Staged Presentations of Happiness and Its Destruction
The notion of the ideal landscape in the Enlightenment and the urban spaces of modernity: these two eras with their respective pictorial genres provide the subject matter for Beate Gütschow’s photographic series LS and S. With these bodies of work she not only portrays flawed and crumbling utopias, but also makes a theoretical statement. On the basis of these works it becomes clear that there are few points of contact between Gütschow’s photographic compositions and the images produced by contemporary artists such as those associated with the “Becher School”; in fact, her works take a stand against these. Beate Gütschow addresses the fundamental issue of photography—the fact that reality and the photographic image represent two different poles and exist in a tense and ultimately irreconcilable relationship to one another—in a quite different way than the photographers who studied under Bernd and Hilla Becher in Düsseldorf (including the younger generation that came after Ruff, Struth, Höfer, etc.) and who take what can in the broadest sense be termed a documentary approach to the medium. Gütschow rejects this kind of approach with its suggestion of authenticity, regarding it as a residual form based upon a photographic method that does not adequately address or question the representational nature of photography itself.
Fact and Fiction
But how can the relationship between reality and representation be addressed within photographic discourse? In this context, representation means not only a (technical) relationship to the object photographed, but also a particular relationship between this photographic record and the viewer. It is, therefore, a system of recognizing and understanding the world based on communications that can be read or interpreted in a particular way, i.e., they can be imbued with a specific meaning; it involves processes of image generation and different ways of reading (media) surfaces. Gütschow’s practice asserts a singular position—also with respect to a fundamental development within our visual culture and its possibilities of manipulation (including technical manipulation)—by presenting the photographic image as a highly artificial and meticulously composed construct.
The surfaces of Beate Gütschow’s images consist of exposed photographic paper. If you go up very close to the large-format images, you can even see the image-forming grain—“a manifestation of reality, even though it is actually a manifestation of the medium” (Gütschow). To a certain extent, however, Gütschow has also left the realm of photography with these images, because their content is completely fictitious. Her method can be regarded as a reversal of creative processes; she herself refers to her practice as “pre-photographic.” “The pre-photographic method is a different way of approaching the image. With photography you are usually forced to choose a piece of reality, so the result is a framed section of this reality that has been extracted from a much larger situation. Using a pre-photographic method, reality is not the starting point; the starting point is the blank canvas, or in my case the empty document, the digital sheet of paper: I am free to do whatever I want with this space; I can place all sorts of things inside it.” (Gütschow). Gütschow’s images are montages, made by combining a large number of image fragments into a single picture in Photoshop, a process she describes as “sampling.” The source images are photographed by Gütschow herself using an analog camera, then converted to digital files and archived, creating a stock of images from which she later selects the material she needs for the finished works. In this way, Gütschow constructs her own view of reality, because even though every element she presents to us in these detailed images is a reference to reality, the picture as a whole has been entirely constructed by her.
The Ideal Landscape
Gütschow organizes her pictorial spaces like theater stages, upon which every single detail is part of the staged presentation. In this respect her photographs are based on the compositional principles of 18th-century landscape paintings with their broad perspective and illusion of recession into depth. Similar to the landscape painters of that period, Gütschow works in a large format and chooses a pictorial arrangement that allows viewers to enter the image, as it were, and engage with the depiction on an almost physical level. This reception-aesthetic approach is supported by the emblematic character of the figures portrayed, who lead the viewer further into the scene. In Gütschow’s photographs, however, the ideality of the landscape that was conveyed as an unimpaired quality by artists such as Claude Lorrain, John Constable, Nicolas Poussin, Jacob van Ruisdael, Claude-Joseph Vernet, or Thomas Gainsborough—whose studio-based works her composite landscapes reference—begins to show fine cracks. The images in her succinctly titled series LS (an abbreviation of Landschaft, the German word for landscape) thus contain pointers to the fragility of such an idealized view of reality: scattered litter, churned-up soil, sawn-off trees, weeds, and bits of corrugated iron initially appear to blend seamlessly into a utopian view of nature; once discovered, however, they introduce a disturbing note that underlies Gütschow’s works like an evocative soundtrack.
Urban Spaces of Modernity
This sense of disquiet is even more pervasive in Gütschow’s series S (for Stadt—city), which succeeds her series of landscape depictions. Here, an idealized view of nature—a positive ideal—is inverted into a negative view, a dystopian urban scenario.
Gütschow’s cityscapes refer not only to the utopias of modernity and modernist architecture, but also to the “planning euphoria” of urban developers with their radical concepts for expanding cities based on a scientized and technocratic worldview, the impact of which extended into the 1970s. Gütschow has chosen to produce the photographs for this more recent body of work in black and white, and in doing so pays homage above all to American documentary photographers of the 1960s and 1970s. With their aim of using the medium of (landscape) photography to reflect upon the commercialization and acceleration of social space, and the impact of these processes upon American social reality, the “New Topographics” photographers, for example, could provide formal references for some of Gütschow’s works: the precise composition of her images reminds me to an extent of those by Stephen Shore, while the depicted figures with their uprooted air could have come from the works of Robert Adams. But unlike the photographs of her American colleagues, Beate Gütschow’s images are explicitly not forms of documentation, and in this respect they are the exact opposite of those cited! As if to underline this fact, Gütschow has also opted to produce the photographs in the series S as large-format works (whereas the American documentarists produced only small-format images or found books to be their ideal medium), and thus emphatically presents these images as spaces for projection that have been opened up for the viewer. Here, too, it is the details of the superficially perfect architectural structures and the urban designs taken straight from drawing board that call attention to the flawed feasibility concepts of modernity: crumbling walls, overturned cars, and people wandering around aimlessly who seem strangely out of place. The planning fantasies of the 1970s are exposed as failed utopias that “tip over into the threatening emptiness and decay of what has become an unworthy future” (Katja Blomberg).
The strength of Beate Gütschow’s works derives not only from the artist’s reflective approach to her chosen medium, but also from the consummate skill with which she executes them. This enables the monumental gesture that accompanies all of her work and underlines its powerful narrative force. Gütschow’s practice is therefore at the interface of continuing debates on a reformulation (including a theoretical restatement) of conceptual strategies in contemporary art.
Lübbke-Tidow, Maren. “Staged Presentations of Happiness and Its Destruction” In Beate Gütschow: ZISLS. Heidelberg, 2016, pp. 38-48.
Translated by Jacqueline Todd.
This text is a slightly revised version of an article that was written in conjunction with Beate Gütschow’s solo exhibition ganz woanders (2008) at Haus am Waldsee in Berlin, and was first published in the magazine Kunst Bulletin (Zurich), 3/2008. We would like to thank the editors for allowing us to reprint it here.