Contre-jour: On the activation of the images in Jochem Hendricks’ “Revolutionary Archive”, 2015
Text for the book “Revolutionäres Archiv”, Verlag Walther König, 2015 / Doris Krystof is a curator at Kunstsammlung NRW, Dusseldorf
Where is the material from which art is made?
The half-length portrait of a young man with light, long hair, facing the observer and gazing out of the image, is the first of a series of photographic and filmed images that concept artist Jochem Hendricks exhibited under the title “Crime–Terror–Riot” before renaming the set “Revolutionary Archive” in 2014. The wiry, blonde man on the catalog cover who has casually stuck his sunglasses into the neckline of his white sleeveless shirt is pointing the camera directly at us, the viewers. While the round black disc of the camera lens is thrust in front of half of his face, the other half of his face is scrunched up beyond recognition as he tightly squints his visible eye. To the blonde man’s left someone is holding up a dark shirt to hide behind. A few passers-by can be made out, blurred, in the background, which is urban, and all of them seem to be young people. Two of them have turned around and are looking towards the man with the camera in the center of the image from the right and left edges of the photograph. The landscape-format black-&-white photograph seems masterfully interlaced with metaphorical superimpositions and correspondences. Opposing poles, such as taking photographs and being photographed, revealing and concealing, seeing and (not) being seen, inner and out pictorial space, meld to create a complex mesh of visual lines, symmetrical axes and a Golden section. References to photographic theory from Roland Barthes to Susan Sontag are in play here, and obvious catchphrases coming to mind, such as “having someone in your sights”, “the Canon as cannon”, “shot and reverse shot” reveal the political poignancy the image holds. But what are we really looking at here? Who is taking whose photograph and who is shielding themselves? When it comes down to purely technical means, the long-haired man is at a clear advantage given the way the subject matter is lit, for the man is seen against the light in this summery scene, while whatever he is photographing would have been ideally illuminated by the sun in his back.
This image is not in fact concerned with photographic subtleties. What we are actually seeing is an anonymous snapshot, which Hendricks has intentionally enhanced with artistic means by exposing it skillfully, selecting this particular section of the image and producing a high-quality print of it on expensive barite paper. The fact that Magdalena Kopp, professional photographer and ex-member of terrorist group Revolutionary Cells, played a substantial part in the making of this artwork, will be discussed in depth later on. It first bears saying that the photograph with the long-haired photographer is part of an ensemble of police photographs taken during undercover investigations – and these form the starting point to Hendricks’ archive project. This collection of film reels, photographic negatives, contact sheets and photographs filed in folders from the years 1973 through to 1985 turned out to be a real treasure trove. The images take us back to an extremely volatile chapter in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany. Extreme left-wing terrorism, the anti-nuclear movement, the opposition to the NATO Double-Track Decision and the arms race all form the backdrop to the images compiled in the “Revolutionary Archive”. They illustrate how public life in the last two decades of the Cold War was dominated by fear and hysteria, driven by student protest and political radicalization, on the one hand, and the police surveillance state expanding both in terms of technology and manpower in order to preserve “inner security”, on the other.
To begin with, Hendricks’ artistic reworking of the material consisted of his selecting images from the salvaged collection, re-formatting (in part by digitalizing the images) and editing them, grouping them or declaring them stand-alone images and, in some cases, giving them titles. For example, “Sponti (1976/2011)” was the title on the sign next to the photo of the long-haired blonde man, shown as a single image in a mount and frame in Hendricks’ exhibition in Zürich in 2012. The generalizing and now outdated 1970s slang term helps overcome the anonymity of the person shown, who is recorded again in a second photograph in the “Revolutionary Archive” (ill. p. 109). The “Sponti” can be seen full-figure and in profile in this second photograph. Wearing rolled-up jeans and clogs on his bare feet, he points his camera to the right while crouching like a cat about to jump. Evidently the man with the high-end camera, a participant in a mass rally in the town center of Frankfurt sparked in protest to the visit by South African Prime Minister B. J. Voster on June 24, 1976 attracted police attention. Apparently he not only managed to hide his face and thereby safeguard his identity, he opted for active resistance by taking a picture of the police officer photographing him, maybe for his own archive.
