Kaja Silverman: Photography by Other Means

Guest Writer: Jennifer Bliss

Monday, October 27, 2008

posted under , , by Unit for Criticism
Written by Jennifer Bliss (Comparative Literature)

As someone with only partial knowledge of Kaja Silverman's books and the works of Gerhard Richter, I prepared myself for the possibility of a lecture that might fly right over my head. Instead, on Friday afternoon I listened to a deceptively clear and accessible talk by Silverman on Richter's work and his relationship to German history and the field of visual culture. I say "deceptively clear" only because now, as I sit here attempting to collect my notes and thoughts, I find it rather difficult to summarize her talk while still doing it justice. (Perhaps there is a reason why her talk lasted nearly two and a half hours!)

Silverman began her talk by establishing Richter's art as works of "analogy," or a relationship of two or more things based on varying degrees of similarity. Analogies, according to Silverman and her Richter-inspired interpretation, work to neutralize our tendency to see things hierarchically as "either/or" or "identification / antithesis." The primary analogy that Silverman establishes is between figuration—that is, the close representation of reality, i.e. photography—and abstraction (i.e. abstract painting). Rather than being seemingly opposing tendencies, Silverman argues that Richter actually brings these two concepts closer together in his photo-paintings (paintings that trace a photograph on the canvas and then, while the paint is still wet, are blurred to varying degrees through the artist's use of a squeegee).

From this analogy, Silverman expanded her discussion of Richter to touch on a number of specific photo-paintings, putting them in conversation not only with the source photographs but with one another. The analogous paintings that seemed particularly significant were the series of Holocaust images, the Baader-Meinhof images, and the images of Richter's daughter Betty. In putting these three series of photo-paintings into analogous relations with one another, Silverman (via Richter) draws closer to the major connection she is trying to make: on Silverman’s account, Richter views history through the analogy between figuration and abstraction.

Perhaps this relationship would be clearer if Silverman had given a little more historical information concerning the Baader-Meinhof group in particular. For those who are not familiar with the Red Army Faction terrorist group, this website might be helpful in this respect. The sympathy and even tenderness with which Richter treats the images of Gudrun Ensslin and Ulrike Meinhof place them clearly in the position of victims. Silverman seems to be arguing that Richter approaches this period of German history in a similar way to the period of National Socialism—by acknowledging the victims' innocence and, simultaneously, his own place within those historical moments. Our standpoint as viewers (and Richter's as artist) puts us into the position of the state and of surveillance, thus acknowledging our own role in sanctioning the violence of the state. Yet there is a redemptive quality to Richter's images that, as Silverman says, "saves" the RAF members from the eternal death and disfiguration that the original source photographs create.

Moreover, by echoing the images of Ensslin and Meinhof in images of his daughter Betty, Richter conflates past, present and even future. Keeping Silverman's interpretation of the Baader-Meinhoff images in conversation with the representations of Betty, Richter's works seem to bring together a troubled past and an unknown, but optimistic, future. The image of Betty looking back at one of Richter's own pieces highlights this conflation of time, too, while also recalling Walter Benjamin's figure of the Angel of History. Richter's relationship to history seems to fit into Silverman's first analogy, the relationship between figuration and abstraction. Richter's works are both representations of reality or history, and emotional, individual, somewhat abstract responses to what Silverman calls "the infinite," or that which "lies outside of our perceptual world."


Make A Comment