PRINT January 2008


THINK “ART CAR,” and you’ll likely summon images of styled automobiles from BMW’s long-standing series by that name featuring automotive collaborations with artists—beginning with the likes of Alexander Calder and Andy Warhol in the 1970s and A. R. Penck and Jenny Holzer in the ’90s, and continuing through to Olafur Eliasson’s high-tech, high-concept frozen vehicle last year commenting on carbon emissions and global warming. But such designer traits are hardly what come to mind when considering Berlin-based artist Annette Kelm’s Art Car, 2007, a photographic diptych depicting a vehicle significantly less spectacular than these others. In fact, the convertible’s body is stripped down in every sense: The door handles, mirrors, and bumpers have been removed from the car (made in the ’80s by Volkswagen) and stuck in its backseat; and Kelm’s photographs are similarly unfinished in sensibility, since the car is shot in ordinary daylight against a plain white backdrop. While the car model itself is likely to make one think of yesterday’s yuppies the world over who wanted a vehicle to match their professional, upwardly mobile lifestyle, Kelm’s work seems to present the bare bones beneath that supple commercial image, depicting the car in a manner that seems more in keeping with mug shots than with the glossy, seductive representations of automobiles to which we’re accustomed.

In this way, Art Car reflects many recurring motifs of Kelm’s practice. The thirty-two-year-old artist’s pictures often feature a single, vaguely familiar object, which she renders using a direct and realistic style that oscillates between genres of photography—such as documentary and advertising—to unfold that object’s social, economic, and cultural contexts. As she makes series revolving around these objects, consequently pressing the relationship between photography and sculpture—her work moves between the creation of an image and the recording of a staged object or objects—Kelm shares much with contemporaries such as Josephine Pryde and Wolfgang Tillmans. But perhaps her clearest influence is Christopher Williams, who also puts his camera at the service of finding historical marks and contexts embedded within form. Yet whereas Williams typically provides lengthy captions that help viewers decipher and unpack his images, Kelm offers few clues, making that deconstruction more part of her very photographic process—sometimes, as in Art Car, literally so.

House on Haunted Hill I and II, 2005, provide a case in point, creating a play between reality and fiction, authenticity and forgery, through both picture and title. The two images show Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Ennis House in Los Angeles; built in 1924 in the Mayan Revival style, it was severely damaged by an earthquake seventy years later, and by rainstorms a decade after that. (A slow restoration process has only recently begun.) But the devastation has had a curious result: As critics of Kelm’s photography have observed elsewhere, Wright’s modernist edifice now looks like the ruins that were its original inspiration, making the form’s nature difficult to pin down. As for the artist’s work, one image shows the house in daylight, while the other seems to be shot at night. But in fact, this difference is an effect created by the artist in the studio—a kind of reversal of Hollywood’s “day for night” filming—and the title of the work comes from a 1959 B movie, one of many films that have featured Ennis House over the years. Indeed, the house appears in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), a film that revolves around questions of authenticity, further underscoring Kelm’s unfolding of contexts.

Architecture and authenticity were likewise a focus of Kelm’s solo debut at Johann König in Berlin last fall, “Vier Jahreszeiten” (Four Seasons), as seen in her photographs of structures in the French countryside near Versailles. Among the artist’s subjects is Marie Antoinette’s well-known folly, the Petit Hameau, a mock farm set in the gardens of the Petit Trianon, where the queen played shepherdess in an elaborate role play, taking on a lifestyle quite opposite the decadent one she actually lived. In Untitled (Versailles Hameau), 2007, Kelm chooses to depict the nearby farm that in fact supplied all the goods to the queen’s fake hamlet, underscoring the artificiality of her retreat, which depended on support from the real world for the realization of an imaginary narrative. Taking up this matter of authenticity by tracing the myriad intertwinings of historical motifs is La Pyramide, 1968, Foli Parc de Groussay, 2007, which depicts a structure on the grounds of the Château de Groussay, once the home of the Duchesse de Charost, daughter of the former governess for the children of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The château was bought in 1938 by Carlos de Beistegui, the heir to a Mexican silver-mining fortune, who built seven follies famous for their eccentric mixture of period styles, materials, and colors. The last of these constructions was a pyramid designed with the help of legendary Russian interior designer Alexandre Serebriakoff. Made of pink brick with a Neoclassical fountain, it appears neither Egyptian nor Roman, although it was supposedly inspired by the first-century BC Pyramid of Cestius in Rome.

A number of photographs in the Berlin exhibition featured musical instruments with similarly elaborate designs and histories. Like the work touching on the fictionalized landscapes of Marie Antoinette, these suggest Kelm’s interest in the relationship between facades and the uncertain nature of photographic “truth.” Untitled, 2007, is an image of a mighty Wurlitzer organ that originally belonged to the industrialist Werner Ferdinand von Siemens, who bought it in 1929. In the image we see only the console of the organ with its many keys, foot pedals, and knobs, in the exuberant design of the time; the three chambers installed above are cropped out of the image. The Wurlitzer was originally made to accompany silent films, and the one instrument could create the aural illusion of an entire orchestra. For the photograph, the artist placed beside the organ a lithograph of a work by the Spanish surrealist Joan Miró, acquired at a thrift shop a few weeks before, which echoes the instrument in its dreamlike design.

In Frying Pan, 2007, Kelm again creates an image of layered (and slippery) cultural meanings. With the addition of a backdrop of Dutch wax fabric—textiles originally produced in Holland with Indonesian designs but sold in West Africa (and bought by the artist at a Paris market)—an early electric guitar, made in 1934, suddenly looks like an African instrument. Artist Yinka Shonibare is well known for his use of such patterned material to exemplify the hybrid condition of postcolonialism; Kelm, by mixing the fabrics with an object, extends the implications to the breaking point, where the origins of objects are at risk of occlusion. (In other works, she turns background into foreground: In a recent series of abstract “portraits” of the famous textile designer Dorothy Draper, the fabric becomes the sole subject of a large-scale photograph, as if stretched like canvas across a support.) The displacement and subsequent intermingling of highly charged yet often arcane historical objects force the viewer to create a subjective, personal—and thus, it turns out, fictional—understanding of Kelm’s photographs; our own associations with the objects presented thus partly obscure the cultural significance embedded within them.

This true significance of process is perhaps made most poignant and clear in Untitled (Oranges), 2007, in which personal meaning forms a hidden subtext: At first glance, the oranges pictured in the suite of four photographs, shown last year at Marc Foxx Gallery in Los Angeles, seemed a nod to the city where they were exhibited. In fact, though, this miniature orange tree belongs to Kelm’s parents, who received it as a gift in 1975, the year the artist was born. The tree is photographed against a green background, and the almost garish, Technicolor result is reminiscent of ’70s advertising. The repetition transforms the image itself into a pattern, flattening the orange tree into a flowery Draper design, and at Foxx echoed the works that hung on either side: Art Car and Untitled, 2007, six photographs that capture a young woman turning her head from left to right. In juxtaposition with these other deconstructions, the images of branches bearing fruit might very well comprise Kelm’s most intimate piece—a portrait of the artist herself.

Jens Hoffmann is director of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco.