The Business of War Photography, at first hand in Paris
I have followed the career of the Berlin artist, Martin Dammann, for the past twenty years, as he has moved from video art to watercolour and drawing, while remaining true to his original inspiration, the complex, unresolved relationship that he (and the Germans) have to the Second World War. This obviously controversial subject matter has always been complemented by a highly reflexive engagement with artistic form and perception, informed by Paul Virilio and his considerations of warfare and the logistics of modern perception.
The key shift in Dammann’s career came around the turn of the millennium. Up to this point he had primarily in the medium of video art, in which he had engaged with archive footage of the aerial war in Europe between 1940 and 1945, in a series of works which toyed with conventions regarding the perception of movement and the archival trace. Now he began to dovetail his artistic production more closely with his ‘real’ job, which was as a collector of materials, primarily photography, for the Archive of Modern Conflict in London. These photographs were vernacular images from both the first and second world wars, primarily from German citizens or combatants. Dammann’s procedure, however, involved translating these (often small format) photographs into large format watercolour paintings. At the time (2002), a noticeable trend was emerging in German art production that favoured watercolours (‘Aquarelle’ in German), so Dammann’s formal shift also dovetailed with current developments that provided favourable market conditions for his paintings (that, and being represented by Barbara Thumm, one of the most influential of Berlin gallerists, with the likes of Julian Opie on her books at that time). Over the past ten years, Dammann has continued to produce large-scale watercolours, but has also worked with photograph enlargements as well as the occasional video work. He has also moved, more recently, beyond the frame of vernacular photography, to offer watercolour reworkings of photographs that he or others in his family circle have taken, as I see it, precisely in order to get his audience to think about the formal questions and provocations which his paintings pose with regard to originality, representation, legibility and the act of photography.
The past decade has seen Dammann’s reputation grow; he has had solo exhibitions across Europe (Vienna, Paris and Duesseldorf amongst others), and a retrospective of his work was staged at the Kunsthalle Recklinghausen in 2009.
This May I had the opportunity to observe Dammann as he prepared for another solo exhibition in Paris, at the In Situ gallery in the Rue Michel Le Comte, just on the western edge of the Marais district. Dammann also had another exhibition already running in the Rue Paul Valery, ‘Dieses Feuer’ (‘This Fire’) and I visited this first. It was staged in the Atelier Ruart, which had formerly been the studio of Berthe Morisot, and was thus a hybrid space, part of living area, part atelier, which did not lend itself himself to gallery display. Dammann had thus sought to engage with the ‘studio space’ by exhibiting a number of ‘Vorarbeiten’ to his watercolours, alongside three finished works in the ground floor room and corridor.
Crucially he had used a small cube-like room under the main studio space to install a haunting set of photographs from his archive. This radically different choice of material and staging lent something very dramatic to the whole, and gave the ‘fire’ of the exhibition title a darker resonance (two of the photographs are of burning buildings; only in conversation with Dammann does it emerge that the images are of Russian villages torched by the German army).
This sense of the exhibition space as determining the installation is something that became very apparent as I observed Dammann prepare to populate the rooms in the Rue Michel Le Comte before the opening of his ‘Zeichnung’ (‘Drawing’).
This exhibition exemplifies Dammann’s ongoing exploration of the limits of his chosen form. In some cases, he has painted watercolours on the hard boards which he previously used to hold the pinned-on watercolour papers of an earlier painting.
This lends a very different material quality to the dried paint, compared with the traditional shapes which he tests and pushes in the watercolours in the Atelier Ruart. The centrepiece of the exhibition are a series of pencil drawings which are not ‘Vorskizzen’ to larger works, but finished artefacts. Yet the openness which marks the whole exhibition is underlined by the refusal to frame the works, meaning that a fluidity across the display walls is ensured.
Dammann’s engagement with the exhibition space becomes evident in his refusal to simply fill the walls with ‘product’. One wall was left entirely blank, another wall was empty until the last day of hanging. There was a quite specific choreographed rhythm to the display; including the use of a ‘dead-end’ space (with black walls), in which Dammann hung a watercolour that he only finished over the three days of the hanging period.
The ‘war’ was much less thematically evident in this exhibition than it was in the Atelier Ruart, or indeed in Dammann’s very recent Berlin exhibition in the Kuenstsaele on ‘Schilderwaelder’ (Sign Forests’) which was largely composed of enlarged photographs of the forests of signs that were erected in the occupied regions of Soviet Russia during the Second World War by German troops to orientate themselves in a foreign country.
That exhibition actually alludes to the questions Dammann asks of the viewer in ‘Zeichnung’: if a photograph captures a past time, then what are the mechanisms by which we orientate ourselves when confronted by a sign from that past, where the referent is invisible, and indeed in a process of dissolution (here, the watercolour as the medium of dissolution is now transferred to the line of the drawing). One of the games one can play here is how is precisely think about how the drawings/paintings invite the identification of figures (which after all only offers a brief indication towards what might have been).
What continues to fascinate me about Dammann’s work is this engagement with the question of the mechanisms by which we are fascinated with the past, with the idea of the photographic image as trace of an elusive past. Hence the use of colour, which has resonances with the relatively contemporary fascination with the ‘war in colour’. Dammann’s use of colour evokes emotional response (his own!) to the photographs, which is then transmitted to us as viewers of his paintings. Moving to drawing is interesting in that it replaces that ‘Farbenlehre’ with the violence of his lines, the almost eradication of the figure from the past at the same time as its evocation.
Simon Ward (email@example.com)