Memory and desire...
Eliot, The Waste Land
...ma mémoire précédait ma naissance...
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
Marcel Ducellierthin lips, bowtie and eyepatch
sentenced to life for delivering confidential information to a foreign
power, presents an expressionless face to the police photographer, 29
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 photographys
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.
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
But even in digital form he finds the mechanics and
minutiae of photographythe f-stops, aperture rings and exposure
settingsless 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,
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 snapsso often banalare 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
A painting of a photograph isgenerally
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
consistsor consistedof 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 photographsa selection of
which are reproduced herehave now been assembled for the first time
by the Belgian scholar Raoul Gendebien in Jacobo Flores: Catalogue
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
sons 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 lOubli, 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 targetsJews, slim poets,
hairdressersthe 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 azulejoglazed coloured
tiles used for largely decorative purposeswas 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
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
One of the salient attractions of Madrids Parque
del Buen Retiro is the Palacio de Cristal, a metal and glass structure
designed by Ricardo Velázquez Bosco and inspired by Paxtons
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 azulejosmany of them pleasingly cracked
and distressedthat 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 parergonsomething
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
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 hasnt any public exposure,
and its taxonomic borders are, shall we say, porous...
Chmaras 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
Porous in what sense? Look, I collect in many
different areas and Im 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 dont 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
packagingthey were delivered like this to the toy stores in 1956.
I just find something mysterious about the doubly inviolatebut obviously
not inviolablenature of the object and the objects within the object.
Something both trivialafter all, they were manufactured en masseand
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 protectiona glass vitrine, for exampleand
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 collectionor non-collection, as the case may beChmara
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
Duchamps own homophonic French rendition of readymade as
redîméthat is, redeemed. The object
in its everyday banality is retrieved and redeemed as art.
But isnt this sort of sacralisation of the object
just another, ironic manifestation of fetishism? And as a
collector, how does he respond to Baudrillards 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 doesnt 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? Its 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 cant
collect all the modern or contemporary art that has ever been made. In
that sense, Im not a closed collector, Im an open collector,
and consequently have no neurosis or anguish regarding closure. I mean,
Im not like some pathetic and perhaps entirely imaginary philatelist
who considers putting his head in the oven because he cant 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, Im
wondering what Chmaras 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, dont 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.
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
fathers 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 onor to be more accurate, beneaththree
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
Given the extraordinary eclecticism of Chmaras
collection, what isnt he interested in acquiring?
Grosso modoand here the exceptions
prove the ruleanything that is not a fixed image. Call me old-fashioned
but Im 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 its 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 doesnt fly in the face of
these declared preferences.
Interestingly enough, Gerhards 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 Mallarmés 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 thats 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 couldnt imagine living anywhere else. She had a fantastic sense
of the unheimlich.
Timothy Fowler. What attracts me to Tims
work is that he has been able to develop endless variations on the book
as an object. Being a rather distracted reader myself, Ive 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. Ive 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.