Visual Stumbling Blocks
For Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs all photographs are constructs. For them the choice of detail, the framing, and the intention of the author already cause images to lose their neutrality.1 As a consequence, the artist duo creates enigmatic constellations from what they find and fabricate. As artists, Onorato & Krebs are adventurers who love to travel, intrepid explorers, ingenious inventors and constructors, and sometimes amateur conjurors. For them, working with photography and film is a vehicle for investigating the world. They are fond of going off track and taking circuitous routes, in the way they deal with their chosen media or quite literally in the physical sense.
When Onorato & Krebs came to Berlin in 2008, they were attracted by its empty spaces as sites for alternative ideas and projects. Even today there are still countless areas of wasteland in the centre of Berlin as a result of the political partition of the city up until 1990. Around the world, the image of Berlin as a place imbued with a sense of longing is connected with numerous myths and clichés. Fifteen years ago the slogan “Poor but sexy” coined by the then mayor Klaus Wowereit aptly described the Berlin attitude that finds appeal in what is unfinished. Since 2008, the “be Berlin” image campaign has invited people to improvise and co-create the city. Despite the onward march of intensive urban development, the impression persists of Berlin as an eternal building site—quite the reverse of what is suggested by the popular motifs presented on postcards and social media posts.
The abundance of unused spaces and squatted houses with their political banners constituted the starting point for Constructions (Building Berlin). The series was photographed in areas to the rear of refurbished streets, in places that are undiscovered by tourists and unfrequented by Google Street View cars, which supposedly record everything. Such places, located off the beaten track, express a kind of a grey, faceless monotony in comparison to spectacular monuments or sites steeped in history. French anthropologist Marc Augé coined the term “non-places” for transitional spaces lacking identity, history, and relations.2 But it is the very indeterminacy of these places that suggests something about the general state of the city. They offer a space of possibility that can be filled with ideas. When they take their photographs, Onorato & Krebs are making a momentary intervention in the urban development of the German capital. Fire walls, the skeletons of buildings, and residential housing form a backdrop against which they initially placed banners bearing slogans that drew on the aesthetics of squatter protests. As work on the series progressed, the banners disappeared and at the end all that was left were the wooden frames as temporary architectural structures. In the photographs these constructions reproduce the built environment, augmenting or contradicting their surroundings.
In the 16 mm films Chimney, Lamp, and Fire, which were also made in Berlin the artist duo uses pyrotechnics to breathe life into the cityscape. In another film entitled Blockbuster,3 a young man lays into Berlin buildings, enthusiastically striking houses, cranes, and building sites with different tools—at least this is the impression given by the exact placement of the blows in the image construct. Such interventions are made with great precision, cleverly using the gaps in the fabric of the city and uncovering their potential.
These works were a stopover between two major photographic expeditions, The Great Unreal and Continental Drift, which helped shape their visual language and way of working.4 Traversing the (urban) landscape and making actual contact with the ground play a key role in all their projects: while they set out to explore Berlin on foot, the other two series were associated with various road trips they took in their own four-by-four. For The Great Unreal, Onorato & Krebs travelled the US between 2005 and 2009, taking in its vast landscape and calibrating their own prejudices and media myths against what they found. Continental Drift took them in the opposite direction. With only a vague idea in mind—other than to get a visual sense of the Far East—they set off from Zurich in 2013, driving 50,000 kilometres from there through Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Russia, all the way to Mongolia.
With their urban and landscape pictures, Onorato & Krebs are “photographic secondos or terzos. […] Born into a world of imagery that is exponentially growing, penetrating our heads, and covering reality”,5 they are second- or third-generation photographers. Looking at the visual cultures already established, they ask how a new photographic approach to nature and urban space might look. And how the radical changes in the real landscape and in photographic culture play into the work of making pictures.
