Peter Piller

Barbara Wien

Peter Piller is a slacker. Yet far from hanging out at the water cooler, staring at the screensaver, or chatting up the temps, Piller belongs to that rare breed of slacker who remains incredibly industrious while wasting time. Indeed, Piller must have been active all day at his office, a Hamburg media agency that has been the source of the images from German regional newspapers in his growing archive, not to mention the stationery for his doodles. In the last two years, the artist has published eight—yes, eight—of twenty planned volumes of Archiv Peter Piller, amassing stereotypical shots from the local papers: happy people touching new cars, empty fields where the next mall will be built, blurry faces of wanted criminals captured by surveillance cameras.

For this exhibition, “Durchkämmten” (Combed Through), Piller selected pictures of police searching for missing—and presumably dead—people. Equipped with poles, the officers poke their way through various landscapes in all sorts of weather. The found images—color and black-and-white—have been enlarged in digital prints; their grainy quality emphasizes their origin as the illustrations for stories that have themselves gone missing. Only a large-scale color triptych suggests moments of discovery: A police photographer focuses on a mark in the road; two coroners in white protective suits emerge from a forest; a helicopter hovers over a house near a field. This grim collection may recall physiognomy (Lavater) and criminology (Lombroso), but Piller’s repetitive iconographic method reveals the characteristics not of the criminals but of the police—and of readers who have come to expect such images.

The most striking element of the show, beyond Piller’s own labor of hunting and collecting, was its installation. Judging from the sparse layout of his books, one might have expected neatly framed pictures in a row. But Piller’s hanging seemed to have been inspired by early Wolfgang Tillmans: The unframed images were simply taped to the walls in ensembles that looked more like personal memorabilia than documentation. The color triptych recalls not only an altar in a church but also a secular shrine to a movie star in a teenager’s bedroom. Far from an archive, Piller set up a fan club to a bureaucratic gesture that cannot be embodied individually. His devotional, auratic presentation only underscored the devaluation of the human countenance; here, recuperation is not about saving an ephemeral newspaper face from the past but rather attests to a form of visual pollution that has robbed the face of its ability to hold any meaning. This installation distinguishes Piller from his many illustrious predecessors who have collected readymade images of faces, such as Helmut Höge, Die Tödliche Doris, Hans-Peter Feldmann, or even Christian Boltanski. The latter tend to invest the bygone faces, however anonymous, with value and narrative, whereas Piller’s collections make the subjects as interchangeable as beats in a techno remix. In his books, even Chancellor Schröder—touching a car—looks like nobody.

Piller’s doodles on office stationery, which he calls “reputable drawings,” are another matter. There were thirty on display from the four hundred made, which suggests that Piller has not only time on his hands but also a key to the supply room. But his sketches of office life and its furniture are only mildly amusing. It’s hard to forgive Entwurf zum Bartleby Mahnmal vor unserem Bürohaus 2/02 (Sketch for a Bartleby Memorial in Front of Our Office Tower Block 2/02), 2002, which shows Melville’s scrivener as a statue. Putting the great slacker on a pedestal would rob him of his preferred inefficiency, since no one expects work from stone.

Jennifer Allen