Franz Ackermann

Franz Ackermann’s site-specific installation Songline, 1998, is another milestone in the rigorous development of his work. In previous shows, Ackermann deployed street scenes and topographical maps as metaphors for movement, travel, and urban existence; here he constructed a space through which the viewer can move. He built freestanding plaster dividers inside the actual walls of the museum, so that one initially experienced the work as an architectural intervention, a hermetic space-within-a-space reminiscent of the living-cells created by the French artist Absalon.

Entering the installation was like stepping into one of Ackermann’s multilayered paintings: the dividers were either monochromatic or emblazoned with broad stripes, with the exception of one wall that was covered in the bright, fractal-like forms so characteristic of Ackermann’s canvases. The space also featured two deep oblong inlets ending in culs-de-sac; the rounded corners of these narrow passages were lined with sheets of polished aluminum, which reflected the viewer’s image and seemed to lengthen the walls. These areas were reminiscent of James Rosenquist’s early installations, such as Horse Blinders, 1968, but Ackermann adds his own twist: he incorporates architectural photographs he has taken, adapting them to the scale of the space. Here, these images—whether the facade of a skyscraper or a view down into a stairwell—took on a physical presence, especially when juxtaposed with Ackermann’s mural paintings.

One wall was entirely covered by an enlarged newspaper photograph of a street riot. A similar, smaller-scale photo showed Ackermann, seen from behind, standing in front of Aachen Cathedral and wearing an army vest that reads “TOURIST” in white letters. The artist fastened display racks (carrying his own original postcards) to the wall around this image. Although the idea that tourism is a subtle form of conquest is not a new one, Ackermann’s approach to themes like cultural imperialism and postcolonialism remains convincing. Songline, for example, contained a large photograph of two Africans in traditional garb standing by the edge of a street. While evoking the untouched atmosphere of an exotic place so alluring to the tourist, this photo provokes an uneasy feeling as well, perhaps because the life-size image gives the Africans an unmediated presence despite the fact that it was lifted from a travel brochure.

The title of the work suggests another possible line of interpretation. The “song-lines” of the Australian Aborigine tell of invisible paths winding through his land, and serve to pass on tribal history from generation to generation. Connections can certainly be drawn to Ackermann’s own history, since he has spent much of his life traveling through Asia, America, and Europe. Throughout this installation, one encountered images of “foreignness” as coded in the West. Although Ackermann is acutely aware of the danger of misunderstanding and appropriation, he continues to travel and record his impressions—and to put that experience to the service of thoughtful and convincing artworks.

Yilmaz Dziewior

Translated from the German by Diana Reese.