Poetry, Criticism and Irony

Reflections on Presence and Absence in the Photographic work of Robert F. Hammerstiel

On the 27th of September 1983 in Borth, a small Welsh bathing resort, Hammerstiel took his last photographs for years to come with people on them.

“Lonely, usually elderly people become prop masters of a sense of disorientation and transience”, wrote Wolfgang Hilger in1985 in the first book on Robert F. Hammerstiel’s photography titled An Bord (On Board), which received the prize for “Austria’s most beautiful book” in the same year. Today, almost fifteen years later, Hammerstiel confronts visitors to his exhibition in Saarbruecken with photographs of dog owners (Rex)). Their direct frontality seems almost rude when compared to the distance familiar to us from his other photographs.

Those who have known the artist’s works for long will probably feel provoked by the works from 1997 that were conceived for Saarbruecken, but possibly for different reasons than most visitors unfamiliar with his entire oeuvre. In the photographs of the eighties an occasional animal would appear, often in a strategic spot. The small dog in Brighton or Hastings at the outer edge of a picture taken for An Bord in October 1982, was the only living creature until Rex that looked into the eye of Hammerstiel’s camera. The dog stands as little for himself as do the domestic geese at the abandoned petrol pump in Götzis in Vorarlberg, photographed between 1985 and 1988 for the portfolio Stand-Orte. Since both dog and geese refer to their owners, the petrol pump in Götzis is not so much at the end of the world as it may appear to be on first sight.

The geese run into the picture from the right and paradoxically also seem to run out of it at the same place since their goal behind the boards is not discernible. Such photographs help to train our eye so that we can appreciate Hammerstiel’s subsequent, entirely different ones. In the catalogue of the exhibition titled make it up held at the Focke Museum in Bremen in 1994, Michael Müller writes that the extreme tension in Hammerstiel’s works between 1984 to 1994 owes to “the absence of people in his photographs because it makes us imagine the presence of the viewer." The author does not, however, specify which “viewer” he means. Is it the photographer viewing the photographed reality, or the viewer looking at the photographs?

Is the actual presence of the photographer required to make the picture ... the imaginary presence of the viewer before the photographic scene and his physical presence before the photograph ... the absence of living beings, although they leave signs and traces of themselves ... What rapport is this subject-object relationship capable of establishing?

The arrangement of photographic surrogates in Saarbruecken is a mise en scène made with the aid of a dialectic method that Hammerstiel has refined so highly over the years by it is neither immediately detectable nor is it possible to distinguish the individual steps at a glance. What I am trying to say is that Hammerstiel’s procedure consists of three parts: poetry, critique and irony. He sees the irony, which was entirely missing in the earlier works, as a sign of maturity in his work.

Glücksfutter (Fortune Food) is how he calls this installation and it is no less ironic, poetic and critical than make it up or Der Stand der Dinge (The way things stand). The subject, let us agree, is not absence but also presence; the person is both there and not there, which is like being both for and against something. Robert F. Hammerstiel’s photographs are expressions of wide-open eyes that are indifferent to nothing; they challenge the viewer to take a close look and to weigh things against each other, more so when the subject is commonplace and therefore perhaps more familiar. This is when they are at their most dangerous - like the seduction of fortune food that leads to over-satiation so easily.

In the exhibition catalogue of Der Stand der Dinge (1991 to 1992), Hammerstiel incorporated photographs made by him as a child and does not hesitate to call them Eine weitere schwere Reise nach Hause: Die ersten Bilder (Another tedious journey home: The first Pictures). In the portfolios comprising Der Stand der Dinge, he is concerned with an everyday, weary, worn out and “therefore an unconsciously perceived intimacy” of the “homeland”. The titles of the individual chapters of The State of Affairs - Grüne Heimat (Verdant Homeland), Mittagsporträts (Midday Portraits) and Public Intimity - speak for themselves. And the “First pictures” probably made it especially possible to “Reinstate a memory” (R. F. H.). Yet, each memory is more a construction than a reconstruction; reinstating it can only mean making them operative for now and for later - returning them to a state deserving of them.

Putting in order, Der Stand der Dinge or Stand-Orte (Stand Point) are the titles of the photographs of abandoned and dilapidated petrol stations ... Defending a point of view, making oneself present, is what Hammerstiel considers to be more important now than pressing the camera’s release button at the right place and at the right time. He even leaves that to others now. For his series Rin Tin Tin, several families from his hometown in Lower Austria posed along with their pets before the camera of a studio photographer. This shows us how unimportant the frame, when the release button is pressed, or light conditions, have become to the photographer Robert F. Hammerstiel; indeed, others can do all of this. Hammerstiel has emancipated himself from the role of author. He who was once the perfect example of Austrian art photography, in the narrow sense of the word, now orders (one way or another), selects and arranges. Glücksfutter was also preceded by months of arranging, weighing the options to arrive at the most precise solution for the theme at the appropriate occasions.

This cautious weighing of even the slightest shift in meaning corresponds with the individual frame of each photograph. Hammerstiel’s caution likens that of a poet who tests every word before linking it with another. In his first portfolios, however, this poetic language is still very formal and follows classical rules. "Glücksfutter" is the synthesis of an experiment that began at the end of the eighties. It is a continuous and precipitous narrative of a small and intimate fortune that has to be nourished and fed like pets and watered like plants. Their keepers, DIY books and magazines on home care promise us in banal metaphors, will be “richly rewarded” for their efforts.