The images from Hendricks’ “Revolutionary Archive” captivate audiences through the single-minded professional and functional gaze they possess. Despite their documentary style they reveal hardly any actual information about the people, places or events depicted or the circumstances under which they were taken. In keeping with the place where these photographs were found, they are mostly pictures taken in the Frankfurt region. Documented are, among other things, a bank robbery in the Neu Isenburg suburb, an arson attack on a shopping center in downtown Frankfurt, and a mass demonstration on the Römerberg. Images of the protests against the construction of the West Runway at Frankfurt Airport can be found alongside images of the release of five terrorists in response to Berlin Minister of the Interior Peter Lorenz being taken hostage. Other photographs from the collection provide an insight into the daily routine of the police force. Policemen here photographed each other during target practice (in everyday clothes) or while waiting to be deployed (in uniform).
Finally, countless images from Hendricks’ “Revolutionary Archive” exhibit an unconventional form of representation. The camera focusses on details important to the investigations like a bullet hole, a dashboard or a burst window pane. The unique mix between documentation, anonymous archive, visual information and nostalgic everyday flair provides a haunting yet somewhat seemingly blurry insight into the atmosphere of the times preserved in Hendricks’ selection. But only, and this is what is special about this archive, in order to unfold itself anew every time the work is presented. It is not by chance that 2011, the year the “Revolutionary Archive” was established, was also the year that saw the events at the Tahrir Square unfold as part of the so-called Arab Spring – the revolutions driven by media images.
Interest in the aesthetic of the archive has been playing a role in art since Modernism. Collecting and archiving imply a notion of triumphing over time and in this they are a central motif of artistic work. Marcel Duchamp’s “Boîte-en- valise”, Marcel Broodthaer’s “Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles” with its paraphrasing of hierarchy, order and collection and the personal albums of Vestigial Art, with its protagonists Christian Boltanski and Annette Messager, have elevated collecting and exhibiting to artistic practice. The closed box, the undiscovered, rare find from outside of the art system, not to mention the seemingly scientific sequence and a certain dryness in terms of materials all have a charming side in artistic archives without these needing to adhere to the strict logical criteria of a real archive. Photographic collections are especially popular in contemporary art. The compilation of found, mainly documentary and often anonymous material is frequently geared at a “politics of rendering visible”. Closely connected to the concept of archiving, these projects also often give rise to artistic statements on the media structure of images. For example, Hans-Peter Feldmann’s photo book “Die Toten, 1967–1993” (The Dead, 1967–1993) brings together over a hundred press images of persons who have died in the context of left-wing protest and terrorism. Feldmann operates with the sheer number of dead without making a distinction between perpetrators and victims, uncovering their biographies and the circumstances of their deaths, thereby saving the dead from oblivion. The connection between “Fotografie und Gedenken” (photography and commemoration, the title of an essay by Diedrich Diederichsen on Feldmann), plays a part in many other artistic works. One of the most prominent examples is Gerhard Richter’s 1987 series of paintings based on photographs and entitled “18. Oktober 1977”, in which the memory of the left-wing terrorists who committed suicide in Stammheim prison in 1977 is smoothed over in dark grey paint. Other collections of images, such as Peter Piller’s subtly topically curated collections of press photographs, lay emphasis on the grotesque side of published images, while American artist Zoe Leonard has combined photography and remembrance with the aspect of the utopian. Her “Fae Richards Archive” (1999) is made up of an image archive put together to illustrate the life of successful lesbian black actress Fae Richards, arranged in shallow desk vitrines. This archive does not document reality but formulates a desirable ideal, which can be seen in the fact that all of the documents and photos are fake – all of them are stained with tea in best forger’s fashion in order to pass off as a set of images accompanying a mid-20th century life.