It is easy to draw lines connecting the history of photography to the work of Onorato & Krebs. Their inquisitive look at what Europeans in the nineteenth century perceived as foreign and “exotic” links them to early travel photographers. From the second half of the nineteenth century on, photographic expeditions were influenced by emerging tourism, colonial expansion, and an interest in ethnological research. The landscapes of America, the so-called Orient, and Asia appear monumental and spectacular in the images from these expeditions. It was not uncommon for those photographs to reveal popular clichés about a particular country and its people. Onorato & Krebs’s interest in urban structures is reminiscent of the photographs documenting the major projects of urban redevelopment and expansion in nineteenth-century Europe. Extensive series of photos based on travels through the US were produced as early as the 1970s and 1980s. Like Stephen Shore (for his series American Surfaces) and Joel Sternfeld (for American Prospects), Onorato & Krebs travelled in their own car in search of what is characteristic of the US. The serial recurrence of motifs as a means of comparison follows the tradition of conceptual approaches like those of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Onorato & Krebs do not experience these genealogies of photographic evolution as a burden but rather as “lucky”. The pre-established traditions enable them to “quote so many things … You can quote other photographers or other photographic genres and cultures.”6
As Long As It Photographs / It Must Be a Camera, Adding, Adding, Adding, One-Eyed Thief, Light of the Other Days, Defying Gravity, and so on: many of the titles of their exhibitions and individual works suggest that the artists do not take the parameters of photography as a given. Instead, they challenge the comparative rigidity of their artistic medium. What can be done to break up the standardization of photography’s technical and physical processes? What new means of production and reproduction are conceivable and what effects do they have on how a work is received? Does a photograph showing what is found in unchanged form say more about a place than is possible for a picture that accentuates the characteristics of a place by means of an intervention? How can the medium’s close relationship with time and reality be used more flexibly?
An answer can be found in the title of the series on show here, Constructions (Building Berlin)—Onorato & Krebs build their images. Their process of production resembles an experimental set-up in which the artists add temporary elements to their motifs as commentary. In some constructions, an autonomous architectural space is generated. Upon close inspection, others turn out to be abstract outlines made of wood and paper.7 The lath structures they create bring to mind the Swiss regulation stipulating that the volume of a planned building should be modelled on-site before a building permit is granted.
The defining principle in other pictures in the series is fiction. In one photo, an apartment window made of paper flies through the air and lands on a firewall. In the film Lamp, a street lamp suddenly flares up with magenta light. In Fire, a housing block catches fire and blazes for a few minutes, while in Chimney a forgotten chimney starts smoking again. Such enactments have a dynamic relationship with reality. They have their starting point in found situations and—as Italian sociologist Elena Esposito describes it in a general comment about fiction—“react to reality in an extremely sophisticated way. […] The probable is fictional, yet it is only this that makes it work, and it is only on this basis that it offers us the possibilities for orientation that ‘real reality’ is unable to provide.”8
What initially seems like the quick implementation of idées fixes is in fact a series of interventions fine-tuned to the camera and the specific place that has been chosen. Alfredo Jaar’s credo “You do not take a photograph. You make it”9 appears to find literal application in the work of Onorato & Krebs, namely in their clever harnessing of the basic parameters governing photography and film. The simple laws of optics and perspective are used to cogent effect: foreground and background merge in the two-dimensionality of the photographic image. The distractions of colour disappear in black and white, and the contours of the buildings and lath constructions enter into a fleeting liaison, as in a puzzle picture.
Onorato & Krebs’s interventions are performative in terms of their presence and reception.10 Instead of real people, objects perform on the stage of the urban landscape. This gives rise to what curator Simon Baker describes as “deep interconnectedness between performance and photography at many levels”.11 Action and shot are closely intertwined with one another. The installations only need to remain in balance for a short period before being frozen in the photograph. The pyrotechnic events only last around one to three minutes but the loop accords them a “filmic anti-illusionism”,12 which humorously defamiliarizes the artificially created reality in the endless cycle of repetition. As in a performance, the objects disappear and the pyrotechnics burn out after the image has been created, without any consequences in reality.
