New York

John Gossage

As centers of social power, cities inevitably take on metaphorical power as well. In recent decades no city has acquired a more complicated symbolic value than Berlin. In part this stems from its central position in both history and global politics, and in part it comes from its special status within the German Federal Republic and the support given to art there. Whatever the causes, a recent spate of artworks and exhibitions in which Berlin has been taken more as a metaphor than a city testifies to its power as image.

In the 11 massive photographs shown here, made in both East and West Berlin between 1982 and 1986, John Gossage treats the city as a mystery, literally dark and unknowable. These looming photographs, part of a series appropriately entitled “Stadt des Schwarz” (City of black), were all taken at night; in them the city is not merely shrouded but virtually smothered in shadow. Despite their imposing size (framed, they measure 62 by 48 inches) the pictures and prints are so deeply black that only a few details can be made out in them. Gossage installed them here leaning out from the wall at the top, presumably to reduce the reflections on the plexiglass that covered the pictures; this had the added effect of suggesting a didactic display in a history museum. When the subject of a picture is finally identified—by peering at the photograph, then looking up its title on a checklist, then looking back at the photograph to try to discern recognizable shapes within its seemingly relentless murk—it often turns out to be an evocative piece of architecture or a familiar location: a depopulated block of government offices in East Berlin, for example, or a mesh of trees in the Tiergarten. (Of course, there’s also the obligatory picture of the Wall.)

Gossage’s melodramatic image of Berlin as a city of night is closely related to Bill Brandt’s shadowy nighttime London and Brassai’s Paris by night. Gossage, though, doesn’t entice us with the attractive dangers and taboos of his dark city. Instead he makes it almost impenetrable, both physically and emotionally. In Ubergang Bornholmer Strasse (Bornholmer Street checkpoint, 1986), for example, the blacker form in the center of the black image turns out to be a barrier which totally obliterates the scene behind it.

In a side gallery Gossage showed a group of small photocollages from a suite called To Speak, 1986, in which he had juxtaposed much smaller prints of the same 25 images with, or on, pages torn from an old German grammar. The point seemed to be to relate the difficulties of learning a foreign language with the difficulties of getting to know a city, but these works seem too obvious in their statement. Eighteen of the 25 photographs have also been published as a limited edition book; in this format, presented in glossy inks, they are more approachable and easier to read. But by the same token they also become easier to treat as just another set of nice photos. What makes the huge prints so extraordinary is their resistance to being understood, their implacable refusal to give up whatever information they may have. However romantic and distorting Gossage’s metaphoric city may be, compared with the quotidian Berlin, it carries a scary, almost overwhelming heaviness that not only rescues it from its inevitable evocation of the easy existentialism of spy novels but also seems emotionally appropriate to Berlin’s situation—and to the web of forces on which its metaphoric identity is based.

Charles Hagen