Memory and desire...

                          —T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

...ma mémoire précédait ma naissance...
                   —Patrick Modiano

   A Luftwaffe pilot in leather cap with goggles perched on his forehead looks to left of camera in a photo studio in Karlsruhe in September 1941, his gaze directed upwards towards eternity.
   A shapely woman wearing headscarf, sunglasses, sweater and tapered slacks stands beside her 1960s Peugeot 404 convertible and enigmatically lifts her right index finger skywards for the benefit of the photographer.
   A lissom teenage girl in a dark jersey swimsuit throws her head back in ecstasy, her eyes closed, somewhere on a Baltic beach, sometime in the mid-1940s, seemingly oblivious to the photograph being taken.
   Marcel Ducellier—thin lips, bowtie and eyepatch— sentenced to life for delivering confidential information to a foreign power, presents an expressionless face to the police photographer, 29 April 1939.
   Two children in Berlin in 1943 look on enraptured as their lit sparklers shimmer before their eyes, providing the sole light source for the photograph being taken...
   Welcome to the Garden of Oblivion, the inexhaustible planetary archive of forgotten photographic images. Anonymous gelatin silver prints, slides, negatives, glass plates and other analogue sources provide the starting point for the interventions shown in the following pages. Long-forgotten snapshots and run-of-the-mill commercial photography are retrieved from oblivion and transformed by the artifices of digital imaging to tell imaginary stories and set imaginary scenes. The imagery of the contemporary world is rigorously banished: what is shown belongs to a fantasized but plausible past, a fictional retroprojection.
   While the entirety of the work is photographically based, photography is used merely as a pretext for what becomes an exercise in post-photography. The artist plays consciously upon photography’s essences and paradoxes: the moment of time frozen into eternity but threatened immediately with forgetfulness and abandon; truth susceptible of being fiction (and vice-versa); the slice of life underwritten by a certain death.

If you really want a mind-altering experience, look at a tree.
                                  —AC Grayling

   Every now and then he imagines what it might be like to be a ‘real’ photographer and to extract from the simple triangulation of human eye, machine and exterior world a pure slice of life, a magical frozen moment.
   But even in digital form he finds the mechanics and minutiae of photography—the f-stops, aperture rings and exposure settings—less than compelling. And as for representing the everyday world, who does it better than the daily press? On every page a masterpiece.
   But more crucially, he finds it hard to believe in the unmediated representation of reality. No, photography for him can only exist at the second degree: repurposed, reframed, distressed, superimposed, double-exposed...
   Nevertheless, image stock is needed and from time to time he picks up his trusty Nikon D80 and goes on safari. Studiously avoiding human beings and their pesky vanities and mannerisms, he chooses the forking path of least resistance that leads to the decaying arboreal splendour of a nearby public park.
   In winter, when the leaves are no longer clothing the naked branches of the trees, the Garden of Oblivion takes on a desolate air. Trodden underfoot, swept by the wind, frozen by frost, the dead leaves provide the starting point. Pick one up and what is banal to the naked eye is rich in detail under the macro lens or the high-resolution scanner. Cropped areas of this absurdly intricate network of veins and connecting tissue, juxtaposed with the scales of epidermis that still remain, look rather like aerial maps of Dresden after the fire-bombings.
   And when the camera pans up towards the trees, the same vertiginous architecture is reproduced, the same apparently haphazard ramifications that are profiled against the dead grey sky like some kind of mescaline-induced scribble.
   But nature snaps—so often banal—are not the object of the exercise: there is work to be done in the lab. The images are mirrored, remirrored and blended to create strange new forms of life. These triffids, these transgenic mutations, these re-engineered freaks conjugate beauty and terror in their wild organic proliferation but art has the final word, imposing its playful symmetries upon the raw material of nature.

