Robert F. Hammerstiel: analyst of photographic representation

After beginnings that were undisputedly in the tradition of documentary auteur photography (as compiled in publications such as An Bord 1 (1985) and Stand-Orte (1988)), Robert F. Hammerstiel has now consistently focused his artistic explorations on the contemporary commodity world for more than twenty years. In retrospect, the groups of works created in the late 1980s and in the early 1990s can be ascribed to a transitional phase (these works are reproduced in the exhibition catalogue Der Stand der Dinge(1991)). They articulate for the first time an interest in ordinary objects, in lifestyles, and in people's everyday lives, complete with the unspoken desires embedded therein. The subsequent projects, bundled in Make it up (1993-1994), already identified people's lives as worlds of commodities. For instance the artist has trained his sights on the Barbie®doll made by US toy manufacturer Matell Inc., showcasing it in monstrous glamour portraits; elsewhere he has photographically exhibited the doll's clothing still wrapped inside its packaging, in exactly the form in which it is traded over the counter. 2

It is therefore hard to disagree when art critic Andreas Spiegl references "the commodity and therefore an economy of promise" 3 as a "central motif" in Hammerstiel's work. It is in fact a symptomatic appraisal. More generally, the scientific essays featured in the catalogue still smoulder with the afterglow of the ideology-critical spirit of psychoanalysis and the Frankfurt School 4. With regard to the works reviewed here these discourses are sustained on terms such as "criticism of consumerism", "alienation", "use value", "exchange value", "surrogate", "false appearance", "illusion", "backdrops", "commodity fetishism", "commodification", "needs-based production" and "repression". In terms of background material it is not difficult to discern here the chapter Culture Industry, Enlightenment as Mass Deceptionfrom Horkheimer's and Adorno's joint publication Dialectic of Enlightenment 5. What is being spelt out here is a critique of commodity aesthetics 6. Here the exchange value and use value of commodities stand irreconcilably opposed, in Manichaeistic opposition as it were. The capitalist produces the commodity merely for the purposes of exchange (commodity in return for money) in order to turn a profit; for the consumer, the commodity has purely a use value (e.g. shoes to wear, cigarettes to smoke). Since the use value of the commodity can only be consumed once the exchange has taken place, a promise is necessary insofar as the use is concerned or, to quote Wolfgang Fritz Haug's term, a "use value promise". The aesthetic appearance of the commodity, its design, but beyond that the brand image and advertising convey that promise.

Hammerstiel's theorist companions focus their attentions, each in a different way, on the use value promise as the core of any commodity aesthetic. The aim is to expose the hollow, the dishonest, the pretence, the fraud on a mass scale, etc. However, it is not quite that straightforward; after all, artistic work vehemently resists any outright amalgamation into a position critical of society and ideology. So what constitutes its insubordination, its self-will from which so much of its intellectual appeal emanates? Here's what one of the commentators has to say about it: With reference in particular to the group of works entitled Make it up "Hammerstiel readily accepts the suspicion that his is an affirmativeapproach to this virtual consumerist world," writes Michael Müller; however, he does to go on to say (warding off any such suspicion in the process) that the artist's intent is not to deprive the products "of their voice under any circumstances; indeed, visualising that voice is what counts most in his mind. Value judgements therefore never superficially follow a moral judgement. Instead, all his works demonstrate the extent to which the estranged has long become the familiar, the proximal, the quotidian, and the ordinary". 7

I find this repeatedly stated brinkmanship with affirmation interesting, even if ultimately, it should be noted, no-one is seriously suggesting this enemy of an ideology critique of the prevailing circumstances. I would like to develop my thoughts as I track the photographic series. It might be interesting to examine whether and how the results are able to claim validity for the video works and the installations. Several aspects support the suspicion of a superficial affirmation of commodities and the world of commodities as well as the social implications. Firstly, Hammerstiel's photographs and installations exclusively depict commodities or commodified practices. Secondly, he does so apparentlyalso in the form of high-quality product photographs, which after all embody prototypical representation codes of commodities. Thirdly, it would seem as if the artefacts depicted were brand new since there are absolutely no traces of actual use, traces which breathe life and use into the objects in the first place. Fourthly, the names attributed to the groups of works often underscore the commodity aspect, with the product name itself either directly promoted as the title of the work or deployed to formulate an enticingly cheerful promise or an ultimately cunning imperative (All for Your Delight, Trust Me, Make Yourself at Home, Alles in bester Ordnung, Happy Hours, etc.).

