Marco Breuer is best known for the photographs that he makes without using a camera. (He does other sorts of photography, but this body of work is largely what we know about his endeavors). Rather than pointing at a moment that is gone, and wresting fixity from flux, as photographs are said to do, Breuer acknowledges the triumph of instability, with its attendant manifestations of destruction and demise.
By subjecting the photograph’s material nature to a variety of physical interventions (heat, folding, scratching), Breuer subverts the timelessness we associate with the photographic image, while conveying time’s ravaging effects on the photograph itself. Nothing escapes infinity’s embrace. (The other photographer who recognizes this incontrovertible fact is Miroslav Tischy, who, in nearly every other way, resides on the opposite end of the spectrum from Breuer.)
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For Breuer, sublime beauty and stark terror are inseparable. This is what the poet Rainer Maria Rilke famously wrote in the first “Duino Elegy:”
…. For beauty is nothing but
the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear,
and we revere it so, because it calmly disdains
to destroy us.
The universe’s disdain for life is the lucid mirror Breuer looks into — as well as holds up to us. His scarred sheets of luminous paper exist on the brink between here (the present) and there (the future, which is all-consuming infinity). The idea that one can make something eternal may be a necessary fiction, but Breuer recognizes it as necessary nonetheless. His consciousness of time’s dominion is what distinguishes his photographs from the work of photographers who don’t use a camera (Adam Fuss).
For all of their affinities, there is a distinction that I would like to make between Breuer and Rilke. Rilke’s “Duino Elegies” brim with longing. The poet has shaped a deep, inchoate cry into a most beautiful and poignant music. Breuer’s photographs are irreparably scarred. They are intimations of mortality, the beginnings of time’s answer to Rilke’s question: “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the Angelic/Orders?” The feelings of anonymity that Breuer’s work embraces — the folds he makes in his photographs could be done by anyone — subverts the lyric “I” animating Rilke’s poems. Breuer questions the “I,” rather than denying it, as so many theorists, who believe in historical time rather than real time, do.
* * *
Marco Breuer was born in Landshut, Germany in 1966 (a decade after Andreas Gursky, who was born in Leipzig in 1955). He first came to New York in 1990 and, like many others before him, used the city’s diverse resources to educate himself: he learned papermaking, bookbinding and printmaking at different places, as well as spent a lot of time in the Museum of Modern Art’s print study room. After traveling back and forth between New York and Germany, he moved here in 1993.
In his insightful and informative essay, “The Material in Question” in Early Recordings (Aperture, 2007), Mark Alice Durant writes about Gursky, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth — all of whom were students of Hilla and Bern Becher at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf — as becoming “the near-exclusive representatives of German photographic practice. And theirs was a style to which Breuer’s modest, economical, and more personal works were almost diametrically opposed.”
By advancing that there is only one correct position occupied by those working in a certain medium, the marketplace and other institutions knowingly help suppress, overlook and ignore the heated dialogue unfolding among various artists. The effect is deleterious to the situation, if only because it encourages viewers to develop habits of seeing and thinking that sidestep the questions artists fold into their work.
* * *
Breuer defines a different philosophical position from photographers who use a camera. Rather than capturing an image with a camera or downloading it from a computer, he is, as he told Tiffany Jow in an interview:
… attempt[ing] to strip down the photographic process, to remove the distractions of equipment, and to force imagery out of photographic paper itself. I am interested in the intersection of photography and drawing: the negotiation of the illusionistic space of photography versus the concrete space of the physical mark.
While Breuer modestly claims to be “interested in the intersection of drawing and photography,” I would advance that he helped define and shape its intersection with his hybrid, uncategorizable works — that he is an innovative photographer.
If we heed Durant’s description that, in his work, Breuer is “diametrically opposed” to Gursky and his peers, I think it would be useful to put their work in dialogue, rather than sequestering them in different ghettoes. As with its real-life counterpart, contemporary society, I believe a healthier and livelier conversation would ensue.
* * *
In Condition, his current exhibition at Von Lintel Gallery, Breuer is showing sixteen works. All of them were made of chromogenic sheets, the chemically-layered paper used to make color photographs or C-prints, which Breuer subjected to a range of conditions: exposure; folding; heat; scratching; abrasion. In earlier bodies of work, he chewed and sanded the paper. He once fired a shotgun into a box of paper, curious to see what would happen. He is a rigorous and relentless experimenter.
The works in the show are divided into two color groups: largely black and luminous turquoise blue. I think of them as the photographer’s equivalents of labor and leisure.
The photographs are vertical rectangles of varying sizes, with none bigger than 32 x 25 inches. In the ones where black is the predominant color, Breuer often repeatedly folded the paper according to a simple mathematical progression (always in half, for example). Opened back up and smoothed out, the paper would be a grid made of deep creases. Exposing the black paper to light as well as heating its surface caused other changes and colors to emerge. Rather than preserving a moment in a photograph and making it seem timeless, the grid structure, the abrasions and gouged surfaces, underscores that the photograph has endured time. The grid also evokes labor, the same thing done over and over.
These effects further the anonymity implied in the authorship of these photographs. The various processes and changes that Breuer initiates don’t convey touch or any of the states we associate with drawing. And yet, the marks certainly don’t feel arbitrary or accidental. I feel as if I am looking at — scrutinizing, really — detritus, which evokes all the photographs that have been taken and are now lost or destroyed. Or perhaps I am examining the residue of an unnamed catastrophe. These are some of associations that come to mind while looking at Breuer’s work, inflecting my experience of them.
In the photographs where Breuer achieves a luminous turquoise blue, I don’t think I am alone in recalling the blue you see in commercial photographs of a tropical ocean on a calm day. The color evokes leisure; it is a widely recognized sign for an elemental paradise resort, a Club Med without bothersome people to interfere with your hedonistic pleasure.
Still, even Breuer’s blue photographs are irrevocably scarred, their luminous surfaces full of abrasions and gouges. Are we looking at the aftermath, or a momentary cessation of an ongoing process? The destruction might have been halted, but their looming presence is never denied.
Condition is on view at Von Lintel Gallery (520 West 23rd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 23.
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