Of People, Places and Meaning

Of People, Places and Meaning
Galerie Gaby Kraushaar
Gabriele Conrath-Scholl, Introduction to the exhibition, 2004

The joint representation of Katja Stuke and Oliver Sieber evolves from the fact that both artists, living in Düsseldorf, have for many years been enjoying an intensive partnership, always exchanging experiences, where individual methods of work with regard to transitions and opposites are discussed lively and joint projects of pictures, exhibitions and publications are developed.
In a refreshing new way their statements fit the current international art and photography scene. Only recently the two of them took part in the International Film Festival in Rotterdam and successfully presented their contribution Unser Film (Our Movie), a cut of single pictures which were photographically taken, showing public spaces and found situations, which the two artists had discovered by consulting a guide to famous film locations.

An example for the joint activities of Stuke and Sieber – and meanwhile a rather well known and telling one – is the magazine they have been publishing since 1999 and which has appeared over twenty times. It goes under the memorable and humorous title Die Böhm – originally Frau Böhm – a name which they have used for other projects as well. Frau Böhm has been invented to become a thoughtful way of mediation for the both of them, organising their photos and their ideas under certain points of view and presenting them to a broader public.

The variety of topics raised in the publications of Die Böhm illustrates the wide range of basic discussions of media and society relevant to the artists. Yet their debates are free of any didactic gestures.

Thus issue No. 15 from June 2002, titled Halbzeit (Half Time) was dedicated to different aspects of of grouping and identity finding among young people as well as to their statements in the context of mass sports. This was illustrated by portraits of young female soccer players (Oliver Sieber) set into contrast with single photos of fans whom Katja Stuke watched with her camera during a match in a stadium.

Another Böhm-issue with the title Alles Echt (Everything True) dealt with the particulars of the “touristic view”. Some of the photos were taken on trips to Paris, London and Marseille. The majority of the pictures however originate from a stay in Chicago, Las Vegas and Los Angeles and their suburbs. They put the stereotyped picture of America as it has to a great deal been promoted by the history of photography to a test. When Stuke and Sieber present their American impressions they do not deny their well known models like Walker Evans, William Eggelston, Robert Frank or Stephen Shore, but improvise with their tested methods thus lending a frame of reference to their own originality.

The photographs collected in the current exhibition have partly been published in that Böhm-issue. Furthermore it shows photos from the issues Schauplatz Bühne and Dunkel und Hell which shows the manifold kinds of view from which the artists try to scrutinise their work and that contextuality and combination are nearly as important as the work itself. Consequently Stuke and Sieber consider themselves initiators of thought processes which are accepted in their pictures as moments of integration. Comparable to pieces of montage or signs which depending on the viewer´s previous experiences will touch him more or less deeply and will take a part in his individual grammar of images. Thus they are understood. Quite consciously the two artists agree that art is an interactive medium of communication and as thus an important means of gaining knowledge that is delivered on various levels of perception, consciousness and reality. These are linked in a complex framework and have always to be explored and netted anew.

In other words: the attention for the way we construct our lives is made sensitive either by exposing the well known or by putting traditional and well rehearsed patterns of imagines to contrast. It is a mobilisation against the standards in our heads, against each ISO-norm in the areas of art and media and it makes immune against the effects of the ever-present standardising floods of images. With their pictures Katja Stuke and Oliver Sieber show up perspectives, they invite to discussion and make suggestions for so far uninhabited spheres of activity and rooms for thought, which reminds one at once of a series by Katja Stuke, in which she documented countless closed and empty shops in Düsseldorf.

Both artists aim at exploring new horizons, at the exact watching and meticulous recording of the world that surrounds them and which only by convincingly lead structuring can gain in importance and variety. They do not only produce archives of project material serving as inventaries of experienced realities giving room to free association between documentary and fiction, they delight with a number of other activities, release parties, internet appearances or happenings like the temporary “megastore” which was run by them and which served as an outlet of their own works and as a forum of discussion and artistic environment at the same time.

