Christin Müller
☰   Texts DE

When Historical and Contemporary Views Meet

Jens Klein

Individual balloons have missed their destination. They were caught on tree branches, guard rails, or power poles, or they sank to the ground under their considerable load. Only still slightly inflated, they waft in silent beauty at their finding places. In reality, the balloons are oversized plastic bags, around four to five meters high, possessed of the sole function of secretly transporting political flyers, newspapers, and magazines across the former inner-German border by air.1 After a small explosion, triggered by a timer, the transported material fell to the ground at its destination. If this endeavor had not sometimes failed, and if the artist Jens Klein of Leipzig had not fished these photographs documenting such paths of distribution out of the archive of the Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic (BStU-Archiv), then we likely would never have seen these balloons and wouldn’t be able to marvel at their manifestation.

Archives open up a view into the past. Yet this retrospective view is never clear-cut. Indwelling source material like that of photography in particular—as a medium that records time and space without its own codification—are representations of past conditions that lend themselves to different interpretations. In lack of contextualization, the balloons from Jens Klein’s eponymous series “Ballons” (Balloons, 2013) could be many things: a child’s game, Land Art, a performative installation, a meteorological instrument of measure, or simply a means of spreading material related to political interests. Sebastian Hau even puzzles over the “shamanic essence that has been slowly escaping from the balloons in these photographs.”2 In this serial compilation by Klein, the images unite two diametrically opposed interpretive approaches. For one, the photographs attest, on the pictorial level, to the poetics of an easily produced flying object. But due to their origins, the photos also signify a sociopolitical context which illuminates the distribution paths of politically motivated reading material and the small-scale photographic documentation of the inner-German border. The pictures of the balloons ultimately present a close intertwining of creativity, everyday life, and surveillance, as well as the resolute exercise of state power.

Jens Klein is fascinated by such ambivalence, for it involves diverse spaces of perception and memory. He seeks narratives in archives and photographs, following, in the process, an “interest in history and an analysis of this history in the present day.”3 It is not the striking images of historically significant events that captivate the artist, but rather the less spectacular, mundane photographs. Through new arrangements and contexts, he peels away existing layers of information from imagery in pursuit of a productive rereading. Klein thus engages with the tradition of an artistic working approach that focuses on the editing of found photographs. Back in 1987, Joachim Schmid penned the manifesto “Keine neuen Fotos, bis die alten aufgebraucht sind” (No new photos until the old ones are used up). In this text, Schmid postulates that non-artistic photography as a “ubiquitous normal photo is so flexible that it can be shaped by slight manipulations of any given idea, appropriated by any possible use.”4 A further point of reference, in this case biographical, is the work of Peter Piller, considering that Jens Klein attended his class on photography in the field of contemporary art at the Academy of Fine Arts (HGB) Leipzig.

When archives are less sociopolitically charged, they often reflect a life submerged in deep slumber, especially those taking the analogue form and originating from the context of applied photography. In 1999, Aleida Assmann called archives “a place for collecting and preserving the past that should not be lost … as an inverted mirror image of a garbage dump where the past is collected and left to decay.”5 Today, twenty years later, this dichotomy no longer has the same intensity. An increasing number of archives are being digitalized and then winnowed out in material form. Or their information value is deemed obsolete, causing this material to end up in the waste bin. In these times of shifting meaning of the archive, the opportunity emerges to rethink our ways of dealing with them. There is a possibility of establishing alternative archival practices in which the motives, players, and configurations of power are called into question. New constellations of knowledge arise through the extraction and publication of image material. According to Tom Holert, such “a communicative use of pictures and pictorality [is] a space of political agency and behavior.”6 How can historical image material help to establish a relation to a present in which the here and now is perpetually being photographed? How far can correlations of meaning within archival material be stretched, and how does the shift in context affect the perception of the individual image?

Jens Klein views archives as flexible constellations, rather than as static entities. For his works, he meanders through the visual worlds of the past. The codifications and epistemological nexuses of archives7 serve as both starting point and goal of his artistic activity. He encounters the archival material with an open gaze, at times reading it against the grain, and immerses his selection of images and new presentations in a suspensful relationship to the original context.

For “Bewerberinnen ewerber” (The Applicants, 2017), Jens Klein went through the archive of the Protestant Academic Foundation in Villigst. It is a classical file-based setup, only consulted on rare occasions in its entirety. The archive contains 8,000 photos of individuals who applied for a scholarship between 1948 and 2012.8 What can be discerned from these pictures once they are no longer needed as information carriers? For this series, Klein compiled photographs of 179 people who are around twenty years old with the aim of visualizing the changes within a certain age bracket. Over the years, clothes, posture, and facial expressions subtly change. Above and beyond the individual figures, we learn something about the evolving self-confidence of students in the Federal Republic of Germany through this compilation. Also evident is the transformation of the recording medium of photography. The transitions from analogue to digital and from black-and-white to color print are as obvious as the appearance of the changing materials. Initially, the photographs are characterized by the grain of the negative, later by the comb-like surface of the prints, and eventually by the appearance of the digital image pixels. Upon closer examination, we note a change in setting and self-representation. In a photo studio, classical image conventions and each photographer’s preferences have an impact on stance, lighting, and image background. In an analogue photo booth, by contrast, the person being photographed decides on their own how to position themselves in front of the lens. Only the curtain showing in the background reveals the actual setting. In the course of digitalization, control of the resulting photo is even stronger. One’s own appearance can be reviewed and corrected on the spot. Not until one is completely satisfied is a print created.

