by Kea Wienand
Nichts passiert (Nothing Happened) is the title of the present catalogue and the 2017 solo exhibition at the Galerie Herold, Bremen, in which Norbert Bauer presented a selection of his works from 2012 to 2017. This slogan can be read as a simple comment on the present: nothing changes, things will stay as they are. It could likewise be understood as an attempt to avert sudden and essentially unwanted attention. Last but not least, however, the title flirts with the artist’s trivializing assessment of his own practice—nothing has happened in recent years, and nothing is happening in the here and now. Thus the title of the exhibition counters the craving for sensation and the appetite for something new as well as the way in which these needs are fed and promoted in terms of the media and in particular visually—and to which artistic practice somehow has to react.
Norbert Bauer produces his paintings almost exclusively based on images he encounters while sifting through the media. His source material includes photographs found in newspapers or on the Internet and stills from documentaries or feature films. He is interested in motifs that were produced by means of visual technologies and designed, published, and disseminated in vast numbers in what are regarded as fleeting media. He commits them to canvas in a distinct process of copying, enlarging, tracing, rendering as a drawing, and painting. In doing so, the images are broken down into individual color fields and different tonal values. Depending on how large the selected detail was and how high the degree of resolution is, the motif can still be recognized as representational, or it becomes an abstract pattern that seems to consist of organically shaped pixels. Ultimately, the artistic process, which is reminiscent what has meanwhile become everyday digital image processing and which is in part used, unmistakably results in a meticulous handcraft that was carried out slowly and required a lot of time. At the same time, it has less to do with the individual brushstroke that would be recognized as the artist’s signature; instead, what is important are the motif and its mediality, the selected detail, as well as its painterly execution. The manual transfer of existing, technically generated images into the medium of painting is confronted with more of an anonymous technical image production that supposedly took place at the push of a button and at the same time focuses on its specific properties. When in Die Verhältnisse (Relations, 2016) a photograph of Herbert Marcuse showing him at a lectern in the midst of students has been separated into color fields and reduced to only a few shades, the choice of this image is definitely indicative of an interest in left-wing social theory. However, what is opened up here is in particular the inquiry into the media-related staging of the philosopher, his position in the space, the light-dark contrasts, the perspective, and additional pictorial tools that cause him to manifest as a shining light in a somewhat jumbled crowd of young people. At the same time, the painting comes across as spatial, not as a surface structure but like a magical figure, and potentiates Roland Barthes’s statement that photography, which in this case is painting, is an ”emanation of past reality.”1
For some time now, Norbert Bauer has also been increasingly rendering visual effects in his works that are randomly produced by visual technologies and are generally considered to be interference, such as printer stripes or the rasters of the Moiré effect in painting, for example in Streifen (1)andStreifen (2) (Stripes, 2012).2 The technical image generation process and its own aesthetics become subtly apparent in these paintings. Reference is once more made to its original technical conditionality and to the fact that the imaging modalities of the camera can never reproduce reality in a neutral way. However, similar effects also occur in photographs of elements or phenomena, which challenge the phototechnical process due to their material quality. Snowflakes, or rather images of snowflakes, are the motifs processed in the paintings (Schnee) 3 ([Snow] 3, 2014), Portal (2016), and Schnee (Snow, 2014). Especially snow is difficult to capture with the camera, and the result is often blurred, appears as a light reflex, and evidently causes the occurrence of a visual impression rather than a likeness. Such a photograph may be visually interesting, but strictly speaking it torpedoes the aspiration generally associated with photography of rendering an objective picture of reality. Rather, the indexical trace that the flakes leave on the photographs makes reference to the physical and chemical constitution of the photographic process itself. Rendered in paint, the flakes ultimately become colorless flecks in which the painting seems to dissolve. In Portal, the white snowflakes are at least pictorial elements of equal value alongside the blurred forms of grand, neoclassicist architecture that are also discernable, which was presumably the actual motif of the reference photograph. The antique-like columns recognizable in the painterly rendering, the balustrade, and the snow-covered steps behind the white light reflexes likewise manifest as photographic effects and forfeit their dominant architectural presence and monumental appearance.