In the 21st century, the digital revolution has closed the gap even further between spontaneous, real, accidental or documentary images, on the one hand, and constructed, narrative, artistically planned and artificially made images, on the other. In a fine arts context saturated with narrative and theatrical practices everything suitable for documenting reality is also equally suitable for simulating reality. Documenta 10 (1997 by Catherine David) and Documenta 11 (2002, by Okwui Enwezor) are often cited as milestones in contemporary art’s increasing focus on things documentary. This trend has doubtless also decisively influenced Hendricks’ “Revolutionary Archive”. The 2002 Documenta in particular saw many works that looked like reportages presented in an arts context. These elaborated on the diversity of realities in a globalized world. At the time, Tom Holert wrote a catchy description of the so-called docu-displays at Documenta 11: “Art in a ‘documentary mode’ presents the prospect of multiple ways of accessing the real”. The interest in documentary modes of working that flared up around the year 2002 was characterized, according to Holert, by a desire for a “object that acts as a corrective to the artistic image”. Yet this wish reflects artistic aspirations to “overcome those types of knowledge production generally associated with the documentary in a move towards the fictional and poetic”.
Hendricks’ approach is also characterized by both a fundamental questioning of the artistic image and by a joyful debunking of absurd classification systems paired with a playful-anarchistic impulse. He has penetrated fictional, fraudulent and sometimes barely legal spheres in many of his works. For example, Hendricks executed the installation Maxisockel, a white, tower-like construction, for an exhibition at Kunstverein Freiburg in 2002. A documentary video explained that visitors would be viewing stolen objects on the three floors of the tower: “ranging from four valuable Barcelona Chairs (designed by Mies van der Rohe) to thousands of screws and brackets, a bottle of champagne, a lipstick, hundreds of CDs and books to the material the plinth itself is made of.” Here, the artist trod a fine line between law and illegality and Hendricks has not left it to this day. According to curator Dorothea Strauss, the exhibition in Freiburg deliberately left the question undecided whether the objects exhibited really had been stolen or whether visitors were just looking at a clever communications ploy. However, a short while after the exhibition Hendricks was targeted by Hamburg police investigating the robbery of a small Giacometti sculpture from Hamburger Kunsthalle. The wrongly accused artist immediately reacted to the denunciations with a new artwork. Figurine sans bras (avec police) (1956–2002) consists of (a replica of) the Giacometti bronze, a CD (with a recording of the telephone call from Hamburg police) and a letter to the director of Hamburger Kunsthalle, in which Hendricks offers to gift his piece to the museum as compensation for the damage incurred through the loss of the stolen Giacometti – an offer that was rebuffed. The amalgamation of criminal and artistic energy creates what Strauss called an “imaginative space” in Hendricks’ work that is geared towards a fundamental questioning of artistic practice in general, poignantly leading to Hendricks’ question: “Where is the material of which art is made from?”
This question leads us back to the increased popularity of the documentary in the art of the early 21st century. To name but one example of many, the exhibition “Dear Aby Warburg, What can be done with images?” (2014, Museum für Gegenwartskunst Siegen) can be cited as showcasing this interest by looking at a very young generation of international artists. The reference to the great collector of images and founder of iconology brought Warburg’s pictorial atlas Mnemosyne into play as a historical benchmark for the aesthetic approach to photographic material in contemporary art. Concept Art and Appropriation Art, with their renunciation of the artist as author/subject, were two further crucial references. But, as curator Eva Schmidt stated as regards the diverse spatial forms of presentation used in Siegen: in view of the numerous collections of photographic images from the most diverse of origins and of quite different types, the main concern regarding is now how they are displayed.
Meanwhile, the question of display seems oddly unimportant when it comes to Hendricks’ “Revolutionary Archive”. The archive is installed in a way that is almost emphatically preliminary and open, and it is organized anew every time the archive is exhibited. One of the ground rules for working with archives is that material must always be exhibited unmodified. Yet Hendricks derives ever new forms of presentation from his archive and is evidently not interested in advancing a fixed installation or an objective artwork. On the contrary, he divides the collection into different portions for each new context and place where the archive goes on show, setting different emphases and creating a performative, active, moving artwork. The trove of images can then be displayed as a simple photography exhibition, as was the case at John Hansard Gallery, Southampton (2012). Or the films are shown, sans photographs, in a video installation, as was the case in the context of the video exhibition “Big Picture/Time Zones” at K21, which dealt with time and narration in cinematographic spaces (Düsseldorf 2012/2013). But the entire ensemble, including original material: photographs and films, plus cabinets with film reels in cans, open document files, contact sheets and so on, may also be put into action, as in Hendricks solo exhibition at Museum Haus Konstruktiv in Zürich in 2012. And, as mentioned above, changes to the titles of individual pieces of to the entire collection are also possible depending on the exhibition context. The material virtually offered itself to the artist in a primal archival state, namely on celluloid. This meant that thinking about how the material would be presented had to precede all decisions regarding exhibition display. The first artistic decision was then in response to the question of how negatives and film reels should be processed. And this is where Magdalena Kopp entered the scene to play a crucial part.