Hammerstiel’s poetic way of thinking, that has become increasingly ironic since Der Stand der Dinge becomes evident in the title Glücksfutter. The German word “Futter” not only stands for fodder or animal food but, as the dictionary of usage tells us, it is also synonymous with the “lining of outer clothing”; in this sense, “futter” or fodder, is not only what cattle or animals eat but also on the inside of skirts and trousers: the “lining” of fortune? Then “fortune” can even be a stance shown to the photographer who must then deliver proof of it. Hammerstiel stages the chasms lurking behind these props of fortune - unspectacular, without dramatic effects, and not shocking, but rather a collection of photographs documenting the banal. This banality can also be the product of state of the art technology like Transponder, a kind of electronic tattoo, or piercing, that gives the individual an assurance of security and makes him identifiable. Yet, it is totally impossible to differentiate on the sole basis of its physical properties.

Conceived only for the conventional portfolio until recently, Hammerstiel’s serial works and groups are like the circumstantial evidence for proving the horrors of our quotidian, of our small and comfortable world. Like a scene from a TV thriller: the corpse has been removed and all one sees is it’s chalk outline, the white-gloved “Scene of Crime Officers” carefully collect, just like the photographer with his cibachromes – nobody knows how and why – everything that could be of interest. He does not stop until he has photographed everything he can find. In reality a situation like this would be quite intimidating. This TV scene is usually routine for the viewer and only in rare cases is it exciting for him. On first glance the photo files of the crime detection troupe may seem boring, obscure or insignificant. But only this file and a diligent analysis of it can help in drawing a true picture of the crime scene and of a critique of the text “Murder” which the absent, the demised, attempts to reconstruct through what is present.

The precondition for criticising something is to recognise it first. Compared to the installations in the exhibition, Hammerstiel’s photographs are not critical, but they provide us the means for critically reflecting the reality that the pictures depict. This world, and this is what the eye of the photographer Hammerstiel reveals to us, is but a world of substitutes. And Hammerstiel uses this surrogate to produce innumerable other surrogates. His photographs fulfil less and less the expectations that not only we, but also viewers with a highly trained eye, have of photography. Detail, perspective or light, no longer play a role. Not only are his photographs now devoid of human beings, but the photograph itself seems to have been stolen from them. The question may be close at hand why the artist does not help himself to the photographed objects. But Hammerstiel, who is still, in fact more than ever, a conscientious “photographer” could not be less concerned with the medium, the apparatus-produced image of a subject and its relation to the subject or to the gaze of the viewer.

Hammerstiel is neither concerned with duplicating reality in art nor with decontextualising objects, which would logically follow the rejection of photography and would consequently mean the rejection of the image itself. A comparison with former exhibitions and publications can throw more light on the increasingly specific character of his work. The book, however, has remained an important vehicle of photography even though the originals are often over a square meter large or cannot be reproduced properly due to technical difficulties in printing as is the case with Out of the blue II of 1996 or Auf-decken (Un-Covering) of 1994

In Der Stand der Dinge, Hammerstiel has refused to divulge any information concerning format or technique. It still deals with the classical form of authorship with a documentary eye on the object, where several objects stand in relationship to each other in a real space. A mesh of signification emerges that has to be recognised. In the Salzburger Blättern (Salzburg Sheets), large format 1:1 photographs of flowery wrapping paper without any reference to pictorial space (with one exception where an almost invisible glass vase full of real flowers stands on the paper), Hammerstiel leaves the field of the traditional pictorial image and begins to work with the reproduction itself. This takes us to the first chapter of Glücksfutter. If the size of the works in the exhibition is often disturbing – the Barbie portraits are 224 cm x 184 cm x 6 cm (the C-Print on aluminium framed in a heavy, painted wooden frame is already an object!) – so are their frameless, cropped reproductions in books without relation to real space with only a few showing a relation to real exhibition spaces such as galleries or museums. This, of course, makes captions for the reproductions a necessity.

Reproduceable objects – they are not at the risk of being lost simply by virtue of the fact that they are being reproduced ad infinitum, nor is it exigent to reserve a corner for them in our memory – are the objects that Hammerstiel photographs and reproduces once again. Because the reproductions in make it up and in a two-volume exhibition folder made for a show in Finland correspond once again with the actual size of the objects, they draw our attention away from photography as a medium and back to the reproduced object. In traditional documentary photography, in a narrow sense, and reproduction photography, in a broad sense, the subjective and manipulative aspect of the medium vanishes. Even though the “evidential value” of photography has been much debated and contradicted, we now know that a photograph proves nothing but the presence of an apparatus (camera) at the time the photograph was taken - at times not even that. But in Hammerstiel’s case, while the apparatus itself vanishes from the mind of the viewer, the manipulative and subjective remains present. The reproductions in the books convey the impression that the photographs are, in fact, attempting to replace the object. However, due to the enormous size of the photographs, it becomes quickly clear in the exhibition that this was not the artist’s intention. Hammerstiel is not substituting but returning to the object its “state”, a sort of re-in-stating.

"Die blaue Lagune" (Blue Lagoon), which was shown by Peter Weiermaier at Prostect’96 in Frankfurt, was the stimulation of an aquarium without water, without fish. An overpowering sense of absence dominated. Die blaue Lagune II, on display at Glücksfutter, spans the entire room so that an air of presence pervades, the presence of people in the room. Unlike most other photographers, Hammerstiel does not hold up a mirror to show us distorted reflections of ourselves. He much rather simulates situations forcing us into taking a stand, being present. Here, presence could also be connoted as the presence of mind. Hammerstiel’s photographs are not mere evocations of the recollected as they do not wish to serve memory but to make memory capable of affecting the present by using poetry, critique and irony.

Peter Zawrel, Vienna 1998