It is these ultimately still discernible transformations of the motif that constitute the visual experience of Norbert Bauer’s paintings and their extraordinary appeal. There is something slow as well as something subjective and oriented toward a certain length of time in his pictures; they become palpable as material objects, and at the same time the depictions retain something of the character of fleeting reference images that aim at speed or rapid dissemination. At the same time, the motifs and their various methods of pictorial composition interlock in a peculiar way. What is addressed and inquired into are the possibilities and impossibilities of visual technologies, the mutual dependency of visibility and invisibility, and ultimately the various potential effects of photography, film, and painting, their perception, and their use itself. Walter Benjamin examined the relationship between traditional artistic media and mechanical, reproductive media in the early twentieth century. In 1936 he framed what at the time was the pioneering consideration that the effect of works of art changes decisively with the potential of its mechanical reproduction.3 Mechanical reproduction and its inherent aesthetic has itself been the subject of artistic examination—especially in painting—at the latest since the sixties. Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, as well as Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, and Luc Tuymans have copied photographs and film stills both from the context of the mass media as well as of personal use. They use painting to respond to the world as conveyed by the media, create pictures that open the perception of current media and the media themselves up to question. What comes into view in the process is not only the mediated character of any experience of reality and the increasing visual rendering of everyday life, which is advancing even further along with digital image production, but also the specific singularities, potentials, as well as limitations of the various imaging techniques. Norbert Bauer has been intervening in this artistic discourse since the beginning of his artistic practice with his own methods and his own pictorial repertoire.
The motifs produced under the heading of Nichts passiert are predominantly pictures of places and situations in nature as well as natural phenomena or their visual effects, such as, for example, snow, as previously mentioned. The places and situations depicted are for the most part devoid of people. Their technical mediatedness, which is also still visible in the paintings, at the same time suggests that something must have happened there shortly before or thereafter that at least attracts attention in retrospect. The monochrome color palette with muted, predominantly dark shades of red used in many of the paintings assembled here intensifies the association with a picture from the past or a gradually recurring memory. The chromaticity resembles the red tint that appears on older color photographs and films when the sensitive blue and green colorants have broken up due to chemical processes of decay. Night photographs are also often red-tinged, or pictures that were taken during sunrise or sunset, when the light intensity lessens and the shades of blue and yellow, which are regarded as clear and cool, disappear. Red is a dark color and close to black; it is considered to be warm and creates something cozy that, however, can also quickly change into something uncanny.
This is the case in the large-format painting Kleine Lichtung (Small Clearing, 2016), on the floor of which one sees tree trunks, branches lying about, a tree stump, fern, et cetera. The overall impression is dark; the dominant red is largely nearly black, like in a dense forest at night. It is several of the brightly accentuated—illuminated or luminous—branches that attract attention at first; then one sees a dark hole in the ground. Without any knowledge about the context from which the reference was taken, one can only speculate what might have happened here. Because according to our media experience, that something must have happened here is obvious. As soon as a place that has been photographed is deserted it becomes a crime scene, stirring the viewer—Walter Benjamin also mentioned this in the above-mentioned essay.4 One might believe that the painting is based on a photograph that served to document evidence of a crime. However, the viewer is kept in the dark about whether the hole was dug for the purpose of disposing of a body, whether it was a hideout or a camp, or whether it perhaps only developed as a black spot within one of the imaging techniques. Without an explanation, one cannot identify what one sees in the picture. The reference image already rendered something visible that ultimately cannot be made visible and is up to the imagination.
For the painting The People(2015), the detail of the reference image was selected, enlarged, and rendered in such a way that the one can no longer even guess what the motif is. It consists of visually attractive, pixeled, reddish color fields and thus even more strongly recalls the necessary artificiality of any photographic or filmic image. The title vaguely hints at something that cannot actually be made visible, but only imagined. When the artist says that he used a photograph of Taksim Square in Istanbul that was taken during the protests there in 2013 and that what one sees is actually a cloud of tear gas, it becomes apparent in how many respects forms of visibility and invisibility, of vision, can and do evade the gaze, are associated with power and violence, and are enmeshed in one another. In these considerations, the visual itself becomes manifest as a field of social interaction that is shaped by changes, often depends on details, and is also always a contested field. The imaginations that proceed from, or better, take place on it prove to be a constitutive part of any visualization and play (have always played?) a substantial role in visual culture.
An ambivalence between representational realism and abstraction, between making something visible and yet leaving it unidentifiable, but also between something clearly symbolical and something left to the imagination can also be found in the pictures of fire that Bauer has been painting since 2008. Several of them feature campfires, such as two paintings from the Feld (Field, 2014) ensemble; by contrast, others confront us with a literal wall of fire, such as Feuer 1–5 (Fire 1–5, 2012). In these paintings as well, the original motif photographed with a camera has been broken up into color fields that by, comparison seem, particularly angular, with edges and jags. In some of his paintings, the element of fire come across as tamed and a source of warmth and light; in others, on the other hand, they seem uncontrollable and extend beyond the boundaries of the picture. The point of departure for Bauer devoting himself to fire paintings was a story told to him by a friend who witnessed how, at the border between Guatemala and Mexico, migrants and other border crossers established temporary communities with their own economies, and how they assembled at night around the campfire. Thus communities are formed that partially evade the control and the visibility of the migration regime before they attempt to cross the more or less visible national borders. Fire can operate as a symbol for these temporary communities, but also for a specific atmosphere in this intermediate nocturnal space. Moreover, fire is considered to be something that engenders visibility5 or defies control; at the same time it is an element that tends to evade representational depiction and is itself essentially a process of transformation.
