New York

Candida Höfer

Nicole Klagsbrun

If, as is often said, we live in a post-Enlightenment culture, it is only in the sense that new techniques with which to manufacture order (like the computer and television) have been invented. So while the classificatory systems of the Enlightenment, such as the archive, the library, and the museum, are becoming increasingly outmoded inventories of our “knowledge” of the world, they continue to operate as distinctly public sites of sociocultural organization.

It is in this respect that Candida Höfer’s work can be understood as having emerged from a lineage of German artmaking that remains firmly linked to the principles of the Enlightenment. Of course, Bernd and Hilla Becher’s typology of industrial edifices has come to be seen less as a direct figuration of Enlightenment intentions than as the conceptual end point of this kind of classification, one articulated within a photographic discourse that has little to do with “straight-documentary” practice, while Höfer’s work seems to indicate an effort to move toward the threshold of “subjective” investment or inscription. Whereas the Bechers have constructed an archive of architectural exteriors foregrounding the notion of cultural progress implicit in their synthesis of utilitarian program and utopian modern design, Höfer has focused upon the interior of various public edifices—the museum, the archive, and the library. Höfer’s rooms and spaces are invariably depopulated, so that their “function” as zones of social ordering lingers only as a trace of memory (or imagination): the residue of moments and situations now invisibly embossed, like a phantom history, upon the architecture.

If it is viable to evoke the notion of the photographer’s “presence,” then Höfer seems to hover in the margins of the image, so that the subjective/authorial position is discernible only in relation to the construction of the viewer’s position. Conjoined with the photographer’s equivocal voyeurism, we, like Höfer, are both obsessive cataloguers and casual observers. The new works in this exhibition also produce a subjectively invested objectivity: the series of shots taken at zoological gardens in Hamburg, Stuttgart, London, and other cities are complemented by pictures of museum interiors in the back gallery. Working in her usual modest scale (most of these rectilinear images are around 14 by 20 inches), Höfer’s catalogue of zoo environments suggests a kind of intuitive orderliness. Our gaze is organized by the geometric structures that construct these spaces of confinement, and by the “exotic” animals that have been subjected to this institutionalization. But the images do not appear inordinately “composed.” Rather, the character of place and architecture seems to guide Höfer’s framing method, even though she is interested in blurring the boundaries between the interior and exterior spaces—a strategy that effectively evokes the peculiar incongruity between the captive animals (a living inventory) and the clinically Modernist architecture of their (substitute) environment. In a sense, as sites, the zoo and the natural history museum have become interchangeable within the artist’s inventory of these places, yet Höfer’s philosophical, or political, relationship to these social spaces remains obscure, mediated by an empirical imperative: here, we are more in the realm of description than of visual hermeneutics.

Joshua Decter