Philipp Lachenmann

The eye is not the only organ that determines what we see. Our acquired knowledge plays a role, as do our experiences, which are stored in our brains as memories. In this sense the cherished saying of the art historians is true: We see only what we know. Philipp Lachenmann studied art history, wrote his master’s thesis on the function of the erotic in the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, and even now remains in a certain sense true to the questions of the art historian: What does this image tell us? Why does it tell this and not something else?

In an exhibition here two years ago Lachenmann conducted an experiment: He showed photographs, for instance of a cemetery or a tiger, but that was only part of his presentation. The artist himself was present during regular gallery hours to explain to visitors that they were looking at the cemetery where Karl Marx lies buried or at the last photo of the last Tasmanian tiger before it went extinct—and already the images looked different. What do I need to know, then, to make images speak? Or, put another way, how do I turn my knowledge into images? In conjunction with that exhibition, Lachenmann showed, right before the premiere of the Hollywood blockbuster The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, his version, Preview, 2002. A friend of his who had read J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy in his youth during a long illness tells the story from memory. The film shows only its narrator; any other images are merely in the mind of the observer.

Subsequently, Lachenmann spent several months in Los Angeles as a fellow of the Villa Aurora. Here, again, he pursued images—this time the ones that the European observer has in mind when he or she thinks of Los Angeles: sun, blue skies, surfers riding the waves, and Hollywood with its action-packed films. Lachenmann confronts these stereotypes in the large-format photographs of surfers (all works 2003) and the video Corporate_Space (LA) that constitute his current exhibition, “Space_Surrogates.” The photographs are romantically tinged pictures in a cool, gentle blue, reminiscent of the sfumato of Tuscan landscapes à la Leonardo; the surfers wait for waves in the fog. The contrast to the California radiating light and unlimited freedom in our heads could hardly be greater.

The video explores the empty streets of downtown Los Angeles on a foggy Sunday morning. The gaze of the camera, mounted on a car with a Steadicam system, probes the unpeopled streets, calmly moving past Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, the bank and insurance buildings of the financial district, and the run-down outer districts. With a strange slowness, with an almost intimidating quietness and distanced intransigence, an unfamiliar city unfolds before our eyes, making the drive an adventure and keeping one’s gaze glued to the monitor, fascinated. Only later do we notice the continuous rattling (recorded on a CD) of a 16 mm film projector, which seems to come now from far away, now from nearby, reminding one of film’s beginnings—all impressions that prod our thinking about images into a deeper contemplation.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.