By bringing Magdalena Kopp on board, Hendricks not only employed a brilliant photographer and photographic laboratory assistant for editing the archive. The wife of so-called top terrorist “Carlos the Jackal” and ex-member of the Revolutionary Cells was also a kind of accomplice, who brought her own understanding, attitude and subjective view of the material to the table. Kopp was born in Neu-Ulm in 1948 and trained as a photographer after graduating from high school. She moved to Frankfurt in 1967, where she came in contact with left-wing student circles. She co-founded the Frankfurt “Revolutionary Cells” terrorist group. Members of the group were involved in the attack on the OPEC conference in 1975 and in the hijacking of a plane in 1979. Magdalena Kopp was the partner of internationally wanted terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sánchez, nicknamed Carlos, from 1979 onwards. She contributed to his work as part of his inner circle. In 1982, she was arrested trying to carry out a bomb attack on the Kuwaiti embassy in Paris. After serving a prison sentence, Kopp returned to Carlos and the pair lived in the Syrian capital of Damascus and later in Carlos’ native Venezuela with their daughter Rosa, who was born in 1986. When Carlos was taken into custody in Sudan and extradited to France in 1994, Kopp cooperated with the German authorities and broke with Carlos. She moved back to Bavaria with her daughter in 1995, where she still lives. In 2007, Kopp published a book on her memories of the 13 years with Carlos. In the miniseries “Carlos” biopic by director Olivier Assayas (2010), Magdalena Kopp is played by Nora von Waldstätten. The documentary film “In the Darkroom” by Nadav Schirman (2013) looks at Kopp’s journey as the partner of the so-called top terrorist, who still writes a card to his daughter for her birthday every year to this day.
Hendricks has repeatedly stated that Magdalena Kopp’s cooperation is incredibly important to the work and that she will always be cited as a co-author of the “Revolutionary Archive”. What is important is not just Kopp’s technical virtuosity in printing the photographs, which draws on a soon-to-be-extinct skillset for handling analog photographic material. Kopp’s turbulent life, which was made into several films and books, and which now influences Hendricks’ “Revolutionary Archive”, is just as important.
The politics of rendering things visible that is connected to the archive thus also extends to Kopp’s biography. Alongside the mythical potential that this life story offers, her collaboration adds a link to her lived experience to the project that unfolds in the execution of the “Revolutionary Archive”. When asked what the cooperation with Hendricks means to her, Kopp explained: “I was living in Frankfurt until 1978 and during this time I worked in the dark room with Abisag Tüllmann. I also went to demonstrations and I was in contact with the Revolutionary Cells, working in the dark room for them and forging passports and stamps for them. Later on I met Hannes Weinrich, this was while still living in Frankfurt, and through him I also met Carlos. This is when my odyssey into the underground started. I find this part of my past, as well as the time with Abisag Tüllmann, taking photographs and developing them, strongly reflected in my work on the “Revolutionary Archive”. All of that came back to me when working with Jochem.” In return, Hendrick sees Kopp’s collaboration as adding authenticity and historical testimony to the photographs: “My first fundamental decision consisted of inverting the perspectives, the sides, and turning an ex-terrorist, a potential ‘victim’ of police work into a ‘perpetrator’ in the evaluation of the archive. In a sense, this transformation means that both sides are then shaking hands behind their backs.”