   ‘A painting of a photograph is—generally speaking —more interesting than a photograph of a painting’, wrote Jacobo Flores (born Jacques Florès) in one of the moleskine notebooks in which he accumulated aphorisms, reflections and other jottings prior to his self-inflicted death by fire in his studio in 1980 at the age of 37.    The statement resonates for anyone familiar with Flores’ oeuvre and also reveals a posthumous paradox: his work consists—or consisted—of paintings of photographs, paintings that are now largely destroyed and of which all that remains today are the testimonial photographs of the missing paintings, ghostly placeholders for works that no longer exist. These photographs—a selection of which are reproduced here—have now been assembled for the first time by the Belgian scholar Raoul Gendebien in Jacobo Flores: Catalogue raisonné.
   In his introductory essay Gendebien provides the indispensable biographical data without which Flores’ oeuvre fails to yield its full meaning. Born in Paris during the Nazi Occupation (a period that continued to haunt him throughout his life), the artist maintained a difficult relationship with his father, Jean-Paul Florès (Juan Pablo Flores), a Spanish photographer and Republican refugee who always disparaged his son’s ‘primitive’ preference for brushes and paint. His mother, the film actress Chantal Rodenbach, star of various forgettable romps in the 1950s and 1960s (Le Jardin de l’Oubli, Vergüenza torera, Sexy Safari, etc.) appears as a vain and promiscuous character who neglected the education of Jacobo and his adored older sister Marie-Gabrielle, a frequent subject of his painting and a strikingly beautiful free spirit whose tragic death in 1966 at the wheel of her Jaguar XK150 cast a veil of melancholy over Flores’ life from which he never recovered.
   Gendebien, cloaking himself in old-fashioned Freudian garb, draws some startling conclusions from this family psychodrama, detecting an ‘inverted Oedipal relation’ between painting and photography that mirrors the tensions between father and son and positing the existence of an incestuous bond between Jacobo and his sister. However that may be, it can scarcely be denied that when Flores lit the match and threw it to the petrol-soaked floor of his studio that fateful October day, the ensuing conflagration that saw the immolation of both the artist and his work was nothing less than an exorcism of his innermost demons.

   ‘Belvedere Beach,’ write Krebs and Scheidegger in their now-classic guidebook The Diamond Coast, ‘is one of those touristic haunts stamped with the thumbprint of some divine Art Director, where a Mexichrome sun sets dramatically and infallibly on gaily painted skiffs and vagabond Norwegians with nipple-rings, and whose overpriced stores are awash with dreadfully delicate little watercolours peopled with deliquescent fishermen tepidly dissolving into their own typicality.’
   But of course that was well before what are euphemistically known as ‘The Events’ took place. How could the authors have possibly suspected that just a few years after penning their florid prose in praise of this secluded paradise, those twee boutiques would be ransacked by marauding gangs of drugged mercenaries, those globetrotting Scandinavians would be seeking out less troubled climes to flaunt their mammary piercing, and after a series of eco-terrorist attacks at various strategic points along the fabled coast, those picturesque fishermen would be sitting apathetic and threadbare on the jetties and along the shore of Belvedere Beach, gazing mournfully out past the NO BATHING signs at the vast spoiled watery waste that once provided their livelihood?
   Apart from the usual targets—Jews, slim poets, hairdressers—the brutal putsch performed by the so-called Monday Militia sowed terror throughout the population at large, crippled the tourist industry upon which the region was so dependent, and prompted the emergence of a black market for every imaginable commodity.
And yet amidst the fear and the chaos, life continued, especially after dark, in an atmosphere reminiscent of les années noires of the Occupation. The funambulist Giorgio McFarlane vividly recalls: ‘At midnight the flaming youth gravitated towards Crawlspace, which had rapidly become the no va más of Belvedere Beach nightlife. Outside the club the customized six-wheel-drive Kalaharis were legion, while inside Chimérique, Outrager and Silver Scream blared from the sound system. The Submarine was the cocktail of choice: an effervescent yaa baa tablet submerged in glühwein and served in garish rainbow-hued Murano glass snifters. When the methamphetamine kicked in, the change in atmosphere was palpable: out came the mah-jong tiles, the French knitting, the angel-dust vaporizers and the miniature cylinders of laughing gas. Then the volume was cranked down and on stage an unprepossessing Japanese schoolgirl in kabuki make-up performed an artfully apathetic striptease while declaiming Baudelaire in mesmeric Sprechgesang.’