In presenting two groups of work in this exhibition, Katja Stuke and Oliver Sieber allow for their photos to be seen and read in isolation or in connection to each other. Stuke shows her photographs in two tableauxs bearing the title CCTV, which have been selected and put together from photos from the years 2001 until 2003.
Inspired by the monitor and camera photos of surveillance cameras which permanently and unknown get their motives in their sight, seemingly autonomous yet guided, Stuke reproduces comparable moments from her own monitor, using photos she has filmed before in urban surroundings from different perspectives, partly using a very strong zoom, with her video camera.
Thus she finds her pictures in hindsight, when going through her material, in the process of the planned forward and backward of her video film. The middle format camera creates moments full of strange tension which by enlarging turn to screen patterns and sign-like images.

Searching for the informations expressing exactly this specific vagueness Katja Stuke creates strong images which rather should be called visual pieces of continuation. Their decidedly detailed view and the seemingly amateurish attitude mark an in-between and transfer the completion of the picture or the sequence to a complete story to the imagination of the viewer. Thereby the artist reminds us of the limits and the always necessary overcoming of the radius of our imaginations, of pre-judgements and guesses which in the worst case can lead to misinterpretations. Used as a means of anticipation it can also involve safeguard and innovative potential.

Oliver Siebers works follow a different, nonetheless related model of perception, comprising two analogue corpuses of work. Starting from two distinguishable models of urban housing, a high rise tower block in Berlin near the Alexanderplatz and a settlement of semidetached houses in Düsseldorf-Lörick, he shows architectural photographs as well as series of portraits of the respective residents, which were taken in 2003.

As with previous projects of Sieber – one thinks of the thematically structured portraits of blind people, the aforementioned female soccer players or the Skinsmodsted series – his work is again founded on a consequently claimed concept. His motivation is a never tiring interest in the human being and his or her surroundings, which he transfers to methodically spaced series.
The portraits linked to the specific kinds of housings seem at a first glance not much different from his previous works. For the portraits of the residents he showed the limited detail of the head or bust image, reminding us of passport pictures. Here as well his “model” look past the camera objective in relative frontality or with a slight twist towards the camera.

But unlike the previous portraits people are not standing in front of a bright background but what looks like a black fond. But this is only the result of a new flashing technique used for the exhibited photographs, which consequently shut out the real surroundings at the same time highlighting the features. Thus the people portrayed become a homogeneous group, gaining in individuality by their belonging to a certain model of urban housing.

Furthermore the black fond serves as a kind of stage setting, meeting the architectural photographs which have been taken against a blackened sky. Even considering the sharp focus of Sieber’s photographs – which is the result of using a large-format camera – this points at the ambivalent relation between photo and reality.
On the one hand we are face to face with people of different background and age – Oliver Sieber knows a lot of stories about them, like the rocket scientist in the Berlin tower block who came from the former DDR who is critical of any form of housing which divides into lots, or the family in the house in Lörick, where three generations are living under one roof with their au-pair. On the other hand Sieber’s composition take on a model-like appearance and by the artistic means used in creating them are meant to characterise the portraits in the mentioned way.
Like Katja Stuke, Oliver Sieber looks for the history of people, for their present and past, for questions and answers which he postulates himself: “What makes people different who live in different models of housing; do they differ at all? What do people think about the way of living? Do they live there by coincidence or have they willingly chosen their situation and for what reasons?”
The answers one might get to these questions are probably as varied as peoples’ histories, as their architecture or their furniture. One of these answers has been written down. What follows is a passage from one Martin Sokol’s texts which accompany the photography in the artists’ book that has been published with the exhibition under the title Citizen’s Handbook (Schaden Verlag, Köln).

Martin Sokol: “Everything speeded up, when the refugees finally had the money to free themselves from the small rented rooms. Half of Germany moved into own houses or at least in new, more spacious high rise residential blocks. Into towers with elevators, waste disposal units and broad balconies. Everywhere the homesteads arose from the misty river landscapes. High rise blocks with semi-detached houses, high rise blocks with rows of garages. In this world of clinker bricks and sandstone each new residents would jump a little higher up the social ladder. Refugees became house owners, workers became employees, soldiers became fathers. The workers lived in residential blocks ten storeys high, with flat roofs made from asbestos cement. The employees lived in residential blocks five storeys high, with an elevator. The ambitious ones lived in small semi-detached houses, which meandered like cooling ribs around the new high rise blocks. As little children we played in huge sandpits, the mothers played in pathetic front gardens and the fathers in dark garages.”