Hans-Peter Riese
Turn back the clock

To the importance of photography in the work of Markus Döhne

„Austerlitz told me that he sometimes sat there for hours, laying out these photographs or others from his collection the wrong way up, as if laying a game of patience, and that then, one by one, he turned them over, always with a new sense of surprise at what he saw, pushing the pictures back and forth and over each other, arranging them in an order depending on their family resemblances, or withdrawing them from the game until […] there was nothing left but the grey table top […]“. [1] In his novel Austerlitz, which this quotation is taken from, the writer W. G. Sebald deals extensively with photography, however, without thematizing the medium itself. Blended into the text are photos which sometimes illustrate the text while sometimes irritating, like Austerlitz, the reader, surprising, provoking thoughts, and leaving him clueless.

So what does a photo mean to us? We are today, especially in the wake of the ongoing digitization, surrounded by images. Our consciousness, we may suspect, is much more manipulated by these photos as we ourselves are aware of or in control of. This is, of course, the more valid the farther away the reality depicted in the photograph is located in relation to us. What idea do we have of a historic event, which is only conveyed through to us by photographic image? Can we assume without hesitation that the photo truly reproduces reality – is it historically true?

Of course we know as enlightened contemporaries that photography can manipulate. Both in terms of technical editing capabilities as well as in terms of the pure image, photos are obviously not THE reality, at best they can only achieve an approximation. Austerlitz, which we quote above, says to his photo sessions, that he had to lie down and then wait until he can feel „as if time bends back in me“. So it is a process that can only be understood as one of becoming conscious of what we actually do not really perceive in a photograph.

In his works Markus Döhne uses photographs in a way very similar to the protagonist Austerlitz. He also does not take a photo as an reproduction of a reality as it may appear on the trigger, but actually as a trigger for a process of consciousness that takes ist beginning in art. Though Döhne does not proceed in the same way as Austerlitz, by turning over the photos and then uncovering them like playing cards so as to establish arbitrarily new relationships, but by revealing the hidden layers of reality of a photo especially if it is a historical one. Here, the photo is actually just the starting point of a historical research into consciousness. If he uses — as in his early Petrograd Tubes — historic photos of the violent suppression of a demonstration on Nevsky Prospekt in Petrograd, that means the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution, he is unleashing a whole process of historical associations of the time after the victory of the revolution, in which from its beginning the photos only play a minor role. Though, this is not to ignore that we (and the artist Döhne) need these photos to give us an IMAGE of these remote and multiply fractioned events at all.

This is where the artistic process of using photos in the images of Döhne sets in, i.e. the photos will be integrated into a work of art in a complex process, and thus themselves becoming art. However, no longer recognizable in their capacity as photos, and certainly not as a reproduction of historical reality, but as material. Sometimes, for example in the series of the tableaux of memory [Arbeitsspeicher], it looks as if this ‚material character‘ of the photos used comes about by abstraction or deconstruction of the photograph itself. But that would be too little to adequately describe the method of Döhne. Indeed, the original photos, which he uses can never be separated from the historical events, in whose context they originally appear.

In the first phase of his work Döhne uses photos from the context of the left-wing political movement in Europe at the beginning of the 20th Century. Here, however, it is not the aim to neutralize the ideology of this movement through the medium of art and thus provide new political implications beyond all discussion. By bringing these photos with screen printing on paraffin blocks and then covering them with another thin layer of wax the subjects of the photos are immersed in a strange mist. While we sometimes still recognise the theme, the funeral of Mayakovsky for example, or the grave stone of Malevich, the reproductive process itself turns into the vehicle of relativization. Therefore, the independent work of art moves to the foreground, whereas the photography, and whatever it might evoke for us as viewers, retreats into the background. Döhne has thus found a method that allows to hold the historical and ideological context of the subjects in the photographs in one’s consciousness, while simultaneously keeping this context out of the debate about the value of, or say, the quality of his art. That makes that Döhne is not perceived primarily as a political artist. In fact, he is a political artist by reflecting the different strata of historical consciousness without making them to the sole content of his work. How is this consciousness constituted and what images is it made of?

Döhne does not engage in any political debate here but studies his subject using documents that are in principle accessible to everyone, but positioned and interpreted in a very different context. What finally remains captured of them in an artwork by Markus Döhne is a reduction of the starting material to structures that for themselves imply a more profound level of cognicience than what they represent visually.

Thus the Green Screens, Refugee Series turn into a general monument of one of the most politically explosive phenomena of the 20th Century, namely the movement of refugees numbering in the millions all over the globe, regardless of continent, political systems and civilisatory development. We are witnessing a mass migration of historic proportions that we see daily on television screens and which is documented in a vast number of photos. In his Green Screens Döhne breaks this phenomenon aesthetically down to individual images that are more impressive than the big number. But it's not about individual stories, that means, pity, but it is about the historical essence of the phenomenon. This is also reflected in the installation of the screens in the exhibition. Actually, they are hung freely in the room and give an impression of an individuality balancing on a fine line between freedom and restriction: Not that of the individual existance but that of our civilisation as a whole.

