Texts / Reviews
One is the loneliest number
»In photography«, says Jeff Wall, »the unattributed, anonymous, poetry of the world itself appears, probably for the first time«. Its beauty »is rooted in the great collage which everyday life is, a combination of absolutely concrete and specific things created by no-one and everyone, all of which become available once it is unified into a picture«.1
Actually, he’s right. The »unattributed, anonymous poetry«, the »great collage«, all the »concrete and specific things«: these are what photography—unique, addictive, casual, potent, improvised photography—deals with and what it is derived from. It is what the photobook deals with and is derived from, this magical admixture of film, novel and family album, which only now we have really come to appreciate.2
However, it is strange to believe, as Wall apparently does, that the things, spaces and faces from everyday life have the capacity to be »unified into« a single picture. Even more remarkably, a significant movement within contemporary photographic art has distanced itself from the fantastic charm of the pictorial narrative and become more interested in the rather sober solitaires on the wall and the perspective from a safe distance. It is precisely the most prominent photographers, inundated with money and fame, who tend towards aristocratic minimalism. They labour on the uncluttered, gigantic single picture for the uncluttered, gigantic museum. Alternately, they devote themselves to the systematic sequence. The individual element is constructed as a—hrrumpf—serial phenotype: shopping centres, libraries, always viewed from the same angle, always in the same light. Even Jeff Wall ultimately doesn’t trust his much vaunted accident, preferring to stage his tableaux himself. In this way he creates disorder ordered by himself, including those concrete things and their unattributable poetry.
All of this is astonishing because such artistic practises clearly differentiate themselves from the other, everyday, snapshot world of photography. They distance themselves, possibly consciously, from us, the lay public who very seldom perceive photographic images as monumental individual entities, mostly encountering them in pairs, as groups, in heaps: along the lines of before-and-after, this-is-me-here-and-this-is-me-there, look-at-this-and-look-at-that.
Perhaps these free-range herds of images intimidate many a photographic artist because they threaten his sanitary method. In everyday life the simple bumps into the decorative, the delicate encounters the dangerous, the repulsive links arms with the delectable. Images generate narratives. They have firm sets of meanings. They have symbolic value. This is difficult to countenance if you view the photographic image as a mysterious monad, which, silent and perfect, doesn’t require anything around it but empty space (and plenty of it).
Ute Behrend’s works are different, however. They come in twos. Always in twos. Instead of meticulously dissecting the dual components of what you see and what that might signify, Behrend infuses her series of images with both elements. She fears neither disorder nor decoration, neither ornament, children’s eyes, pink petals, turquoise dressing gowns, rubber plants, pierced nipples, rottweilers, nor pools of blood. She takes private photographs, but this is an undefinable kind of privacy, temporally localised as the present day, in a place situated somewhere between the city and country and vacation spots, of a generation between youth and mid-life. One’s eye oscillates between one and the other image. It compares, contrasts, combines, engendering in turn mini-narratives that start on the left and end on the right or start on the right and end on the left. Or they become long narratives encompassing several images—narratives that branch out, leaf, blossom.
For goodness sake no stories, no plants—say the coolest minimalists. For goodness sake no minimalism, says Ute Behrend. You have to cope with proliferation. Photosynthesis, 6 CO2 + 6 H²O → C6H12O6 + 6 O2, the transformation of light into greenery that then spreads out over surfaces and grows into voids: nobody can deny that this is all part of the »great collage«. Therefore one really is the loneliest number, because it cannot do justice to disorder. One image wouldn’t be enough, a typological series would be too strict, a mise en scène too clinical.
Ute Behrend’s video art also testifies to the power of this approach—perpetually split in two, as is her photographic work. At the start of her video »Mermaids«, for example, the sun is shining through a gap in the heavy, grey clouds pictured in the image on the left and in the image on the right, in front of a blank wall, a woman is singing a Harry Warden/Mack Gordon-Song, which one recognises from Chet Baker’s version (» …the more I see you, the more I want you / Somehow this feeling just grows and grows …«) and perhaps because this woman does this so well, singing so unpretentiously, as unpretentiously as Chet Baker himself, and because sometimes the sun really does pierce through the grey canopy in this fashion, as indeed everyone knows, and because the sound of the surf can also be heard on the soundtrack and children’s voices can be discerned discussing something and then fading into the distance once more, and because a bird suddenly flies in front of the clouds across the image and then disappears, and because all of this is the case, it seems for a moment as if nothing else exists apart from these clouds, the sound of the surf, the light, the song, the way it is being sung and the way the song is remembered, and the bird in flight and the bird that has flown and the voices and the quietness that follows.
And at this point it becomes clear: true purism is the one that also incorporates the noise. It is the one that both shows what we see and what we remember:
the voice and the rushing sound, the moment and its feedback. Ute Behrend’s photographic series allow you to experience this haptically, laying these combinations in your hands, in the photobook, the ultimate storehouse for what Jeff Wall calls »anonymous poetry«. Look right. Look left. Look left. One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.3
1 cited in: Kaja Silverman, »Totale Sichtbarkeit«. Jeff Wall: Photographs. Köln 2003. S. 97–117; hier S. 111.
2 compare: Martin Parr und Gerry Badger, The Photobook: A History, Vol. I & II. London 2004/2006; Andrew Roth, ed., The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century. New York 2001.
3 Aimée Mann, »One«. Magnolia: Soundtrack. Warner, 2000. CD (Text & Musik: Harry Edward Nilsson, 1968).