Bonn And Stuttgart

Klaus Mettig

Kunstmuseum, Bonn, And Wiirttembergischer Kunstverein, Stuttgart

These simultaneous but geographically far-separated installations were linked by a shared catalogue, which can be considered an independent work of art. In exhibiting his compelling photographic works, Klaus Mettig exploited both the bunker like atmosphere of the provisional exhibition space in Bonn and the spaciousness of the “palace of art” in Stuttgart, a majestic domed building. Using the antitheses of order and chaos, cool formal structure and emotional disquiet, Mettig clears a field for himself as an artist-photographer in a world overflowing with images.

The Bonn space was literally plastered with 2,568 black and white photographs arranged in a monumental mural from floor to ceiling, interrupted only by structural elements of the oppressive room—an oppressiveness intensified by Mettig’s installation. Stills taken by the artist from German television between 1979 and 1981 formed a mosaic picture from all areas of the media spectacle. In the darkened neighboring space a slide show, Berlin/Ost-West/1981–1983, consisted of a series of street photographs in groups of four, gloomy projections of the everyday life of a city between East and West. Also from Berlin came the photographs in the Stuttgart installation, 84 pictures of the Western zone of the city and 84 of the East. Each group was arranged in a large composite image, as in the Bonn show, and installed with the panel showing East Berlin on an eastern wall and the West Berlin panel on a western one. In another work, China, 1978, two seven-part color-photograph composites are arranged, one vertically, the other horizontally; the wall paintings of China, where Mettig spent much of 1978, can be seen as an influence in the structure of the later works.

Mettig has visited the United States on several occasions, and that country too may have been a source of inspiration in formal matters. Nowhere in the world is television so socially decisive as it is there. The sense of confusion among different kinds of picture sequences characteristic of American television can be compared to European usages, in which strict differentiations are made between news, entertainment, science, experience of nature, and so on; the lines of demarcation between, say, war scenes and the sites of political decision-making, and between East and West, are preserved. The world may not be in order, but the ordering of pictures of the world is strictly adhered to. (Perhaps the American way is more honest.) The 2,568 photographs in Mettig’s Bonn installation initially convey order through their structured appearance, but this is in fact a chaos of photographs without beginning or end, legible in all directions. Occasionally it may be ordered into sequences, but they are always abruptly interrupted by other scenes. War and show business, terror and nature, East and West, the familiar and the enigmatic join randomly in a monumental frieze of reality. Everything is in the context of everything else. In the slide projection and in the Stuttgart installation, one believed initially that reality had been ordered, but on closer inspection this comforting impression was dissipated. The much maligned border lost the meaning the politicians would give it—how alike are the photographs from each side of it! They consistently provide clues to a menacing reality that pervades East and West, whether it be Berlin or the broad zone between China and the U.S.

Millions of people, East and West, live with this reality, but in the flood of Mettig’s pictures it is the one lone subject that filters through, the astonished individual—not through his practiced orderings of images, but through an emotional, intuitive exploration of the depths (or lack of them) behind the photographs’ smooth, interchangeable facades. The familiarity of the everyday world is shattered; Mettig takes the analytical, documentary function of photography and uses it to reveal a hidden world. The suggestion that photography maintains a cool distance toward its subject matter loses all credibility. By driving formalism, the urge to structure, to the ultimate, Mettig conquers the coolness of the medium to create astonishment.

Annelie Pohlen

Translated from the German by Martha Humphreys.