Visual Arts in Germany: Exhibitions and Artist Portraits

Candida Höfer: “Projects: Done” at Morsbroich Museum

Candida Höfer: Türken in Deutschland (Turks in Germany), slideshow 1979 
© 2013 VG Bild-Kunst, BonnThe title of the show, “Projects: Done”, describes two directional vectors, an inventive projection into the future and a retrospective of her accomplishments in the past. The two are fastened at the base in the present, in the here and now of the exhibition. The current show, with accompanying catalogue, forms her 15th project, at once comprising and superadded to the 14 groups of works on display. This latest project provides a sort of résumé of Candida Höfer’s completed photo series, presenting them in such a way that the exhibition reflects on the exhibiting process itself.

Drawing on many years’ experience in dealing with interior spaces, Höfer has produced an impressive mise-en-scène in which the presentation of the individual exhibits is sensitively attuned to the architecture of Morsbroich Castle. It grew out of a collaboration with the architectural firm of Kuehn Malvezzi, whose new buildings and alterations Höfer has been following with her camera since 2002. The architects have created white clear-cut cubic fitted showcases here for these photographic studies and set up an intelligent and exciting circuit through the exhibition. Not only does it make one curious, but with dramaturgical acumen it also produces references within each thematic cluster and between the various series. One compelling case in point is the matching mounting of the series Zwölf. Die Bürger von Calais (“Twelve. The Burghers of Calais”) (2000).

The groups of works themselves are presented in various media forms befitting their respective subjects: alongside some of the striking large-format colour photographs – including some promotionally effective shots of the Baroque hall of the museum itself – there are small black-and-white print series and slideshows.

Engagé observer of her fellow man

And Höfer surprises us here with some largely unknown series from the first years of her studies at the Düsseldorf Arts Academy (1973–1976), several of which were accomplished before she joined Bernd Becher’s class there (1976–1982). The notoriously reserved artist, who first gained fame for her imposing, classically executed photo-documentation of unpeopled interiors in public institutions of Western culture like museums, libraries and theatres, reveals a different side of herself here: that of a profoundly engagé observer of her fellow man.

In the slide series Turks in Germany (1973–1978), Höfer captures the lives of Turkish immigrant workers, her and our new neighbours at the time. With a trained empathetic eye for the distinctive aspects of a lifestyle that is foreign to her, she pays her respects, lovingly, discreetly and wryly, to each and every personality portrayed. Höfer gains admission into living rooms, bars and cultural associations, sallies forth to local markets and kiosks, to compile a top-notch cultural-history record of the dawn of this novel form of immigration. The conscious rendering of spatial relations, with their perspectives, vanishing points and symmetries, was already reflected back then in her nuanced camera settings.

This consummate craft makes itself felt again in the later series On Kawara (2005/2006); after decades of abstinence, Höfer returns to the realm of private interiors. The people are missing here, though: instead her portrayals of the great conceptual artist’s “date paintings” give a sense of how the paintings are embedded in the personal ambience and their significance there. Unspectacularly arranged in chronological order inside tabletop vitrines, the small format in and of itself bespeaks discretion. Compared to the thematically related work of Louise Lawler, a representative of “appropriation art”, Höfer is less interested in the relationship between artwork and collector and the reception of art in general; instead she lets the works enter into dialogue with the surrounding architectonic space. These exhibits presented at the outset of the show convey a sense of space and time that stays with you as you amble through the entire exhibition.

An infallible eye for subjects of interest

Space and time are captured in her stills of the Dutch embassy under construction in Berlin (2003), and both are interpreted quite differently in the double slideshow 80 Pictures (1996–2004). The latter, alternating between frames of bear text (stating the place, time and subject of each shot) and the images themselves, reveals an altered conception of art, for the ascriptions are neither chronologically nor thematically raisonné, but chosen by tongue-in-cheek association. It recalls the ways her colleague Wolfgang Tilmanns or collector/photographer Wilhelm Schürmann stage their respective shows.

This relaxed and refreshing nonchalance pervades the entire show. It is even perceptible in her landscape-format Zoos (1992-1999). In the colour portrayals of animals in relation to their cages, Höfer expresses, over and above her eye for architectonic inventions, her criticism of how we keep animals. And this independent view of things was already apparent in Liverpool, a compelling series that dates from 1968. With these striking photos Höfer was taking her place, belatedly but wholly independently, among the ranks of the “street photographers”; they show the photographic artist’s special sensibility for social and cultural interconnections and the manifold forms of human expression. Like those early works, all of Candida Höfer’s photo series reveal an unfailing knack not only for what catches the photographer’s eye, but also for what proves worthy of contemplation in the eye of the beholder.

Projects: Done – an exhibition by Candida Höfer with Kuehn Malvezzi at Museum Morsbroich in Leverkusen, 16 May–2 August 2009
Renate Puvogel
is an art historian and critic.

Translation: Eric Rosencrantz
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
July 2009

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