In terms of Michel Foucault’s analysis of power, images—this also becomes evident when reading the Nichts passiert paintings—are productive: Norbert Bauer’s works suggest what sort of tremendous potential and forces are at work in the area of the visual. Exactly what they engender is not always predictable and occasionally evades the intended purpose, for example a controlling or documenting one. These latter, specifically productive aspects of images and their aesthetic potential are also taken up in the work 2007-02-09CET19:00:02(2017). The title suggests that in this case an image from a surveillance camera was processed. In a multistep process of enlarging, transferring, and translating into different colors, the night shot by a surveillance camera is transformed into an abstract all-over painting. Predominantly pink and several yellow areas cover the canvas; orange-reddish color shades are produced at those places they overlap. In the lower section, the eye rests on several dark spots, only to then follow the almost psychedelic color fields again. The purpose of the original image, which was to document what occurs in front of the surveillance camera, does not seem to have been fulfilled and is reduced to absurdity by being translated into a large-format painting. The objective that is associated with monitoring public and private space by camera is defeated. The barely visible streaks, color fields, stripes, and so on that are produced during the technical production of images have been translated into bright colors and a colorful pattern.
Norbert Bauer recently further pursued this play with technically generated images that engender something in the course of their origination process that does not correspond with their actual purpose and apparently deny any logic in a series of pencil drawings on paper.
The work Text (2017) consists of enlarged and copied—in large part presumably automatically generated—e-mail messages whose succession of words violate grammatical and orthographic rules to such an extent that they in part no longer make sense. At the same time, some of the e-mails have almost completely lost their sign character; in some cases, words and sentences can still be made out, but in many cases there is no longer any syntax—or there never was any. Several drawings feature simple rows of letters, such as “fdsfdsf,” and word combinations in which words like “Sicherheit” (security) or phrases such as “gehen sie folgendermaßen vor, um ihr E-Mail-Konto zu aktualisieren” (proceed as follows in order to update your e-mail account) can be read but whose meaning cannot be deciphered. Digital errors are fascinating and at the same time uncanny; the logic of an exchange of e-mail—an everyday interaction, however, that only few people understand in terms of technology—collapses and makes one aware of the intermediary processes, but also makes them uncanny: Is the system itself now writing messages to you?
By contrast, the work US-Marine (2012) initially seems clearer. The reference material for the series of wash drawings are captioned photographs taken by a marine with which he illustrates his deployment to the American military base in Cuba, the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, in his own blog. The motifs and their explanations are odd; sometime the soldier simply makes reference to the fact that he can be seen swimming or performing other activities, and then he took a picture of the impact hole made by a bullet with which a comrade wounded himself, and in another picture he simply documents a lookout. The sketchy translation into drawings raises the question of what these published but somehow personal renderings actually show. What is their (unconscious) purpose—above all in the context of a highly controversial military mission? What do they conceal and whitewash? Or what could possibly become visible with them? Along with these works, the statement “nothing happened” takes a different turn. In one painting, a female figure claims that “es ist schön hier” (it’s beautiful here)—a caption he borrowed that also constitutes the title: Es ist schön hier (2017). However, the fact that one can only trust this statement to a limited extent is obvious.6 Norbert Bauer’s works sound out visual culture and the images he encounters, also with respect to their powerful effects, potentials, and purposes. What becomes increasingly clear when contemplating them is that these can work in different directions.
1 Roland Barthes, CameraLucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York; Hill and Wang, 1981), p. 88.
2 The term “Glitch Art” has recently established itself for artistic works that examine errors or interference in analog or digital image media and work with their aesthetics; on this, cf. Luca Kriener “‘Glitch Art’ als Dekonstruktion der fotografischen Illusion: Semiotische Fotografie mit Barthes und Peirce,” Medien Observationen (2015), www.medienobservationen.de (accessed in October 2017).
3 Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Shocken Books, 1968). German original from 1936.
4 Ibid., p. 226.
5 Plato referred to fire as an element that allows the world to be experienced sensuously, which means that it makes it visible; on this, cf. Gernot Böhme and Hartmut Böhme, Feuer, Wasser, Erde, Luft: Eine Kulturgeschichte der Elemente (Munich: Beck, 2004), p. 101.
6 The source material for this painting is a still from a documentary about the so-called Jonestown massacre, the in part forced mass suicide of nearly one thousand members of the People’s Temple sect in 1978. The film was shot by a camera team that just one day prior to that had accompanied an American congressman on his visit to Jonestown for the purpose of following up on rumors about torture and detention.