Seeing things

Dieter Roelstraete, 2007

Apart from being (arguably) the capital of 21st century art, Berlin could also be said to be the capital of remembering and forgetting, of memory and oblivion. A major focal point of 20th century history, the capital of the reunited German republic has over the years become an irresistable draw for artists from all over the world, who flock to the city in search of fertile soil for their artistic and aesthetic reflections upon the dramatic historical events that have shaped the better part of their shared lives. Overwhelmingly, their work deals with this history, with the dangers that are attached to its forgetting, and with the moral duty – one which art has become more and more adept at fulfilling – of remembering. They set out to document the crumbling remains of the Wall that once enclosed and divided the city; they feverishly search for the last vestiges of undiscovered Third Reich urbanism; they venture out to the lugubrious Plattenbau complexes of Marzahn and Hellersdorf, where state-fuelled enthousiasm for the gospel of socialism has given way to xenophobia, racial violence and general post-utopian despair; or they drive out even further east, to memorialize the legacy of Europe’s once awa-inspiring ‘Other’, searching for that which we have lost in our willed surrender to global capitalism. In short, the sheer salience of history that is one of Berlin’s quintessential features ‘forces’ them to an art of remembrance, which is of course the exact reason why the city has become such an important place for art that is politically engaged, socially aware and historically informed.

Interestingly, in the case of the work of Antwerp-based photographic artist Charif Benhelima, the experience of extensive exposure to the historically fraught, palimpsest-like spaces of Berlin street life – Benhelima lived in the city for more than a year as a resident of the Künstlerhaus Bethanien program – has produced radically different results: the photographs made during his stay in Berlin, six of which are reprinted in the current feature, do not so much reveal an artist seized by the compulsion to soak up the excess of history which the German capital has to offer in such copious amounts, as one withdrawing from the clamour of mediatized politics to return, instead, to the crude, uncomplicated basics of everyday lived experience – an experience which is of course pretty much the same the world over, and which by definition remains largely untouched by the great dramatic upheavals of History.

The images in question, portraits of things, not of a city, are truly generic in the most exhaustive sense of that oft-perused word; though this may not necessarily be their point, they could pretty much have been taken everywhere (and at anytime during the last couple of decades). There are no people to be seen in them – again, quite a departure from Benhelima’s previous work, especially the Welcome to Belgium series – and the few pictures that do adhere to the most basic iconographic rules of landscape photography exude obvious desolation and emptiness, an illusion that is further exacerbated, of course, by the glaring white light in which they bathe. This austere reductionism does not necessarily qualify them as melancholy, however, for what these pictures really want to engage with, is that most treacherous of categories – things. In this sense, they merely replicate the ideal of ‘reduction’ as the method of choice of phenomenology’s encounter with the world: that of temporarily bracketing all knowledge, all theory or ‘meaning’; that of avoiding and suspending all penchants towards abstraction and generalization in order to return to a more concrete and direct experience of the world as a lived reality.

Benhelima’s photographs of things (it is important, I think, to name them as such: not objects, not products, commodities, but things) are made in such a way that their exposure pretty much does away with all superfluous, ‘ambient’ information that might hamper our concentration on the thing at hand (such as: ‘knowing’ that they were made in Berlin, the capital of memory and oblivion); the thing emerges out of the mists of time with the physical authority of something that has been around long before we crossed its path, and that will continue to exist longer after we have parted ways with it again. The grainy filter of light that envelops these things reflects their very opacity, their ‘enigmaticalness’ – the mysterious fact that we ultimately cannot know things, and that the world as a whole will consequently always elude the grasp of our understanding. This is what makes things, and these images of things in particular, so ‘strange’ – and Benhelima’s photographs of things are there to disclose their in-built resistance to the one-dimensional gaze of straightfoward understanding.

In Garbage, the thing at hand is ostensibly a garbage container; in Baseline it is something a little more difficult to make out – the free-standing backboard of a basketball hoop on a courtyard (indeed, “somewhere in Berlin”). In Minus Two, we see two tyres suspended in mid-air, their mirrorring disc-like silhouettes resembling UFOs; it is well-nigh impossible to discern the chains that ‘identify’ them for what they really are: kids’ swings on a playground. The “things” in Nest, Park and Black Cherry Season are another matter yet again – a pigeon, the trunk of a tree on the side of a road, and the luscious, shimmering foliage of a cherry tree respectively. Indeed, it seems right to ask the following questions: are animals things? And what about plants? What about the kid in Diggings?