As in “The Applicants,” Jens Klein probes the visual characteristics and potentials of an archive as a self-contained unit in his work “Helle Nacht” (Bright Night, 2018). In the pictures, artificial light fills in streets, offices, and factory halls within a jet-black environment. The photographed sites seem strangely vacated and dateless. The source material for this work originates from the no-longer-existing corporation Ateliers de constructions électriques de Charleroi (ACEC) in Belgium. The company produced products like power-generation plants, industrial equipment, lighting systems, nuclear engineering, household appliances, and street lighting. All that remains are the photographs used to check the functionality of the products. Planned as factual documentation, the photos serve as an inverted sign in the case of Jens Klein. Through this act of densification a “vast resonance space”9 emerges, permeated by an enthralling atmosphere reminiscent of a David Lynch film. Manifesting there is a vacuum which strongly urges us to fill it with stories. The images thus become planes of reflection for a fictitious activity that has little to do with the past and much more to do with our mindscape.

In his artistic practice, Jens Klein also explores the unique nature of private photographs. He collects amateur prints from various sources, categorizes them according to pictorial motifs, and uses them as material. In the process, the artist intervenes in the conventional paths of circulation and directs perception toward a questioning of the pictorial motifs. Now that digital photographs are being disseminated through networks,10 there are very few prints of analogue shots from a private context. Their dissemination, especially in the case of amateur snapshots, plays out along linear paths among families, friends, and acquaintances in real space, instead of a networked scattering via digital channels. The photographs that Klein uses for these series originate from someone else’s albums or photo boxes. He found them at flea markets or on eBay. Liberated from their original context of purpose and meaning, the photographs visualize a forgotten past. Due to this shift into the art context, the private nature of the pictures is lost—the individual memory of a moment in time and the emotional ties to each person rendered. So how do these photographs function in their new constellation?

“Schlafende Deutsche” (Sleeping Germans, 2016) unites thirty pictures of people sleeping, with their eyes closed, in a state of utter relaxation and vulnerability. The work is composed of vintage prints made between 1932 and 1992. The situation is as harmless as it is mundane and shows the opposite of highly charged event photography. When the pictures are juxtaposed, the phenomenon of sleep can be observed. Yet such observations are limited to the surface—only the postures and places lend themselves to comparison. Also evident here is the visual proximity of dream, relaxation, exhaustion, and death. The inner state of the person pictured remains occlusive. Klein’s series thus confronts us with a media-immanent quality. Despite all closeness to the motif, photographs can only depict external conditions. All related associations remain purely speculative. In constellations of images, however, it is possible to steer the associations. In the two-channel slide project “Bellevue” (2015), Klein for instance combines a photograph of German soldiers positioned in front of the Eiffel Tower during the occupation of Paris with one of a woman looking out of a window. The interplay is simple and potent. A myth soon arises about the soldiers fighting abroad and their relatives waiting at home. The Eiffel Tower as backdrop and the gazes of the women tell of almost stereotypical yearnings as a different, more private side of the brutal Second World War. “Sleeping Germans” and “Bellevue” may be considered examples of artistic counter-archives. They harbor individual, remote stories that mirror politically significant historical events and conventional archival practices.

The selection of image material for the archive also determines which events, world views, and forms of knowledge enter into the visual memory of a society. In the artistic rereading, as pursued by Jens Klein, the contingency of bygone times is revealed. In the series “Trittbrettfahrer der Geschichte” (Freeriders of History, 2017) and “Sunset” (2018), Klein puts the actualization of the perception of history inscribed in archives up for renegotiation. For “Freeriders of History” Klein draws on the visual archive of the Deutsche Fotothek in Dresden, working with photographs of monuments for people and events from German history, from the Battle of the Nations in Leipzig up to the Second World War, from individuals like Ernst Thälmann, Otto von Bismarck, and Heinrich Heine, and even related to an anonymous and timeless “Wir mahnen” (We remember). Considered individually, the monuments already symbolize a point of access to the past. A sculptor translated the memory into a specific form at a certain point in time. Then, at a later date, the photographs were taken. Most likely, the photos were meant to document the appearance and state of the memorials. But the photographers captured something much more decisive: the fate of the memorials at their given site. By encountering real life, their claim to eternity disintegrates and the relationship to the place of installation becomes apparent: for instance when a disabled veteran of war enters the frame in front of Berlin’s Victory Column, or when a reflector post along a street is situated next to a commemorative stone of the very same size. Klein carries this unique historicity of the monuments even further by editing the photographs to create a purchasable series of postcards.