   It was in improbable settings such as this that the popular resistance took root. Artists and vague noctambules posted flyers, devised performances and circulated samizdat manifestos mocking the governing junta and Axel Orlac in particular, the thuggish vegetarian wheelchair-bound supremo whose charismatic sway over his armed homosexual goons was attributed largely to the fact that it was he who provided them with the hallucinogenic herbs under whose influence they committed their random and extravagant atrocities.
   On July 7, in the sweltering heat of a late afternoon exacerbated by sporadic power blackouts and the subsequent lack of airconditioning, the Belvedere Beach headquarters of the Monday Militia was dynamited by opposition forces and immediately looted by the dissident mob prowling the streets. The explosion had caused massive damage to the building and in the ensuing chaos, a carefully coordinated group of pillagers wearing the fleur-de-lis keffiyehs and glacé kid gloves of the SLF were seen hauling large slabs of polished stone recuperated from the lobby into a waiting pantechnicon. These were then transported to a ramshackle neo-brutalist villa in the vicinity of Lake Veronica where they were cut to a uniform size (two metres square) before being painstakingly chiselled with relief figures that told a chilling allegorical tale of the putsch and its aftermath.
   These anonymous stone slabs became known as The Glyphs and when electronic communication was eventually re-established, they became icons of the counter-revolution. They now form part of the permanent collection of the Belvedere Beach Museum of Contemporary Art.

   The art of the azulejo—glazed coloured tiles used for largely decorative purposes—was introduced to Spain by the Moors, who had learned it from the Persians. The word azulejo is derived from the Arabic word az-zulaiy, meaning “polished stone”.
   Unlike various currents of modernity that prize the poetic quality of empty space, both the Moors and the Iberians succumbed to the horror vacui and filled the ungodly void with often intricate geometric patterns.
   One of the salient attractions of Madrid’s Parque del Buen Retiro is the Palacio de Cristal, a metal and glass structure designed by Ricardo Velázquez Bosco and inspired by Paxton’s Crystal Palace. Constructed in 1887 for the Philippines Exhibition, it functioned as a greenhouse for exotic plants but now houses minimalist and largely meaningless contemporary art installations.
   Running around the perimeter of the stone base is a repetitive strip of azulejos—many of them pleasingly cracked and distressed—that neatly echo the emptiness of the building they gird and signal its status as a giant transparent frame. Each panel consists of 24 individual tiles and represents an empty cartouche festooned with ribbons, leaves and bunches of grapes and presided over by winged ducks and gryphon-like creatures.
   The vacant frame, a classic Western trope of decorative futility, is an example of what Kant calls the parergon—something that enhances the central subject (the ergon), without detracting from it. Except that here the parergon is the ergon: the empty frame is the work, just as the transparent glass shell is the building.
Just 500 metres from the Palacio de Cristal is the Casa Árabe, a cultural and linguistic institute that early in 2010 was showing the film-cycle Laberinto de pasiones: amor y deseo en el cine árabe, revolving around notions of gender and sexuality in modern Arabic cinema.
   Casting an eye over the garish handpainted posters for the exhibition with their starcrossed lovers, sultry belly dancers and cruel moustachioed caliphs, I thought it would be interesting to transplant this content and populate the languishing empty frames of the Palacio de Cristal, thereby creating a kind of Hispano-Moorish mashup that would not only have decorative appeal but also hint at weightier themes: the intertwining of Spanish and Moorish cultures and the shifting balance of power between them throughout history. Or to frame it in Freudian terms, the return of the repressed.