Let's examine some of these points. The first question that springs to mind is why Hammerstiel does not present the commodities themselves. The answer I propose draws on the logic inherent in the practice of showing. 8 Images can be used to show someone something that is really absent (consequently, the world of commodities too). At the same time one has no choice but to show the image as an object itself. Depending on the situation and the context, one or the other of these acts of showing, or both simultaneously, may take priority. The exhibition space for instance defines itself as a cultural venue where images are put on show for their own sake. That is why I believe that, for the artist, it is about a dual act of showing: on the one hand he is showing us commodities; on the other, images (which reproduce commodities in a particular way). If the focus of a critique of the commodity aesthetic is trained more sharply on the former, i.e. on the "metaphysical […] subtleties and theological niceties" 9 of the commodity, I would also guide the viewer's gaze more forcefully towards the images and the matter of how the commodity is represented photographically. Michael Müller, whom I previously cited, rightly points out that what the artist is concerned about is "visualising" an "idiom" particular to the products; I would now add that he is also endeavouring to visualise a rhetoric of representation.

Hammerstiel is not merely an analyst of the commodity world; he is also an analyst of its representation. By way of illustration I should like to explore this idea with the series Trust Me, created during the period 2010 to 2014. The photographs taken with the large-format camera (8" x 10") show us trees in their original size - or so it would seem at first glance. But if we study the photographs more closely, we can tell by the plug-in connections that the trees are in fact made of plastic. These imitations of nature come from a specialist retailer used by businesses and event organisers to source their decorations. Imitations such as these are capable of provoking some exciting semantic shenanigans, which the artist has previously explored them in a number of photo projects (for instance Made by Nature - Made in China,2004-2006, orAll for Your Delight III, 2011).

Given that the field of the critique of commodity aesthetics has already been expertly tilled, I can confidently leave that particular aspect aside. With Trust Methe artist meticulously investigates the politics and poetics of photographic representation. A critique of representation is where representations are required to measure up against all other alternative representations - in this instance representations of tree commodities and, more broadly, all representations of commodities - in order to filter out the differences. The decorative trees are also to be found on conventional product photographs published by the specialist retailer in his order catalogue and his website. A cursory glance might deceive us into thinking that these purveyors of the use value promise are identical with Hammerstiel's work. But that is not so, and it is not so in many different ways, which compels us to take an extra close look and to train our eye accordingly.

The differences relate to the location, the format, and the staging. The institutional force ascribed to an exhibition space through resourceful agents creates category differences and transforms photography into art; the other locations, those less endowed such as order catalogues, feature reproductions. - So the choice of format always entails a strategic calculation. Hammerstiel produces blow-ups of his negatives until the depicted objects are shown either full size, i.e. on a scale of one to one (e.g. Über allen Wipfeln ist Ruh',2000, Yucca I, 1998 and Pussicat, 1998) or extremely enlarged (Buffalo, 1998, and Make it up I, 1993-1994).

There are many different reasons for this. Firstly, using sheer size to magnify significance - right through to the ironical or grotesque epiphany of the commodity; secondly, creating a tension between commodity triviality and image monumentality; or thirdly, gaining an insight into and informing about facts that arise from the enhanced visibility. The latter is certainly apposite to Trust Me 10; indeed, without serious enlargement, the thing could not be exposed for what it is. That is not something product photography of visual merchandising articles can readily achieve as it is created under different production conditions. The economic rationale that prevails there makes it prohibitive to produce images in such a way that there is potentially the scope to go beyond the intended purpose. Since these photographs are designed exclusively for the publication context of a catalogue or web shop, i.e. for a mono-functional purpose as it were, they do not have the data capacity needed for enlargements on an enormous scale. But then an enlargement capable of casting light (literally) on the materiality of the objects is not needed in such a context since it communicates clearly enough that what we are looking at here are plastic trees.

