Mapping the Artist

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by Wolfgang Ullrich

Politicians, managers and members of the upper class have it easy: If they wish to present themselves in a manner befitting their social standing, they have themselves photographed in front of an artwork. They know that it always looks impressive – implying education, authority, interest, affluence and grandeur – to stand in front of an abstract painting or large sculpture. But what do artists do to project a representative image of themselves? Of course they may choose art as their preferred accessory, but rather than thus making a mark as connoisseurs or avant-gardists of taste, all they reveal is a certain pride in their work. That's alright, but not particularly exciting: Clearly, there must be some other way.

In 'Exchange,' a project commenced in 2000, Valentina Seidel investigates which iconographies artists preferably utilize in photographic representations (of themselves). Her method recalls the 'Chambre Close' series by Bettina Rheims, realised in the early 1990s. In this experiment, she approached women on the street and invited them to a hotel room for photo sessions, where they would then pose in front of the camera any way they liked. While some would respond shyly or coyly to the slightly awkward situation, others presented themselves as vamps, femmes fatales or in ostentatious poses. So the photographer is not the director: Rheims was the initiator, defining the parameters within which the women could then present themselves. However, Valentina Seidel is also interested – as already implied by the project's title – in interplay, the individual exchange with the persons she photographs: She does not determine the places and poses on the photographs, but gives them the opportunity and inspiration to show themselves in their respective ambience. The artists, and occasionally, the designers, gallerists and art mediators invited by Seidel to participate in 'Exchange' are actively involved in all the phases of the project. They are even allowed to help select the final photograph for publication.

As the artists themselves look for the places in which they want to be photographed, each picture to some extent reflects their work. Today, the artist is characterized not so much by the genius of his style, but rather by his investigative instinct. At a time in which the work of many artists is no longer defined by 'originality,' but rather in terms of found material culled from a vast pool of existing sources, one also expects an artist to know his locality well – in terms of producing an apposite portrait of himself. The photos, it is hoped, express all the featured artists' liking for the exceptional, unusual, and overlooked and, ideally, reflect the atmosphere pervading their respective works.

Of course this claim can become a burden. In a few photos one senses the deliberation and trials before the photographer was allowed to release the shutter. The viewer may well think to himself, that it's typical for the artist to desperately put himself in the limelight as a mystery or outsider. More frequently however, in the photographs there develops a powerful atmosphere between the person depicted and the surrounding milieu – successfully depicting the singularity of the portrayed and his/her profession in a distinctive situation. Seeing Mischa Kuball and Reinhard Spieler, standing exhausted in a squash court, one is forced to imagine what kind of a duel has just taken place. This photograph stands for the archetypal relationship between artist and curator – documenting that both must be prepared to spend themselves – as competitive whilst being mutually interdependent to the extent of not being able to accomplish anything without each other.

While this picture serves as a stark image for a much-discussed phenomenon of contemporary art, other photographs make more overt reference to art history. For instance, the sculptor Robert Bridgewater and his girlfriend Kate McCaughey restage Jan van Eycks famous Arnolfini Marriage: Furnishing their newly-renovated home, the couple coincidentally finds itself surrounded by objects that echo the middle-class domestic environment of the early 15th century. The photograph thus testifies to a long tradition, and rather than claiming total difference in an avant-garde manner, the artist sets great store on being perceived as working with an acute consciousness of historic continuity.

It is noticeable that in most of the photographs the portrayed artists are in isolated, transitional or dysfunctional places: on the platform of a railway station, in the lobby of a bank, under a bridge, on a building site, in front of a rubbish heap or on the roof of a house. What makes these places appealing is that, although almost everywhere to be found, they feel slightly strange and at odds with everyday life. As undefined areas they resemble spaces of potential, transit or waiting – of a sojourn resisting precise definition: Those residing here do not succumb to the tyranny of movement, but rather enjoy openness and a certain state of contradictoriness. Undefined spaces such as these offer scope for experimentation and reflection. Sometimes they point beyond the present – to a past extant in traces and remnants; to a future in which the present emptiness might be filled and the transitory might give way to the permanent.

In a novel by Peter Handke, the architect – impressed by all that already exists – no longer wants to construct his own buildings. He is particularly fascinated by the undefined spaces he calls Leerbauten (vacant edifices). His main project involves preparing the photo book titled Niemandslandstreifen in Japan (plots of no man's land in Japan). He plans a collection of photographs, showing 'the terrain vague here and there between the almost seamlessly developed Japanese land lots.' (1)

Valentina Seidel's project offers a variant of such a photo book: It is not the architect, but rather the artists who track down the plots of no man's land. Photographed in this terrain vague, it is as if they wish to leave their mark upon the places they discovered. It is not surprising that artists identify with these indefinite places: They fulfil what is expected of art, namely to provide remedies against reductionisms. These locations are indeterminate to both therapeutic and liberating effect. They are characterized by 'functionality without purpose,' which since Kant has been a criterion of art. In these places, freedom and independence unfold, and the resilience of the material can be transcended.

Thus, besides revealing individual traits of the respective artists and other personas from the world of art, Valentina Seidel's photographs really do represent – along the social standing – their corresponding professions. The elective affinity between the persons photographed and their respective choice of setting testifies to a developed sense of ambiguity and openness. The observer may speculate as to what is just happening – or about to happen, indeed as to the scenery's possible meaning. The photographs therefore become kinds of pictorial puzzles analogous to works of art. They render visibly tangible the innate peculiarities not only of the artists, but also of art, ultimately returning to art its own iconography.

(1) Peter Handke, Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht, Frankfurt/Main 1994, p 586f.