New York

Joachim Koester

Constructing the record of a place or mapping an event is always fraught with contradictions: the moment one grasps a context or situation one has also to acknowledge that it is almost impossible to stake a claim to an unmediated relation to the phenomenal world. But this dilemma, which assumes a strict philosophical and material dichotomy between reality and artifice, is one that Danish artist Joachim Koester seeks to question. In his first one-person show in New York, Koester offered two distinct types of work that, when considered in tandem, indicate a general desire to both extract theater from reality and manufacture theatrical situations. The video installation Pit Music, 1996, recently presented at Documenta X, depicts a concert by four women violinists of Shostakovitch’s No. 8 110 in C minor. The series of photographs, Day for Night, Christiania 1996, 1996, provides a sensuous, filmic record of a deteriorating anarchistic community in Copenhagen.

The concert for Pit Music was staged by Koester at the Copenhagen gallery in which he shows. In the video he intercuts “objective” shots of the violinists, close-ups of these musicians, and images of the audience. This reassembly of subtly distinct points of view evokes perhaps nothing more than the recognizable formal techniques of film and television. Observing the video from a slightly elevated stage-like edifice, we are transformed from witnesses to imaginary participants—carried into the performance/event—so that we come to mirror that audience, which itself has become an extension of the performance. The camera also moves in such a way that it seems to be responding to the rhythm and the tonalities of the music.

As Don DeLillo suggested in his novel White Noise, our access to a putative “real” situation is now possible only if we first stage a rehearsal of that event, so that the simulation becomes the principal experience. If Pit Music can be described as a metadocument designed to walk the thin line between artifice and actuality, then Koester’s series of C-prints are a documentary project that achieves the effect of day-for-night shooting, à la Truffaut, so as to subtly estrange an already unusual social territory. Founded in 1971 by squatters on the site of a former military base in Copenhagen, Christiania was established as an alternative, utopian community. While it continues to function as an autonomous subsociety with an independent economy, the original promise of the project has begun to fade. Koester’s sensuous, almost painterly bluish-black pictures of the community’s buildings resonate with a kind of magical realism, as if time has been suspended or displaced in favor of the irreality of this unsettling, dystopic landscape.

Negotiating “reality” is always a slippery matter, yet it remains a preoccupation of many artists today who seek to re-introduce the apparently inviolate veracity of daily life into the realm of aesthetic production, rather than reject aesthetics altogether. Understanding that pictorial reality is always an exchange between photographer, camera, and observed phenomena, Koester negotiates a poetic accommodation between a utopia of the imaginary and a dystopia of the mundane.

Joshua Decter