Dialectic Pictures

About the Archaeological Aspect of the Private

Photography, an important 19th century invention, is the expression of a broken relationship to reality and characterises the middle-class world-view after the Age of Enlightenment. Two contradictory trends express themselves in it: on the one hand, a striving for power that is nurtured by religion for an unchallenged command over the world and, on the other, a sceptical distance to things born of the awareness that we only perceive the world in fragments. This transformation of the world into images, however, could not clarify our relation to reality. To the contrary, the photographic representation which discloses nothing about its genesis and whose fragmentary nature even destroys all contexts, did not encourage any sceptical questioning of things but much rather a diffused view that seems appropriate to an increasingly obscure world. At the same time, its credible reference to reality which, according to Roland Barthes – is in fact a magical reference, proved photography as an ideal means for replacing the vacuum that had appeared with the end of metaphysics. “Societies now consume images rather than religious values.” 1) Photographic images are also aesthetic vehicles for creating conformity in mass consumer drives. This manipulation of desire and behaviour, however, is not seen as a form of conformity since the illusion of a freedom (to choose) is produced along with serially produced behavioural models. For the individual this over abundance of surrogates for happiness, nature, beauty, etc., are a mode of creating individuality. It is, however, individuality without identity since reproduceable individuality can have no real identity.

In the current discourse on photography Walter Benjamin’s parallel between mass production and reproduction in the photographic image, or Adorno’s assertion that mass production is oriented to principles of commercialisation rather than the wilfulness of cultural values or the aspiration to a perfectly formed object, are mere platitudes. It is obvious that the images in the sphere of consumerism serve to replace the aesthetic and ethical deficit. Here commercial photography has assumed a position between seduction and truth, whereby the truth lies in the hope that the contingent worlds of the consumer society will turn into reality. But the seductive images in advertising are as threatened by wear as the articles themselves since the objects that the images refer to must be continually replaced.

Rarely are we aware of the fact that mass-produced objects are themselves representations, that is, they have a pictorial quality. They are, so to speak, representations of a fictitive original, the objectified images of the consumer’s imagination and the myths they are based on (myths of power, sexuality, beauty and nature). Thus photographs that depict commodities are somewhat tautological and in a way even propagate the fictionalisation of reality. But how can photography express the sceptical aspects of contextualising the real world? An ethical question arises once life begins to vaporise into the imaginary. As Roland Barthes puts it: “Not because the image is immoral, godless or devilish (as many claimed photography to be in the early days) but because it tended to generalise on the pretext of illustrating the human world, it was robbed of its conflicts and desires.” 2) Interestingly, Roland Barthes did not measure photography and film by the same yardstick, as is usually the case. According to him movement in film makes reality slip into the metaphorical, but the photo requires time and even demands time for its perception and therefore also for reflection. He even grants the photo subversive power.

“Ultimately photography is not subversive only when it shocks, provokes or even stigmatises, but also when it makes us think.” 3) Roland Barthes has in mind a photography that exploits its dual nature, that of reality and fiction, in order to ensure entry to an “infra-knowledge” that would foster a particular fetishism in the viewer. Robert F. Hammerstiel, who has developed several strategies over the past ten years, has apparently set his stakes on this very potential of photography, that is, a subversive form of photography, one that makes us think.

Hammerstiel treads on the less regarded territories of the private that are not yet part of the mainstream. They are the preserves of a petit bourgeois world where the capacity of self-expression, though fast vanishing, is not entirely extinguished. 4) It is the middle-class world, to use a more accurate sociological term, in which Hammerstiel seeks his pictures. But he rejects all such classifications so that his work is not misinterpreted as a supercilious sociological analysis of class. He is much rather concerned with using the most appropriate social areas as a mirror in which the viewer can find himself reflected (who would deny the fact that this so-called middle-class is where we all come from?).

Before Robert F. Hammerstiel makes his individual work groups, he does a thorough research that is best described as a kind of “archaeology of the intimate”. This is why he took a trip to Holland for his exhibition Glücksfutter (Fortune Food), to the green houses from where standardised substitutes of nature from imported yucca palm cuttings are “formed” and potted in millions for the market. He studied distribution methods as thoroughly as the plant’s biology, as well as its potential for becoming a pathetic room decoration. He looked around in pet shops and spoke to pet owners, fish breeders and aquarium lovers; he investigated dog clubs and had intensive conversations with dozens of dog owners. Unlike a journalist, Hammerstiel’s intention is not a more or less accurate description of a cross-section of society; he is rather in search of images of transient objects that are predestined for quick consumption and use, but resistant and lasting. Enlargement to human proportions and isolation borrowed of commercial studio photography, the things that have sneaked into our everyday life attain an aura and a wilfulness that reverses our gaze.

