higher layer. One discovers the various color applications from which the motif as well as the base are composed, and their matt saturation once more refers to the most important working material of Peter Anders: Following the traditional technique of encaustic he has built these paintings with brush and palette knife, layer by layer, with pigmented wax and thus has given the distinctive two-dimesionality an extremely lively, almost nervous inner drawing.

In contrast to the Kammerbilder the nests paintings do not come from a media reality but actually from a real object i.e. three birds nests found in nature (a blackbird, a magpie and a little songbird). Peter Anders first covered his canvases with several thin layers of wax until the favored, slightly chapped colorfullness for each single motif was reached. Then he covered this ground coat with a foil to which he transfered a photogram taken from the complex structure of the interwooven branches. Afterwards the shapes of the nests were accurately cut out with a scalpel, before the color – which occurs in the logic of the painting as background but actually lies over it – again was structured in several layers from dark to light. In this process the mediating authorities of lens, scanner and printing machine no longer lie in-between object and portrayal, but the natural forms inscribe their traces directly into the paintings surface, into the memory of the wax. Whereas with the Kammerbilder the long since superficial newspaper image litterally is broken up and transfered into a spatial structure, while the portrayal thus lies in the wax, the real and threedimensional nests are projected via photogram into the plane and draw their portrayal into its surface. And while the Kammerbilder with their lateral connections and ambivalences construct the intimacy of an imaginary realm of experience defined by lines of thoughts and events, the nests present themselves within a real, strictly geometrical architectonical space whose unity one can experience physically.

But this dialectics which is questioning the space between privateness and public is for Peter Anders not a purely formal nature of the task, not a scenical polarization of his paintings, but rather the attempt to question these various spaces regarding their content of reality, regarding their localization between appearance and being. The nest – being the quintessence of shelter and a space of retreat – also gets in this visual representation something threatening. Not only associations of expression (for example “foul one´s own nest”) relativize the first impression of security, but also the fact that the usually small structures of the branches are blown-up here so one can get lost or become entangled in them. Whereas in the Kammerbilder the public space is sedated in small size paintings and is seemingly repacified, the private space unexpectedly obtains a bewildering dangerousness in the enlarged nests.

Thus the seven paintings of tools which are leaning against the outside wall of this space-in-space construction almost appear to be a preview of a synthesis. Here the starting point of painting was also a photograph, an image of an old but still run farm in Nördlingen, the home town of Peter Anders. There one can find the traditional big tools which are particularly needed for tree care (the “longware” as Anders describes them ironically) leaned carefully against a suitable branch of a fruit tree. The tools were painted neither reduced nor enlarged, neither as a photograph nor a photogram, but exactly in original size by following their outlines which were transfered to the canvas. Despite the cool and objective painting technique the tools function almost pathetically as a link for the whole exhibition: Within them lies the imperative for taking care about the private and public spaces, for the attentive and responsible dealing with reality and its portrayals, for order and support within the ambivalences and ambiguities.To look out

The final accent of this installation and the exhibition is represented by a simple and unpretentious video which is part of “Zu schön, um wahr zu sein” and is projected onto a pane of milk glass without any special darkening. In its ambiguity it can be read as the summary of Peter Anders´ image investigations. One can see a big swirling soap-bubble which is floating in front of a blue-grey cloudy sky. The world is mirrored in the transparent surface, enchanted by the lucid lightness of this image carrier, agile and fluid in its reflections, indefinite and sometimes more imagined than recognized. Each time the moment of burst seems to come this soap-bubble turns back its movement and thus extends its actually fleeting existence. With the eternal soap-bubble Peter Anders finds a poetic as well as precise final image for his reflection about the truth of images. But also here the ambivalence remains: Is it the constant and never ending reflection of the banality of everyday life, of a cold principle of reality, or the magic of the temporary forced into continuance, the little wonder of reflection and fragility.

For the soap-bubble, being a convex mirror of the world, is real and true and at the same time deception and illusion. The universe is reflected in it, but the bubble only holds air for a few breaths. So a wide spectrum is covered: from news to photograph of evidence, the emotions and fantasies that are transported, the detail and the artistic image, the illusion and utopian dream. An attempt on the incompatibilities of the world, its terror and beauty, its dwindleing because of globalization and its proliferation in the defended private spaces, on simultaneity and incompatibilities, on its image and its portrayal. An ambitious concern formulated with little gestures..., with ambiguity. Who then does still believe the images – and what?