   The Martin Chmara collection of modern and contemporary European art does not exist. Dixit Martin Chmara.
   Standing barefoot at the end of a weathered jetty that juts out from the right bank of Lake Zurich, the fortyish Chmara projects an image of patrician privilege and serenity as he motions overhead to the mottled grey sky that lends this early autumn afternoon an atmosphere of delicious melancholy. Moored to one side of the jetty is an immaculate mahogany Pedrazzini Capri runabout half-shrouded in a tarpaulin and flying a Swiss flag at the stern above a nameplate that reads AMNESIA in polished metal letters. With his close-cropped salt and pepper hair and rumpled grey linen suit offset by a loose white shirt that flaps in the gathering breeze, Chmara blends chromatically into his native habitat and the resulting snapshot looks like nothing so much as a portrait from the advertising campaign for a particularly Helvetic wealth-management fund.
   Turning back from the jetty and heading towards the cubic lakefront villla with its indoor pool, roof terraces and variegated green walls, Chmara leads me towards a vast ground-floor studio invaded by dozens of bubble-wrapped packages, packing crates and filing systems stacked high along three walls. His assistants, identically dressed identical twins Melanie and Milena, are busy cataloguing recent acquisitions and it is his housekeeper who wheels in a plastic Kartell trolley with an array of refreshments.
   Returning to our conversation on the jetty, I am curious to know why the Martin Chmara collection of modern and contemporary European art does not exist.
   “Well not in so many words, no. I mean, not only has it no legal or official identity, it hasn’t any public exposure, and its taxonomic borders are, shall we say, porous...”
   Chmara’s English is hypnotic in tone, surprising in the breadth of its vocabulary and the richness of its idiom, and only very slightly accented. From time to time throughout the interview he confers with his assistants in a muffled German, responding to their cataloguing doubts.
   Porous in what sense? “Look, I collect in many different areas and I’m not at all sure where one area intersects with or flows into or can be confused with another. If you remember, it was you who proposed the terms “modern”, “contemporary”, “European” and “art” but I don’t necessarily operate with those pre-established concepts in mind. Perhaps, if I wished to define a more all-embracing notion of collecting, I might have included something like this.
   Chmara picks up an opaque plastic storage cube from the coffee table and extracts a cellophane-wrapped pack of six vintage boxed Dinky Toy Volkswagen Beetles, stacked three high and two wide.
   “These have never been removed from their dealer packaging—they were delivered like this to the toy stores in 1956. I just find something mysterious about the doubly inviolate—but obviously not inviolable—nature of the object and the objects within the object. Something both trivial—after all, they were manufactured en masse—and marvellous, a little like the hidden tomb of a Pharaoh. Of course I could, if I were an artist, “appropriate” the pack, maybe enclose it in a third level of protection—a glass vitrine, for example—and present it as an “original” work.”
   A readymade, in essence. A readymade whose “pharaonic” nature could, I suggest, be read as a metaphor for his own secretiveness, for the fact that virtually his entire collection is itself private and buried away. Because unlike the vast majority of collectors, not only does Chmara have no interest in opening his collection to the public, he has very little interest in displaying it in private. Upon acquisition, each work is ritually photographed and then placed in storage. The collection subsequently exists at a second, virtual degree, visible only in the vast ongoing catalogue raisonné he and his assistants are constantly compiling. And yet even this catalogue is maddeningly virtual: it has never been published in hard copy, although Chmara takes a wicked delight in allowing me to page through it on his Sony e-reader.
   Nevertheless, when I first proposed publishing a book (the one you are now reading) with a more or less representative fraction of his collection—or non-collection, as the case may be—Chmara was immediately enthusiastic and allowed me to choose freely up to one hundred works from a total of over six thousand. (By the same token, the 42 artists represented here were chosen from just under five hundred.)
   “Yes, a readymade, why not? But bearing in mind Duchamp’s own homophonic French rendition of readymade as redîmé—that is, “redeemed”. The object in its everyday banality is retrieved and redeemed as art.”