What Walter Benjamin called a “dialectic image” thus emerges, which is positioned between the alienation of the object and the meaning it acquires on being viewed. 5) This process of aestheticisation partially strips away the commodity value of everyday objects and situations that Robert F. Hammerstiel photographs. The process is comparable with the loss of commodity value with the passage of time, which lends the objects a new power of expression. The coded and symbolic character now comes more to the forefront than if they were to be viewed in the normal context, or if they were simply isolated as Ready-Mades. Let us look at the cat trees (Pussicat). Firstly, they are practical objects that fulfil a certain function for the animal lover, they protect upholstered furniture and are conducive to the cat’s instinct to climb and play. Once isolated and enlarged to well-lighted photographic life-size representations, their strange form and upholstered-furniture-like associations come forth. The object is now quite distinctly part of an interior. Even if little remains of the discarded, padded “comforter lining of man”6) in the contemporary middle-class flat, these objects are still reminiscent of the “poufs” and “confortables”, constituent seating furniture of the 19th century – upholstery, tassles, cushions, and all.7) It seems as though the dwelling container as mise en scène refuge had survived in the cat trees like some lost cultural asset. Is perhaps the withdrawal into a tree house also some kind of “food” for repressed childhood fantasies? One can assume that these by no way cheap objects are not just coincidental or the whim of some factory employee, in all likelihood there is a certain vested commercial interest behind them. Is it exaggerated to say that the object’s distinct structure in Hammerstiel’s representations bears an affinity to early 20th century modern constructivist sculpture? The chrome frames around his photographs seem like an ironic affirmation of a suspicious similarity to models in his artistic forms.

It appears as though Hammerstiel had pulled out his antennae to capture the radiations of the big bang that took place in our culture in the19th century. At the same time, he is also in search of the remains of archaic images, plants and animals as expressions of an organic life - expressions of a desire to reverse our alienation from nature; in search of the sea as an image of eternity and of ruins as symbols of utopia and melancholia (lost Atlantis).

Walter Benjamin aptly described the close interconnection between the historically contingent and archaically enduring in the concept of living. “The difficulty, when we speak of living conditions, is: one must recognise in it the archaic – perhaps eternal – as a representation of residence in the mother’s lap, on the one hand. On the other hand, however, one must recognise that in its most extreme form, irrespective of this archaic motive, living is a 19th century state of existence.” 8) Despite the dissolution of all borders between the public and the private (mass communication transmitted by images), traces of this “obsession with the home” inherited from our parents and grand parents still remain. Hammerstiel sums this up in a beautiful picture and deliberately juxtaposes it with the cat-tree-pictures. Rooted in a pictorial symbolism, cushions mounted on the wall are symbolic of our childhood desire for comfort and are consequently a dominant symbol of the middle-class home: on the cushions are old-fashioned portraits of the family, grouped in the photographer’s studio as was customary on the occasion of a family celebration.

In his portraits of yucca palms (Yucca I, Yucca II ), Hammerstiel also finds an interface between traditional pictures and the backdrop of collective desires that draw on mythical sources. Already in the early 19th century, fragments of Nature had entered the living area. The glass palace resplendent with palm trees at the World Fair in London in 1851 became a symbol of technological progress. But in the decades to come it also served to project the dream of nature and exoticism (paradise lost). Until well into the 20th century, reproductions of the gigantic hot house with palm trees hung in middle-class living rooms, paving the way for exotic plants long before mass tourism made the dreams of South Sea paradises seem attainable. Here, too, Hammerstiel attempts a pointed interface mise en scène. A ready-made in the style of tourist brochure photographs shows a beach in the Pacific. Several rectangular spaces are left blank to be filled in with one’s own photographic spoils, that is, with holiday pictures. While the large “portraits” of yucca palm cuttings divulge the fetish character of the potted plant they also depict the commodification of Nature. The image of mass-produced cuttings unmasks the process of cloning and makes it discernible. However, since the longing remains insatiable it also guarantees that this deluge of goods will never triumph. The logic inherent to the analogy between commodity and image is obvious: the character of the plant as commodity is in contradiction to the fulfilment of desire: unfulfilled desire guarantees continual consumption of the ware.

The image of the inornate cutting is intrinsically one of “castrated” nature. The upper end is sealed with wax and the lower, the root, is wrapped in plastic foil. The trunks of the palm are not allowed to grow and serve the exclusive function of sprouting green leaves, that is, of producing a dwarfed version of the palm. Although Hammerstiel makes precise, to scale photographic enlargements, the cuttings on the pictures are the same size as in reality. Their absurd arrangement makes them resemble monstrous phalluses. Since the representations are behind glass as in showcases, they look like objects. On the formal level, however, a dialectic image emerges: perception oscillates between the identifiable object and the sign of its signification. Hammerstiel achieves yet another level of perception by blowing up a photograph of a flowerpot wrapped in plastic foil, which he found in a furniture store. The method of duplication is reminiscent of the afore mentioned tautology in advertising, but here, on the reflective level of an exhibition it is analytic clarification. It serves to show both the pictorial and the fetish quality of the merchandise.