The photographs from the BStU archive, with which Jens Klein first worked in 2012 for “Hundewege: Index eines konspirativen Alltags” (Dog Paths: Index of a Conspirational Daily Life), have lost their function as evidence. Today they are viewed mostly as historical testimonies. In contrast to the series “Balloons” introduced earlier, Klein’s most recent work “Sunset” does not present a broad spectrum of interpretive approaches to the portrayed subject matter. Indeed, the occasion for taking the photographs is experienceable afresh. The photographs show potential escape routes out of former East Germany, turning Klein’s synopsis into a labyrinthine visual essay. Here, the perpetrator and victim perspectives meet: while some people connect hidden holes in bare stretches of road, secretly made balloon material, or wildly dug tunnels to an endangerment of the societal apparatus, others see in these motifs the promise of a new life. Walls, fences, and barricades signify secure protective walls or obstacles to be overcome. Remnants and signs of surveillance represent observation or failed escape. Growing through the dense stringing together of archival photographs is a restless stream of images that convey a feeling of placeless and never-ending flight. The title °“Sunset” discloses the direction of escape and reminds of the abstract ideas about prosperity and freedom associated with the West. What remains open is the actual motivation of the fleeing individuals, as well as the outcome of the endeavors on both ends.

Jens Klein responds with his artistic approach in a sensitive and trenchant way to the special nature of photographic archives. He inspires multilayered reflection about the relevance and potential of historic visual material—beyond the aestheticization of documents or purely typological comparison—and views the oscillation of archives as a “cemetery of facts and garden of fictions”11 as a productive engine. In his works, the photographs reciprocally engage in conversation. The fact that Klein heightens the constellations as visual theories while simultaneously keeping them open enables us to participate in these conversations. We are invited to bring the observations of the original photographers up to date and to balance them out with our present-day perspective. This gives rise to a space for negotiating the past, drawing on multiperspectival testimony.12 Such negotiation is process-oriented and never ends. It invites us to engage in a state of continual reevaluation.

1   Publications were printed with the sole purpose of distributing them in East Germany, such as the magazines Legal Handeln, Rote Fahne, and Volksarmee. Over 13,000 copies of the book Flucht über See (Flight Across the Sea) by Heinz Ockler were found between February and December 1968, and even 77,660 leaflets in the Schwerin region between February and December 1966 (see MfS HA XX/AKG no. 5611, Part 1 of 2, esp. pp. 18 and 34).
2   Sebastian Hau, “Some Balloons by Jens Klein,” ELSE #7, Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne, 2014, pp. 56–61, esp. p. 60.
3   Jens Klein, in Elisabeth Pichler, “Weiterleben und Wiedererleben der Bilder: Interview mit Jens Klein,” in Artists & Agents: Performance Art und die Geheimpolizei, ed. Kata Krasznahorkai and Elisabeth Sasse, exh. cat. Hartware MedienKunstVerein Dortmund (Leipzig: Spector Books, forthcoming [autumn 2019]).
4   Joachim Schmid, “Keine neuen Fotos, bis die alten aufgebraucht sind,” in Hohe und Niedere Fotografie, exh. cat. Kunsthaus Rhenania (Cologne: Kunsthaus Rhenania, 1988), pp. 21–26, esp. p. 26, cited in:
5   Aleida Assmann, Erinnerungsräume: Formen und Wandlungen des kulturellen Gedächtnisses (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1999), p. 383.
6   Tom Holert, Regieren im Bildraum (Berlin: b_books, 2008), p. 17 (= Polypen).
7   See Knut Ebeling, “Archiv oder Sammlung? Kleine Epistemologie archivarischer Praktiken des fotografischen Bildes,” in Atelier der Erinnerung: Aspekte des Archivarischen als Ausgangspunkt künstlerischer Fotografie, ed. Folkwang Universität der Künste / Wüstenrot Stiftung (Ludwigsburg/Essen: Wüstenrot Stiftung, 2016), pp. 27–35.
8   In 2012, the Studienwerk introduced an online application process, so from that point forward there was no archivization of prints.
9   Matthias Wagner, Helle Nacht (Dresden: Sandstein Verlag, 2018), n.p.
10   See Winfried Gerling et al., Bilder verteilen: Fotografische Praktiken in der digitalen Kultur (Bielefeld: transcript, 2018).
11   Wolfgang Ernst, Stirrings in the Archive: Order from Disorder (Lanham et al.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), p. 42.
12   See Kathrin Peters, “Bilder des Protests: Über die ‘Woman in the Blue Bra’ und relationale Zeugenschaft,” in Periphere Visionen: Wissen an den Rändern von Fotografie und Film, ed. Heide Barrenchea et al. (Paderborn: Fink, 2016), pp. 205–22, esp. p. 220. 

Place of Publication
Camera Austria International, Iss. 146, Graz 2019, pp. 21-32.
Links (external)
Camera Austria