The cooperation with Magdalena Kopp raises the photograph’s symbolism, or the symbolic aspect of the resulting artwork, to a different, real level, which is something that has always been Hendrick’s core interest in all of his artistic output. “How does reality enter my head and what does that do to me?” This question from an interview conducted in 1993 could be taken as a leitmotif for Hendrick’s oeuvre. Many of his formally very diverse works such as Zimmer im Sack (Room in a sack, 1997–1999), Tax (2000), Maxisockel (Maxiplinth, 2002), Figurine sans bras (avec police) (1956–2002), Meute (Mob, 2003–2006) or Cold Birds (2002–2005), Olegs Ohr (Oleg’s ear, 2004–2006) and Luxus Avatar (Luxury avatar, since 2009) take real, existing and current social and economic facts of the world we live in as their starting point. Despite being very different, the works then become comparable as they all include a transformation of real substances, and truth and deception play a role in all of them. Reworked to a lesser or greater degree of intensity, the works are finally brought into circulation in the art circuit as though this process was a way of testing them.
At first glance, Hendrick’s work does not always look like art – not even in the sense of a ready-made or found object. Frames, cabinets, plinths, in short, a more or less museum-like context is therefore essential in the presentation of the works, in order to put the objects in the right light. A real gold bar, a pajama that was actually stolen, the perfect imitation of a Giacometti sculpture, growling fighting dogs that look life-like but are actually only stuffed, canaries dissected in a Russian laboratory: In order to understand what each of Hendricks’ artifacts is about, we need to know the story behind them. Yet we can never be entirely sure whether this story is actually true or not. Did the artist just pretend that the objects in the exhibition in Freiburg were stolen? Or take for example the group of works including the piece 3.281.579 Sandkörner (3,281,597 grains of sand, 1999–2000). Over three million grains of sand bottled up in a glass flacon. Who would care to recount those? Because of course, the glass orb would need to be broken first – thereby destroying the artwork. Hendricks plays with the production of art as he plays with its reception. As the artist Bernhard J. Blume once said, “Hendricks has made the conditions under which the art and communications market operates the subject and topic of his artistic method.”
The “Revolutionary Archive” takes up smoothly from Hendricks’ earlier pieces, as it professes to present seemingly unfiltered reality. But, especially when it comes to the police films recorded with a hand-held camera in Super-8 and 16-mm format, Hendricks has transformed the found material into a highly atmospheric, expansive video installation that is far removed from the original material. The soundless recordings, which seem strangely faded and urgent at the same time, both reinforce each other and level each other out in the transition of concept and material to exhibition and presentation. In the large-scale installation, consisting of several simultaneously projected films flickering across the walls seamlessly around the entire room, the viewer finds himself surrounded, as it were, by un-edited recordings of police operations during demonstrations, protests or in the eviction of squatters. The faded images create a nostalgic atmosphere, while the monotonous stream of images cannot hide the fact that these images are highly controversial. The images seem to be searching for something, they have a certain lurking, almost threatening quality. This is certainly the case when a camera plunges into the throng at a pro-SPD demonstration on Frankfurt’s Römerberg. It glides across the crowd, repeatedly slowing down further in order to focus on small groups of people – as the police searched for what was then known as the “Communist infiltration of the party”. In the sequence showing the exchange of the terrorists from the 2 June Movement at Frankfurt airport, we peer into boxes and travel bags brought from the remand prison, as the police camera glides across book titles, flyers and addresses on letters. The specific perspective and insistent positioning of the camera placed inside the cordoned-off area as the Startbahn-West protesters’ stones fly directly towards the recording device, in the direction of the film maker, is particularly poignant. With the video installation of the “Revolutionary Archive”, Hendricks has created an exciting filmic sphere without a center. Unlike in a feature film, the images are not arranged in any particular, planned sequence. Instead, they just seem to be occurring, they just exist, they seem to be happening almost naturally. The looped videos create a veil of film engulfing the viewer, an endless filmed thread that seems to completely dissolve the walls. The images and scenes, deeply rooted in the German collective consciousness, which viewers may know from television or film depending on their age, rise like shadows of memories in Hendrick’s video installations.
With their return in the “Revolutionary Archive” in the year 2011, these images form something akin to a historical counter-foil to the flood of images of the numerous revolutions that are currently happening across the world.