artbeat (2007-10)

What Comes after Post?

Photographs of empty rooms are utopian, large

by Lisa Slade

In 1998 Mikhail Epstein suggested there was a change occurring. Postmodernism, he said, was heading for an end, taken down by its own need for fragmentation and imitation. It couldn't stand forever; eventually the fragments would become unified, eventually the absurd would be so overused that the normal would actually become the absurd, and, more importantly, the absurd normal. Or so Epstein proposed. "Paradoxically as it may sound, it is precisely through repetition that they reclaim their primacy and authenticity," he wrote.

Sometimes academic concepts have little bearing in the real world. They're too abstract, too pretentious, too distanced from anything real to matter. Other times, they're everywhere, impossible to ignore, taking over literature, art and film. The concept Epstein is suggesting, now coined Post-postmodernism, is closer to the first.

However, the new exhibit at the Knoxville Museum of Art provides one potential example of Epstein's philosophical shift, entitled Candida Höfer: Architecture of Absence . There are two rooms full of large-scale pictures of empty rooms. The rooms range from libraries, ballet studios, museums, restaurants, concert halls and lounges. Some are historical, others modern. The only thing they share is that they are totally vacant. Of people. There are chairs, books, tables, a piano, and handrails inside the rooms, just no human life for the most part.

The most astounding thing about the photographs is their size. A few photographs are over five feet tall, and all greet the viewer at eye level, providing a horizon you might try to walk toward. The scale helps to incorporate the photos into your own reality. It also has the potential to distort them, the grand scale signifying the absurdity of these public places. The exhibition just escapes absurdity, though, and is instead weighty and impressive.

Repetition also has the ability to distorts, as in Warhol's disaster pictures. Yet this exhibit is not distorted, despite its repetition, because each picture tends to build on the next. Instead of the quality breaking apart when the pictures are next to each other, the simplicity of the shapes involved in each place, and the vibrant colors in the pictures adds to it.

Photography itself has been the subject of much criticism. If this were a Postmodern interpretation, a discussion would begin about how photography is one giant leap away from reality, and how it can't capture the essence of whatever it is trying to capture. In this case, in a Post-postmodern world, photography is perfectly capable of explaining the intentions of the photographer, to "document Höfer's dedication to the perplexities and complexities of architectural space." Both the perplexities and complexities do shine through the photos. The medium is adequate, and the message understandable.

Mostly understandable. A few questions still linger.

The rooms weren't entirely absent of human life at the time the photographs were taken. The photographer was in the room. It's also hard to say the artist is forging much new ground if you examine her against the background of her predecessors. But, her art is too good, and the artist too talented to ask these questions seriously, and the Post-postmodernist inside says to let them go. It will take some time to see things in the new way, to stop asking questions that we later realize have answered themselves.

If viewed in one light, the pictures could be interpreted as post-apocalyptic, dystopic, even existential, signifying man's inability to control what he has made, signifying that he is thrown into a world where he can only exist, not affect. The repetition of the large photographs of empty places, hung in large, empty rooms, might suggest destruction, maybe downfall, the emptiness in each picture magnified by the next. There would be shock value.

But the pictures aren't like that at all, instead they seem hopeful, beautiful, and demonstrate man's ability to conquer his surroundings with building materials, simple geometric forms, a camera, and a few ornate decorations. It's a near utopia, the perfect world where public space and private space meet and harmonize, and the historic still has relevance today.

Bernd Becher, and his wife, Hilla, became famous for their photographs of industrial objects, shot in the same style as Höfer, with a front and profile angle. Höfer is considered a member of the Becher circle, a prestigious group of renowned photographers, all of whom studied with Bernd Becher, at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. This KMA exhibition is the first American show for German Höfer.

What: Candida Höfer: Architecture of Absence