Matthias Herrmann

For many years, Matthias Herrmann was able to keep his two jobs entirely separate: He is an artist who specializes in self-portraits as well as president of the artists’ association the Vienna Secession. But when Eva Schlegel invited him to photograph her exhibition in the main hall of the Secession in 2005, he saw an opportunity to mix things up a little. The figure Herrmann cut on the stage of this first white cube of modernism is that of a conceptual photo artist undaunted by even the most extravagant corporality. Schlegel had covered the walls with lead, adding circular mirror units on the floor designed to reflect architectural features such as the grid of the glass ceiling. Posing within this architecturally indeterminate chamber, which alluded to precursors ranging from Casanova’s Venetian prison cell to installations by Joseph Beuys, Herrmann’s body seems to literally become ungrounded. The blurred surfaces of his surroundings reflect his dancelike motions as he floats suspended between trembling pillars. In these C-prints, the figure hovers and stretches to the point of distortion.

This strategy, verging on mannerism, allows Herrmann to problematize space, body, and movement and to investigate their ever-shifting interactions. Like Bruce Nauman in the ’70s, Herrmann uses his body as a sculpture, staging various attitudes and poses. He always operates the camera himself, maintaining control over that “decisive moment” when the shutter button is pressed, and he makes no secret of it: The cables are always visible in his photographs. Pressing his own physical body into service, he restores to the space all that Schlegel banished from it: organicism, ambiguity, mystery, and eroticism, not to mention humor and the grotesque.

In subsequent series, also on view at Galerie Steinek, Herrmann offers further insights into the principles of the sculptural body in space in photographs of Secession shows by his mentor, multimedia artist Oswald Oberhuber, and the painter Stefan Sandner. But of particular note in this exhibition were the images derived from one of the most beautiful projects in which Herrmann has been involved as director, a 2005 exhibition “dialogue” between de Rijke/de Rooij and Christopher Williams, linking the documentary-influenced aesthetics of these two artists with a precise analysis of the condition, presence, and effectiveness of the photographic image. In his photography, Herrmann brings a new space/body framework to this exhibition, enhancing it with performative and representational elements. The juxtapositions Herrmann sets up between de Rijke/de Rooij’s floral arrangements, Williams’s photographs (above all his “Kiev 88” series, 2003), the found footage presented by both de Rijke/de Rooij and Williams, and his own self-presentation create new relationships among these objects and practices: ceremonial bodies ritualized. The mode of presentation establishes a plethora of analogies that appear meaningful, cohesive, and self-evident.

Finally, Herrmann presented some wild, garish photographs hung salon style in the rear of the gallery space—a fascinating retrospective of fifteen years of in-your-face bodywork, featuring comical, insightful commentaries on homosexual identity, role play, and disguise, and hard-hitting but always humorous self-portrait studies that attain heights of abstraction by means of the colors in which they are printed. All this easily sufficed to justify the show’s title, “Old News & New News.” Here, old and new came together with the help of irony, identity, and abstraction.

Brigitte Huck

Translated from German by Susan Bernofsky.