The fact that Döhne had the opportunity to show these Screens in a tower of a church in Cologne, uncovered an additional level of meaning, since the church was for centuries a inviolable refuge for the persecuted of all kinds.

But Döhne is not satisfied with this ideological, content oriented dimension of his work. It is above all the aesthetic appeal and the position of his work in the context of contemporary art that is important to Döhne. If one considers that since the late eighties he has worked with photos and that his method of processing them in his paintings have varied and differed very much during those years one can understand him as a visionary of a special kind, especially given the flood of digitally processed photographic works of recent times. Döhne recognized early on that the photo as such does not provide any material for artistic work, but that it may have only have a legitimacy within art when it is used in two respects. Firstly, it is the essential point of historical reflection. Only when we assure ourselves of our own position in history, we can count as conscious and reflected functioning individuals. As such the material cannot be multiply manipulated derivatives of a reality that we can’t recognize anymore once manipulated. Rather, the medium of art lifts reality into another context of consciousness and thus makes it the starting material of new reflection.

The second aspect has to do with the state of the art as such. Art that is understanding itself as contemporary can not refrain to use the most advanced methods of presentation. Döhne recognized early that in the digital age this is photography. But only through the combination of the two levels, that of intellectual reflection and that of the technical development of the means of production at his disposal as an artist, Döhne has found a method of presentation of historical and substantive phenomena that themselves – when used uni-dimensionally – escape from representation.

As such, it should be observed that starting from his early wax blocks up to the Green Screens he has always found and implemented technical methods which are in a dialectical relationship to his contents. Since, obviously, Döhne being a politically reflected contemporary he wants to point to a political disaster, a scandal, with his series on refugees. But only through his alienating representation which nearly reaches the point of abstraction, it is possible to make the phenomenon as such so transparent that it is deprived of any political discussion and only represents the facts as such. Only by this increase of truth achieved through art the political level is neutralised and, thus, reveals itself as such. This process – known from art history, particularly the most recent and, thus, not unfamiliar – Döhne can rely on without being suspected of plagiarism. Since Andy Warhol we know the method of deconstruction of photos by stripping them of the function of reproducing reality. Döhne has pushed this idea further, highlighting in his works the essence of the photo as well as its historical context. He also proves to be a graphic artist with an almost unerring instinct for the correct transformation of reality into art. His work — although the content being linked to by now over-dramaticized events of history — lacks any pathetics, and any pathos. This he achieved by the method of separation of subjects and themes, ie their decontextualization. Thus neither the historical events of the Left in Europe appear as such, nor the representations of individual refugees as part of a mass movement.

In his art Döhne reverses the effect we expect from our consciousness, thus, in order to activate it he undermines this consciousness. Considering the Arbeitsspeicher, this method becomes particularly obvious and nearly taken to its extreme. Here we actually neither recognize the subject, namely a giant card catalogue of the archive — which also could be blocks of homes — nor do we know that this is the archive of the writer Peter Weiss. Even less are we informed about the value Peter Weiss and his book The Aesthetics of Resistance have for the artist Markus Döhne. So what does the series of the Arbeitsspeicher show? It is the consolidation of all these aspects and backgrounds in one IMAGE. One day when the substantive context will be lost this alone will remain to be important for the assessment of these images. What becomes visible is Döhne’s way of manipulating photos of the archive room for so long, layering them over and shifting them against each other, until a completely independent sujet reveals itself, which is now solely due to the aesthetics of the image, or, respectively, conditions them. Behind this image the dimension of content that informs our understanding of the image needs to disappear. We can begin with a new chain of associations, that is just triggered by this picture. Yet we might end right at the starting point of Döhne’s considerations: in the archives of a poet, that of Peter Weiss or someone else’s.

This method of triggering associations, chains of thoughts that move through the work of art in a certain direction, is special to Döhne. It is exactly here that he proves to be an artist that thinks and works content oriented. The starting points of his work are historical events, political incidents and, not least, reflections on a left-wing utopia that does not exhaust itself in politics, but remains contained in art. That this utopia’s course in the historical context of the 20th Century, of which Döhne understands himself as a contemporary, has been usually tragic, presents a special reason for thematising it again in art. You can call this a persistent work on a utopia, but you can also recognise it as a longing that only art itself is in a position to exceed the shamefully short historical half-life. Or, to quote again Austerlitz of W.G. Sebald’s novel, after a visit to the Rembrandt Museum in Amsterdam, during which he has immersed himself into a painting titled Escape from Egypt, when only memory remains of it: „[…] but only a tiny flicker of fire in the middle of the gleaming black varnish of the darkness which […] he could see in his mind's eye to this day.“ [2]
Abenden in November 2007
Translated from German by Gisela Pauli Caldas

Markus Döhne,
Valencia 2008