   But isn’t this sort of sacralisation of the object just another, “ironic” manifestation of fetishism? And as a collector, how does he respond to Baudrillard’s contention that collectors “invariably have something impoverished and inhuman about them?”
   “A very interesting comment but if you remember the larger context, Baudrillard precedes that remark by saying that somebody who doesn’t collect anything at all is equally impoverished and inhuman. So there is always this tension, which perhaps defines in some sense our very humanity, between collecting and not collecting. I mean, is it really possible to not collect anything at all? It’s also interesting that in this essay Baudrillard is more concerned with the pathos involved in completing finite collections rather than open-ended ones. One can collect all the postage stamps of Nazi Germany ever issued but one can’t collect all the modern or contemporary art that has ever been made. In that sense, I’m not a closed collector, I’m an open collector, and consequently have no neurosis or anguish regarding closure. I mean, I’m not like some pathetic and perhaps entirely imaginary philatelist who considers putting his head in the oven because he can’t get his tweezers on the mint 1935 fifty-pfennig upside-down Zeppelin or whatever it is that will complete his collection.”
   Looking around the room and seeing an enormous number of artworks wrapped up and others evidently hidden from view, I’m wondering what Chmara’s reaction might be to a website for art collectors that I chanced upon a few days earlier. The slogan on the homepage proclaims: “We think art is not made for storage.”
   “Art is not made for storage...A rather presumptuous pronouncement, don’t you think? I mean, I could perfectly imagine an artwork being created expressly for storage. Besides which, this whole contemporary obsession with publicness and publicity and transparency and visibility is something that has never exerted much attraction upon me, I must confess. Bring everything into the cold hard light of day. Why?”
   Has Chmara, I wonder, ever stopped to psychoanalyze himself? Not perhaps in the literal sense of committing himself to the couch but rather an in-depth interrogation about the origins and signification of a very peculiar collecting passion.
   “Yes, well, of course I have and much of it is pretty transparent. I am fortunate enough never to have worked in the traditional sense (apart from several minor and doubtless forgettable films I acted in in my early twenties) and to be cushioned by considerable inherited wealth, largely derived from Genevoise des Pompes Funèbres, a prosperous funeral business founded by my maternal grandfather Alois Graber in Geneva in 1939, of all years. My father Felix was from an early age designated as heir to the family fortune, which was strange because he was basically a bon vivant and a misfit, and was packed off to California by grandfather Alois in the early 1970s to study what I suppose might be called state-of-the-art undertaking methods. On his return to Switzerland he revolutionized the funeral industry here and the money just kept rolling in.”
   With something approaching mirth, Chmara details his father’s introduction of the “eco-casket”, an environment-friendly, bio-degradable coffin of some description that sounds terribly futuristic for the time and that was efficiently absorbed into the earth and of which virtually no trace remained just months after inhumation. And then later, in the early 1980s, the construction of the Crans-Montana Hypogeum, a daring architectural project executed by eternal Pritzker Prize candidate Eberhard Gschwind. Built on—or to be more accurate, beneath—three hectares of astronomically expensive turf beside Lake Moubra in the heart of the famed Swiss mountain resort, the Hypogeum was designed and marketed as an ecumenical but hardly economical last resting place for “individuals of high net worth” whose vanity and general desire for self-aggrandizement exceeded what could reasonably be accomodated at any of the existing cemeteries in the region. The subterranean vault conceived by Gschwind consists of just 56 burial plots of varying size and configuration, the more spacious among them offering the defunct tenant or tenants ample opportunity to dramatize their posterity by means of statuary and other visual representations. Among the first to be housed in the Hypogeum was the billionaire brewery heiress Baroness Hannelore von Stanfield-Tripcovich (née Heidi Schmidt), flatteringly embalmed and placed inside a perspex dome at the wheel of her blood-red 1968 Ferrari 500 “Superfast” Coupé. Taken to witness the inhumation by his father at the tender age of thirteen, Chmara was profoundly moved by the experience and has no hesitation in recognizing it as a defining and formative moment in his development as a collector.
