Bern

Balthasar Burkhard

Kunsthalle Bern

Balthasar Burkhard works with photographs, which means that his pictures partake of an illusionist medium whose material character is distinctly superficial. It’s hard, in other words, for photographs to develop their own sensual presence apart from whatever object or scene they depict. These givens of photography are important to Burkhard’s work, for ultimately his oeuvre is to be understood at least in part as a subversive probing and challenging of the medium per se.

Burkhard’s approach is as straightforward as possible: no toying with the motif or object of the (re)produced image, no laboratory manipulations, no “art photography” in the traditional sense. Instead, taking on his medium through virtuosi, craftsmanship, Burkhard turns photography into a star witness against itself. His subjects are people, animals, plants—elementary nature in the broadest sense. Yet though his views always evoke the overall contours of their origin, they are themselves fragmentary. The special character of these images is the crop, the detail. Decontextualized like this, the subject matter gains a kind of independence; it becomes what Ulrich Loock has called a “monadic” fragment. And this is only seemingly a contradiction, for the provocativeness of this work lies primarily in the self-containment of the part.

The pictorial autonomy of Burkhard’s cropped images is further increased by their format, which does not necessarily correspond to the motif. Rather, it is determined largely by the spatial givens; that is, it relates to the architecture. The enlargement of the pictures is often extreme, further shifting the subject matter from its original objective status to a dimension of the unreal. The fragment becomes boundless in these works, occupying the entire field of vision. Yet it forfeits none of its role as a likeness; a picture of a blossom shows a blossom, plumage is recognizably plumage, skin remains skin. Indeed, the drastic focus on details almost seems to accentuate the faithfulness of these photographs’ depiction of reality, even as their bombastic intensification develops its own pictorial reality, quite separately from its function as a likeness. This autonomy is manifest in the works’ associativeness. In an artist’s book published to accompany his exhibition, Burkhard writes of a world that is recognizable in all things and beings. He alludes to the numerous poetic analogies that unexpectedly operate in his images. Thus the gigantic pictures of parts of a swan’s wing reveal suddenly looming dimensions of the angelic, and four large fragments of a human leg, in previous exhibitions arranged to suggest a kind of row of columns, here unexpectedly develop a dynamic urge to twist, jeopardizing their actual and metaphoric function as supports.

As visual objects, Burkhard’s black and white photographs, with their subtle gray tonalities, can seem to lose their precision as you look at them, transmuting into a vague, moody suggestiveness of images not actually present. The effect was reinforced by the installation in this gallery. High around the walls of the first room, large and skylit, ran a frieze of Burkhard’s images of orchid blossoms, mainly in black and white but irregularly disrupted by monochromes . The frieze had both a solemn serenity and an erotic radiance, unleashing torrents of associations to rub off on the subsequent cool (though not chaste) nudes. Shifts and complementarities in mood and tone such as this accumulated from room to room, rising to a poetic exuberance tempered by the photography’s precision. Burk hard knows how to fuse the invisible foundation of mystery in the realism of the photograph—one might say, in the surface of the world and its pictures.

Max Wechsler

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.