Sight Mapping: Bettina Lockemann. Kontactzonen at the Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart by John Beeson

Sight Mapping by John Beeson is a collection of essays and conversations offering insight into the nuances of the European art system.

New York Live Arts presents

Marjani Forte
Nov 15-19

Bettina1 Body

CODE ORANGE, 2003. Series of 80 black and white photographs. All photos courtesy of the artist.

A new exhibition in the expansive Württembergischer Kunstverein in the city of Stuttgart in southeastern Germany is the first comprehensive solo show for Cologne-born artist Bettina Lockemann. Serving as a prolonged investigation of documentary technique and its aesthetic, nearly all of the numerous photographic series and several videos depict sites of the artist’s international travel. Much of the work’s significance derives from the tenuous relationship that Lockemann has to her specific European, Middle Eastern, Far Eastern, and North American destinations. Throughout the entire exhibition, the viewer is left to grapple with the persistent concern of Lockemann’s aesthetic investment and her artistic discretion.

Lockemann’s early interest in the technology of webcams takes form in a work entitled Virtuelle Stadt from 1999. For the three years preceding the work’s completion, the artist compiled an archive of webcam still images depicting a variety of locales. Through their overt lack of indentifying features in presentation, these urban views beg two questions: on their originating context given the specificity of their focus and on their value as aesthetic objects considering their hands-off approach to capturing subjects. Like the work Internationale Stadt from the same year, which intermixes street-level photos taken in New York City, Berlin, Paris, and Zurich, Virtuelle Stadt comes together to create a visual landscape with a generic topographical and cultural identity.

The photographs that comprise the series Code Orangefrom 2003 are more evocative than most others in the exhibition, in a large part because of their indulgent depictions of Washington D.C. and New York City on the proverbial eve of the War in Iraq. Somewhat problematically, this series plays on assumptions about the paranoiac fervor that has characterized the United States for several years. In these photographs viewers read a particular subtext given the subject matter—everything assumes a threatening character regardless of whether the activity is actually suspicious. The work appears simple for being so loaded. Rather than anticipating and subverting these paranoiac suspicions through her own discretion, Lockemann gives form to assumptions that appear to be as much hers as they are the viewers’.

Bettina2 Body

CONTACT ZONE, 2008. Series of 74 black and white photographs.

Contact Zone is a series comprising photographs taken during the artist’s visits to several Japanese cities during a three-month period in 2008. The series focuses on this premise: following the closure of Japan’s borders to Westerners from 1600 to 1854, the influx of specialists in the years 1868 to 1912 built up the country’s urban infrastructure using Western architectural models. Instead of attempting to present a comprehensive document of the Japanese context—a task that any tourist would be naive to undertake—Lockemann succeeds in presenting a coherent documentation of the relationship between Eastern and Western elements in the physical landscape. Lockemann’s project serves to preserve her integrity as a photographer, since she does not presume to overstep her own capacity. The resulting photographs represent an engaging visual heterogeneity. Lockemann delivers the formal tropes that recur in series throughout the exhibition—evenly scattering trees in the field of vision; situating lines of buildings and streets off to the left or right of the vertical axis; apparently casually catching lampposts, people, and cars in the closest foreground. Contact Zone ’s theme of topographic heterogeneity is present to different extents in various images in this 74-work series. Sometimes the evidence is stark and methodically captured. Other times the subject of the work is allowed to casually pale to a commanding cityscape, encroaching nature, or the quiet details of life.

Headed by co-directors Hans D. Christ and Iris Dressler, the Württembergischer Kunstverein is motivated in large part by its association of 3,000 members, a half of whom are artists. The Kunstverein model developed during the end of the 18th century—the one in Stuttgart was built in 1827. In the not-as-yet unified Germany, when the art of Stuttgart’s regional artists traveled to Munich, Nuremburg, or Hamburg to be taken in by the bourgeois during their leisure time, this was considered international art. (Learning this about the history of Kunstvereins as Hans led me on a tour around the institution in Stuttgart felt bizarre—to be speaking about pre-modern socio-political history in a contemporary art space.)

The Kunstverein is an institutional model that simply does not exist in the same way in the United States, although there seem to be similarities between the service it provides today and, for example, the New Museum in New York. For one thing, Kunstvereins do not have collections. On the other hand—in a stroke of genius self-protection preventing the type of controversy that surrounds the upcoming exhibition Skin Fruit —there is a “contract”—as Hans described it—that prevents the Kunstverein’s governing board from influencing their exhibitions or operations. The Kunstverein in Stuttgart gets 10 percent of its budget from member dues and the remainder through regional, national, and global sources of public funding.

Hans and Iris have forged a new path for the Kunstverein in the few years that they have been at the helm. The co-directors are committed to a type of networking wherein they function much as moderators to foreign artists, critics, curators, and collectors. They hold a vested interest in art from non-European and developing countries, and they conscientiously support artistic production within the originating context in an attempt to prevent the art’s assimilation. They are willing to commit resources to collaborations and the production of art outside of Germany, even with the understanding that there may not be a one-to-one manifestation of these efforts in the Kunstverein.

In the case of solo shows, the artist’s intention is the highest priority. And, while this attitude is by no means revolutionary, given that “contract” that prevents the board from influencing or preventing exhibitions, the Kunstverein is able to show art that is markedly political and regularly challenging. Before the current Bettina Lockemann exhibition, the schedule included Subversive Practices: Art Under Conditions of Political Repression,Stan DouglasPast ImperfectMark Tansey, and the years-long series Expanded Media. Also significant in these dire economic times—when the Kunstverein and the Kunstlerhaus, another Stuttgart art institution, will each be forced to cut two exhibitions from their schedules—is the fact that the next exhibition, an open-call of members’ art, is to be exhibited on entirely salvaged and recycled materials and installed by a team of Kunstverein members.

Bettina Lockemann, Kontaktzonen is on view at the Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart through April 11, 2010.

John Beeson, a critic and curator from New York City, is currently living in Germany. His interests include art of the ’70s, experimental printmaking, and contemporary art.

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