   Given the extraordinary eclecticism of Chmara’s collection, what isn’t he interested in acquiring?
   “Grosso modo—and here the exceptions prove the rule—anything that is not a fixed image. Call me old-fashioned but I’m primarily interested in pictures and not in hour-long videos of ice cubes melting, or dozens of strips of tangled neoprene hanging glumly and meaninglessly from walls that would be happier if they were empty, or upside-down passenger vehicles, or blocks of raw beeswax, or quadrophonic speakers disseminating the heartbeats of baby baboons, or dissected animals of any persuasion, and I could go on...”
   And what about painting? After availing myself of the catalogue raisonné for a few minutes, I notice the comparative scarcity of painting in favour of photography and photo-based works, drawing, collage and text art.
   “There are many painters I like, although I have a definite aversion to sloppy abstractions because it’s just too difficult to establish reliable criteria of aesthetic worth. Geometric abstraction, on the other hand, I find more intriguing.”
   I ask him whether his sizeable collection of works by the Hamburg-based painter Gerhard Duft doesn’t fly in the face of these declared preferences.
   “Interestingly enough, Gerhard’s work is predominantly figurative and, more than figurative, mimetic. The entire Überschwang series, for example, consists of patiently executed facsimiles of photographs of moss, lichen and decaying leaves. So they are in fact something like figurative paintings that ape abstraction through the intermediary of the photographic image. What interests me further is that virtually any artwork can finally and eventually be encapsulated, symbolized and “flattened” into a photograph. Which is perhaps the ultimate raison behind my catalogue raisonné.”
   I put it to Chmara that Mallarmé’s famous pronouncement that everything in the world exists in order to end up as a book (“Tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre”), might be updated to “Everything exists in order to end up as a photograph.”
   “Yes, perhaps that’s a more contemporary way of putting it.”
   Finally I ask Chmara to give me rapid-fire responses to the names of a handful of artists whose work is reproduced here.
   Andie Barus. “My father met Andie Barus in Geneva not long before her death in the late 1960s and acquired a batch of her negatives. She was Jewish and had to leave Germany around 1937 and came to Switzerland. But after the war she returned to Berlin because she couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. She had a fantastic sense of the unheimlich.”
   Timothy Fowler. “What attracts me to Tim’s work is that he has been able to develop endless variations on the book as an object. Being a rather distracted reader myself, I’ve always been acutely aware of all the disguises books can assume apart from simply providing reading material and Tim is mining an inexhaustible vein there.”
   Dumbo McFarlane. “I first met Dumbo at the Street Parade here in Zurich in 2005. He was lying in a bathtub full of foam smoking a foot-long reefer and around the perimeter of the tub he had placed a selection of his works for sale. I bought all of them and although I was later able to ascertain that he was in fact genuinely insane, I also discovered that he was not a real outsider artist but a self-fabricated one, which only served to raise him in my estimation.”
   Yves Molitor. “Yves Molitor was evidently a true monomaniac. Virtually his entire artistic output is posthumous and consists of imaginary life-size 33rpm record sleeves, of which he designed about six hundred.”
   Patrick Zeller. “I’ve always loved hyper-realistic drawing and I love the way Zeller seizes upon magnified details, often cropping and lighting the composition in a very cinematic fashion. His style has changed very little over the years and I currently have about sixty of his works.”
   Sensing that the allotted time has drawn to a close, I stop the recorder. Chmara looks out the picture window at the gathering storm. The first drops of rain stain the glass, a flash of lightning illuminates the Zürichsee and a roll of thunder rumbles on in the distance. As we sip the last of our thé à la menthe, Chmara seems utterly transfixed by the spectacle.
   “I love storms”, he says and gestures to Melanie or Milena or both.