New York

Dieter Appelt

Sander Gallery

Dieter Appelt’s surfaces look pathological—hurt—particularly in his photographs of his own head and hands, but also in his close-up, time-exposure photographs of the wood beams of an attic in an old Berlin Künstlerhaus, Bethanien, 1984–91. At the same time, they seem eminently rational, for he is also a determined constructivist, obsessed with rigidly fixed primary structures. The attic is a construction he breaks down with pseudo-scientific detachment into a number of implacable, Rodchenko-like “demonstrations” of geometry. The head and hands are equally anonymous, if organic, gestalt structures.

The exhibition included a number of eccentric, freestanding geometric constructions based on those Appelt builds in his outdoor performances. The contrast between a very solid, stable, permanent-looking structure of black metal—a profane machine part in which a sacred cross is “embedded”—and the time-lapse photograph that turns it into a “textured,” chiaroscuro (the result of photographing the structure as it revolved on a pedestal) underscores this aspect of his work.

Appelt fuses aura and object—but to what purpose? The aura of his objects is the result of a strict, routine, mechanical observation—unlike the so-called poetic objects of the Surrealists. His photographs of the attic turn it into a performance (à la Eadweard Muybridge), but it would be a mistake to take them simply as records of those performances. In one, Appelt suspended himself upside down, photographing his head; the result, with the horrifically rough skin and bulging veins, is independent of the performance, both as image and meaning. The only point of convergence is the sense of bodiliness they convey—Appelt’s ultimate obsession. Though in the performance the body is clearly alive, in the photograph it seems dead or on the way to death—in the process of crossing the river of self-forgetfulness. Thus the photographs are memento mori—as Aus Erinnerungspur (From traces of memory, 1978–79) suggests—a stance that becomes paradoxical when they seem to turn the dead thing into a living, albeit mechanical, process. The attic images make this explicit: the building is old and dead, if still used, and the attic is its deadest part, for nobody ever lived in it. Its “animation” through the sequence of imagery makes it “memorable,” and thus perversely alive.

The triumph of Appelt’s photographs is that they bring out the tragic, death-dealing, petrifying quality of photography. It instantly ages the determinate present, so that it seems irrevocably past. Appelt risks death in his performances, and seems dead in his photographs—his disfigured head and bandaged hands are easily read as belonging to a corpse. Thus, his obsession with death—which we have come to associate with the most intriguing German art—converges with his method. If photography shows time’s power over everything, then to photograph what is dead confirms that photography can bring nothing back. Appelt’s time-lapse photographs clearly demonstrate that the object exists in a different temporal space than we do. Indeed, the works in which Appelt brings photographic and natural—mechanical and organic—processes together suggest that both are equally futile rites of passage.

Donald Kuspit