The effect of temporality manifests in other places. The city has changed since the time the artists began working on the series. Empty spaces and sightlines have disappeared, and buildings have been demolished, converted, or rebuilt. Thus, for example, the development at Heidestraße 1 has grown in comparison to Heidestraße 2, and the huge o2 construction site no longer exists. On Potsdamer Platz, where the artists were able to work completely undisturbed for several days in 2009, there is now an enormous shopping mall. Without intending it, Onorato & Krebs’s photographs thus document the remodelling of the city. The temporal aspect of the touring exhibition associated with this publication is in turn inscribed in the form in which Chimney, Lamp, and Fire are presented. To show the films, screens were installed in the shipping crates so that the boxes both protect the works and act as bases. The surfaces of the crates will inevitably become marked with the signs of transportation and thus tell of the journeys they have taken, and the exhibition venues visited.
Our understanding of the documentary has been radically expanded by contemporary artistic practice in recent years. For one thing, the intense differentiation and specialization of photographic means has inspired various possibilities for representation and encouraged a critical examination of them. For another, the sheer quantity of photographs that reach us every day from all parts of the world require artists to come up with a new approach to the medium. In this context, Onorato & Krebs are exploring the friction generated at the interface of information and fiction.13 They do not strive for a comprehensive documentation of the present. Instead, their work gives visual expression to their individual perception: “It is a reproduction of how we look, how we perceive, how we understand or misunderstand.”14 Onorato & Krebs use the medium of photography and film to reflect on how ideas of reality are materialized and mediated.15 In the age of the smartphone, producing photos at breakneck speed, and of the even faster consumption of images, this artistic approach may seem somewhat old-fashioned. It slows down the flow of images by capturing curiosities and interspersing “visual stumbling blocks”. 16 Their approach invites us, almost romantically, to take a closer look and marvel at what the image shows.
1 ↩ See artists’ statement for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2017, HYPERLINK "https://www.sieshoeke.com/videos/taiyo-onorato-nico-krebs"https://www.sieshoeke.com/videos/taiyo-onorato-nico-krebs (accessed: 5.1.2019).
2 ↩ See Marc Augé, Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, trans. John Howe (London, 1995), p. 58.
3 ↩ On this, see the installation views on pp. 61 and 62.
4 ↩ On Continental Drift, see the installation views on p. 64.
5 ↩ Urs Stahel, A Sky Full of Signs, HYPERLINK "https://ursstahel.ch/a-sky-full-of-signs"https://ursstahel.ch/a-sky-full-of-signs (accessed: 13.12.2018).
6 ↩ Taiyo Onorato, quoted in “Eurasia: In Conversation with Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs; Interview by Aaron Schuman,” in Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs – EURASIA, ed. by Doris Gassert and Thomas Seelig (Winterthur, 2015), pp. 8–9, here: p. 8.
7 ↩ On the relationship between sculpture and photography, see Lens-Based Sculpture: The Transformation of Sculpture through Photography, exh. cat. Akademie der Künste, Berlin / Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, Vaduz (Cologne, 2014).
8 ↩ Elena Esposito, Die Fiktion der wahrscheinlichen Realität (Frankfurt am Main, 2014), p. 55.
9 ↩ Poster work by Alfredo Jaar for the exhibition Manifesto! An Alternative History of Photography at the Museum Folkwang, Essen, 2014.
10 ↩ On the concept of the performative installation, see Angelika Nollert (ed.), Performative Installation (Cologne, 2003).
11 ↩ Simon Baker, “Performing for the Camera”, in Performing for the Camera, exh. cat. Tate Modern (London, 2016), pp. 11–27, here: p. 17.
12 ↩ Juliane Rebentisch, Ästhetik der Installation (Frankfurt am Main, 2003), p. 195.
13 ↩ Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs, in discussion with the author, Berlin, 9.12.2018.
14 ↩ See n. 1.
15 ↩ See Bernd Stiegler, Montagen des Realen (Munich/Paderborn, 2009), pp. 24–25.
16 ↩ Taiyo Onorato, lecture at the Academy of Fine Arts (HGB) Leipzig, 14.11.2018.