Particularly in the project Glücksfutter, for which Hammerstiel tailored his presentation to the conditions of the space, it becomes apparent what kind of perception the pictures are aspiring to. The sequential arrangement of the things and the rooms turns the visitor into a flâneur, who encounters the things, as Walter Benjamin puts it, as if in a dream. The viewer turns into a collector to whom the objects – stripped of their original function – reveal their true and profound physiognomy. Walter Benjamin also called attention to the collector’s most hidden motives: “He takes up arms against dispersion.” 9)Since objects in incomplete collections, mere fragments of a larger whole, become entirely transformed into allegories, generators of the viewer’s fantasy that is fed by his own experiences and inner images. The things become the “key words of a secret dictionary” 10), that the viewer must write himself. Titles are certainly helpful here. They are both poetic as well as concrete indications of the sphere of associations where the things can unfold their allegorical power.

"Rex I and II ", for example: for Austrians an amusing association with the TV serial in which a German Shepherd does all the sensitive work that his human protagonists in the crime department are incapable of. The popular TV serial often raises questions about the fact that a dog seems to be a more convincing, a cleverer and a better moral protector of law than his human counterparts. The two installations referring to the man and dog relationship are central to the group of works that Hammerstiel has titled Glücksfutter. We not only get a distinct idea about the method described by Peter Zawrel, which makes the images oscillate between poetry, critique and irony, but also of Hammerstiel’s uncanny knack of placing a finger on the neuralgic point of human existence by seeking out the marginal places in social reality.

It seems as though Hammerstiel had turned into his program Kafka’s remarks in “Investigations of a Dog”: “All knowledge, the totality of all questions and all answers is contained in the dog.” 11) As the American cultural anthropologist Marjorie Garber claims, the dog has become “the preserver of those model human qualities that we, cynically enough, can no longer expect to find in human beings”. Values like “responsibility, loyalty, sympathy and courage seem to be valid only with reference to the dog and are only transported in our society through touching dog stories.” 12) Thomas Mann, the chronicler of the decline of society remarked that the dog has become a symbol of protected privacy.13) Ever since Richard Nixon’s famous Checkers Speech (Checkers was his dog about whom he spoke publicly on TV to win delegates at a party convention), the dog has become an indispensable accessory in the White House, a proof of the president’s moral integrity. Dogs, anthropologists and psychologists agree, are increasingly assuming a compensational function: they comply with the growing narcissism of people suffering from isolation. At the same time, however, their seemingly unconditional love also compensates for the waxing loss of identity in our mass society.

In no way does Hammerstiel wish to expose the portrayed dog owners. Their portraits, taken frontally in flat light in the stereotypical style of police photographs, remain small and are ironically hung approximately at the dog’s eye level. Hammerstiel thus reverses the relationship between master and dog. And it seems as though the unfathomable gaze of the dog (in being fixed on the camera is also fixed on the viewer) is that of a stronger identity. The array of dog leashes – that serve as intermediaries between people and the dog portraits – are no longer clear symbols of unequivocal subservience and dominance. Who is dominating whom here? Can the erotic and sexual intonations be shrugged off entirely? After all, the association of the dog with immoral sex does have a long past. 14)

A whole industry lives from dogs, whereby an increasing anthropomorphisation can be observed from the production of dog food to dog toys (doctors in America are now even prescribing anti-depressants for dogs!). Perhaps the microchip (Transponder) implanted under the dog’s skin for identification that Hammerstiel shows us is also an expression of this anthropomorphisation. Like a fingerprint or a (genetic code), unmistakable proof of individuality it, after all, attests or proves nothing but the existence of a commodity. When the human being looks at the so familiar syringe needle, is he looking at his own future? Like the secular oracle of Delphi a slot machine full of dog toys stands in the exhibition (in the Saarbruecken mise en scène). What the gambling machine gifts us in return for money is as seductive as disappointing. We suddenly see what kind of “Glücksfutter” it actually is. And we see commodities transforming into metaphors before our very eyes. They are “social products and, at the same time, also objective constellations in which the state of society represents itself.” 15)

  1. Roland Barthes: Camera Lucida. Notes on Photography, Frankfurt 1989
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. See Richard Sennett: The Fall of Public Man, New York 1974
  5. Walter Benjamin: Passages, vol. I, Frankfurt 1982
  6. Ibid
  7. Sigfried Giedion: Mechanization Takes Command; A Contribution to Annonymous History. New York, Oxford Unversity Press, W. W. Norton & Company 1948
  8. Walter Benjamin: Passages, vol. I, Frankfurt 1982
  9. Ibid
  10. Ibid
  11. Franz Kafka: Description of a Struggle. Novels, Sketches and Aphorisms from Kafka’s estate, Frankfurt 1976
  12. Marjorie Garber: Dog Love, New York 1996
  13. Thomas Mann: A Man and his Dog
  14. Marjorie Garber: Dog Love, New York 1996
  15. T. W. Adorno to Walter Benjamin in Passages, vol. II, Frankfurt 1982

Bernd Schulz, Saarbrücken 1998