Review by Freddy Syborn
Is beauty constructed by power or does it emanate of its own, forcible volition’ A pure young man, dressed like a member of the SS, holds fruit in the helmet on his lap. The fruit has no colour; the boy, his costume, are black and white. A serious ethical question is being posed. In its scale and its thick, black frame, the photo feels memorial. We are not necessarily being reminded of the obvious: the Nazi costume is emblematic of a natural phenomenon, though there are references to specific crimes. In the first room of the gallery, what looks like a cattle truck has ‘MENGELE’ painted onto one of its slats. The style and the vivid pastels of the shot, suggest something interesting seen on holiday. Has the word always been there - is the power of the association created by chance - or has it been painted by someone in the knowledge of its connotations’ Does it make a difference if that person is an artist’ Are there things we should not invoke, whether by chance or intent’
With Dr. Mengele in mind, how do we examine the woman, sitting in the same portrait position as the model Nazi, but naked and against a clinical white bed and wall’ Our eyes might first travel to her breasts, the fine hairs caught by the light running down her body, but I found my eyes resting on and in hers, with Mengele still in mind. Is the viewer meant to impose a commemoration’ Next to that image, one of a boy climbing a tree. His lips are an impossible red, doctored. In the next room are more lips, drawn violently over mouth of another Nazi. This is a draft of the final form; the helmet full of fruit, but the light too dark. Cut-outs from other photos have been grafted onto this one, and the boy’s eyes are ringed with blue ink, badly made-up. Underneath him is written ‘talking about your enemies is another form of narcissism.’ The flattery of being opposed: beauty requires a victim, its beholder.
A sketched Nazi examines his semi-erect penis, leaning (appropriately enough) to the right. In the single colour photo of the gallery’s second room, a naked little boy reaches out to touch a cactus of some kind. The plant octopusses in from out of shot, coiled, barbed, green in the way those plants are which make you wonder if they’ve blood. None too subtly, perhaps, we are made to hold our breath for his being pricked, the natural growth, his becoming. In this and all the other images, the same discomfort, to do with imposing constructed forms, suffering chance, dreading implication. Next to Mengele’s lorry, two frames almost touch. In one, a Black & Decker circular saw stands erect. In the other, his eyes on, in us, a boy lies on a workbench. Do we make the connection’ Will it be beautiful’ None of these questions are answered.
Collier Schorr was born and raised in New York, where she has continued to live and work. Every summer for the past 18 years she has travelled to southern Germany, working in and around the small town of Schwäbisch Gmünd. Schorr used the landscapes of Sander, Kiefer, Beuys, Baselitz and Chagall as a ground on which to play out imagined and inherited histories of Germany and her own Jewish heritage. Influenced by reportage, fictional films, and portrait photography, Schorr’s initial forays into the German countryside were
made from the imagined position of an entitled outsider: as a character that does not belong, yet has assumed some sort of ownership by returning to a place of historical resonance.
In a place determined by memory, war, emigration, and rebuilt society, Schorr combines the roles of portraitist, social anthropologist and storyteller. Over a period of time Schorr assimilated and became a member of the Schwäbisch Gmünd community - the town photographer - exploring the lives of her German neighbours, friends and family. Schorr developed her own approach to the regional vernacular, and in so doing, the countryside began to open up to the artist. Rather than seeing the vestiges of war, she observed a bucolic urge for renewal in a place where an irresolvable history was tolerable. Pulling inspiration from disparate art movements and media, Schorr’s invented Germans are tossed through time and identifications.
Undermining conventional photographic genres, and the political and cultural implications of appropriating an aesthetic are Schorr’s subjects as much as they are depictions of soldiers, farmers, and moments within a landscape. By locating herself in an entitled cultural position, Schorr takes and uses a found set of charged aesthetic principles, leaving complicated questions of whether the underlying ideologies are ultimately reinforced or undermined. Can, for example, the influence of Nazi-era aesthetics be held apart from ideologies of superiority’ Schorr has remarked at the themes and slogans of the infamous Degenerate Art exhibition staged by the Nazi regime in 1937 - of work in particular that ‘demeaned soldiers, farmers and women’. Schorr is struck by how much of her own work is engaged with these very subjects, and is intrigued by the notion that the same unnerving set of criteria and ideologies could both praise and condemn her work in near equal measure.
For her show at Modern Art, Schorr uses a model of exhibition making that allows her to look at her own work from a new position: a position that stages a intellectualised remove from her own cultural assimilation and appropriation of cultural signifiers. No longer a neighbour within the Scwäbisch Gmünd community, Schorr asserts her identity as an American Jew in a role more akin to that of an ethnographer or archaeologist, striving to define another culture with contrasting expectations. The breadth of Schorr’s practice is represented in photographs, drawings, collages and videos, and includes new work alongside earlier pieces. Each work has been carefully selected and arranged by the artist in order to give context within a particular arc of practice, and to bring new understandings and challenges to bear. In a show that poses itself as a retrospective, Schorr sees her own work as secondary texts, as a critique of what is iconic, and what it means for her to probe the memory of the German countryside.
Posted by Georgia Anderson
Related ArticlesRyan McGinley, Moon Milk, Alison Jacques Gallery, London, UK