Let's turn to product presentation through photographic means. In both Hammerstiel's photographs and the commercial shots, the tree appears to float freely and in isolation in the middle of the image. No other object distracts from the view of the commodity, which looks as if it is in an imagined primitive state. Detaching the object from any context of utilisation serves the purpose of focusing our gaze exclusively on its shape, forms and colours. This standardised staging can be seen as the structural equivalent to the art world's White Cube - and that is not meant cynically by any means. As much as the photographs may resemble one another superficially, the White Cube was created in a completely different way. Where the artist turns to the time-tested techniques of his craft, the commission photographer deploys computerised equipment, which promise economic efficiency. The former uses what is known as a voute, or infinity cove, in his studio, i.e. a roll of paper or fabric draped as an image backdrop which serves to round off the transition between vertical and horizontal and conceal any edges or corners. The lighting design creates a subtle brightness distribution on the cove, from bright at the top to a shade darker at the bottom. What's more, the object casts an extremely understated shadow, all of which discreetly hints at the specific three-dimensionality of the studio. The product photographer proceeds in a completely different way with the trees. His workflow is consistently digitised; indeed, the commercial photographer could not be competitive any other way. And so he shoots digitally and processes the results on the computer. With the aid of Photoshop he then "free-form selects", as it's called in the graphics industry, i.e. he uses a selection tool known as a magic wand to cut out the trees. This form of post-production saves a lot of man-hours as the entire studio setup complete with lighting does not have to be particularly worked through. In any case, it is perfectly adequate for the small format sizes used in sales catalogues and on the internet. As a result the trees are placed in a virtual space, providing the viewer with no points of reference whatsoever, no matter how subliminal, as to the nature of the space. In summary, then, images which at first glance might appear so similar once again refer to quite different conditions of production which, if we look closely, can be deduced from the photographs themselves.

As we have seen, Hammerstiel constructs a nuanced network of differentiations, of minute displacements, in order to place his carefully considered representations of the commodity world alongside and in contrast with the many others that circulate within global capitalism. The critique in his work in founded in acts of showing which think through and think beyond the notion of how something is shown. The seeminglyunconditional affirmative act of showing emerges as a subtle consideration of existing conditions of representation. Robert F. Hammerstiel's work does not overwhelm like a magician's sensational reveal; rather, it calls for careful study, and further study, and a certain media literacy.These are elementary cultural techniques, even more so for the 21st century than for the centuries that preceded it.


1 Full bibliographic details at Robert F. Hammerstiel : Bücher, Kataloge.

2 An overview of all the groups of works since Make it up can be found on the artist's website at (downloaded on 18 March 2014).

3 Andreas Spiegl: Second Life by Analogy.

4 See also the contributions in Robert F. Hammerstiel: Make it up; idem: Glücksfutter; idem: Vergiss Mozart; idem: Alles in bester Ordnung
( Robert F. Hammerstiel : Bücher, Kataloge ).

5 Max Horkheimer/Theodor W. Adorno: Dialektik der Aufklärung. Philosophische Fragmente [Dialectic of Enlightenment. Philosophical Fragments], Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1969 (initially 1944).

6 Wolfgang Fritz Haug: Kritik der Warenästhetik [Critique of Commodity Aesthetics], Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1971 (= Edition Suhrkamp, Vol. 513) (new revised edition 2009).

8 See Lambert Wiesing: Sehen lassen. Die Praxis des Zeigens, Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2013 (= Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Wissenschaft, Vol. 2046), particularly p. 40-51, 180-191.

9 Karl Marx: Das Kapital. Kritik der politischen Ökonomie [Das Kapital. A Critique of Political Economy], Vol. 1, Berlin: Dietz, 1962 (initially 1867) (= Marx-Engels-Werkausgabe [MEW], Vol. 23), p. 85.

10 Enlargement is used to similarly enlightening intents in the work entitled Yucca I (1998), which shows yucca palm cuttings in their original size. These economically motivated manipulations of the plants are clear to see.


Michael Ponstingl