Bernhard Johannes Blume

Galerie Philomene Magers

Bernhard Johannes Blume, a 40-yearold artist who lives in Cologne, studied with Joseph Beuys in the early ’60s and has made drawings and photographs since the ’70s. He is probably best known to a wider international public through his participation in Documenta 6 in 1977 and in Kasper König’s show “Von hier aus” (From here out) in Düsseldorf in 1984. At that show Blume exhibited a series of large-format, black-and-white photographs that he had made in 1984 and called “Wahnzimmer” (Insaneroom, a play on the German word Wohnzimmer, meaning living room). Here we saw furniture, porcelain, accessories, and objects that, in a reversal of the customary roles, became active subjects rebelling against their owners and the rigid order of the bourgeois living room. In “Wahnzimmer” diagonals and vortices are the dominant compositional structures, and nothing is upright; there is no above or below.

Blume has always been interested in banal, everyday things, not for the esthetic value of their surface appearance, such as we know it from Purist painting and Bauhaus photography, but from the Romantic perspective that sees “things” as animated with “spirit.” In Romanticism, this idea was one of the tenets of an all-encompassing philosophy of nature (which included human beings as a part of nature), a philosophy that developed in opposition to man’s growing control over nature in the early stages of the machine age. Blume’s work radicalizes this idea: he presents things as beings that oppose their exploitation and functionalization by acting autonomously.

This is why Blume’s photographic images often seem like quasi-scientific documentation of paranormal phenomena, though without presuming of the viewer the kind of credulity demanded by such “events.” On the contrary, the viewer is completely aware of Blume’s role in staging the incredible scenes that he photographs. This doesn’t diminish our fascination; in fact, it tends to increase it. And yet there is almost never any sense that the scenes are a result of darkroom manipulations. In order to heighten the “authenticity” of what is shown, however, Blume employs certain strategies that make the photographs appear less professional—such as deliberately taking some of them out-of-focus, and thus creating the impression that a real event has been captured whose suddenness has overwhelmed both the photographer and his equipment.

Blume’s rebellious world of things shouldn’t be understood as a paradigm of a universal spiritism, but it does rein in the boundless anthropocentrism that has fundamentally defined our relationship to the world in the modern age. “I myself have always found in objects the most complete substitute for the otherwise customary human other,” is typical of Blume’s provocative statements. But what could be read as the epitome of reified consciousness is for Blume “a kind of magical and cathartic repetition of our daily experience of reifications in an incomprehensible reality through a comprehensible game.”

In his new series “Küchenkoller” (Kitchen tantrum, 1986), arranged in four groups (of two, three, four, and five photographs), he gives us a concrete example of such a “comprehensible game.” Where human relationships in the technocratic world have taken on the status of relationships between things, Blume takes the opposite route. He gives life to the relationships between things, lets them become part of the human communications system in a way that threatens the latter. In this series, potatoes refuse to be processed by a housewife. They torment her; they destroy the foundations of the old order of things. Cultural signs slip into the forms of potato skins as if they were endowed with reason. The uncooperative bite-sized potato cubes stick in her throat, turn her stomach, and exit undigested.

Küchenkoller” tells the story of the collapse of domestic order in the form of a grotesque fantasy, but the series as a whole discloses much more fundamental relationships. It demonstrates the naked utilitarianism in which first things and then people are caught up. The revolt of things-come-to-life is thus at the same time the revolt of reified humanity.

Martin Hentschel

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.