Objects are not mere functional things. They are cultural signifiers and embodiments of codified meaning. When shown in museums, they even represent history and, being metonymies of the past, act as materialized traces.
Annette Kelm’s photographs often focus on artificial arrangements of objects that look familiar and yet generate additional signification that makes them difficult to read. Her images quote the genres of still life, studio or architecture photography, but never fully comply with the conventions governing these genres. On the contrary, they seem to defy photography’s function as a medium of either documentation or staged representation in favor of something that is both a pictorial composition and a meditation on photographic representation as such. Capturing their subjects in frontal view and in great detail, Kelm’s conceptual approach to photography keeps an air of slight impersonality and yet emphasizes the visual potential of the motifs to stand for more than just themselves. In her still lifes, everyday objects loose their original meaning to gain an unexpected new one. Paper napkins with sun motif become a picture within the picture (Good Morning, 2018). Spirals develop an abstract life of their own (Big Sur, 2018). The architecture of the Research Institute for Hydraulic Engineering and Shipbuilding in Berlin, too, appears as an abstract volume that does not reveal any of its functions (Versuchsanstalt für Wasserbau und Schiffbau, Berlin, 2018).
Over the years, the artist has shown much interest in how things are presented in museums or as part of a collection. How does an object in a display case become a placeholder for cultural history? How do displays frame and structure an item’s readability? Which supplementary information is needed to decode its meaning? The dungarees shown in Latzhose 1, “Relaxed” and Latzhose 4, “Jump” (both 2014) are icons of German feminism of the 1970s. The violet color symbolizes the merging of the male connoted blue with the “female” red, while the working clothes refers to women’s emancipation. In her photographic approach, Kelm animated and ‘freed’ the trousers from being mere symbols that represent a movement still relevant today. The technical apparatus in Zuse 1 (2016) is Z1, the world’s first programmable data processor, which was developed by Konrad Zuse in his parent’s apartment in 1938. The photo presents a detail of the computer under plexiglass as it is shown today in Berlin’s Technical Museum. The technical structure resembles an abstract architecture, yet the plotted text on the vitrine’s surface adds the information necessary to identify it as a milestone of information technology. Annette Kelm’s photograph, however, seems primarily interested in the transposition of the object into the abstract, two-dimensional realm of photography, where meaning is negotiated in a different way: something vanishes and resurfaces anew as visual surplus. Other photographs resemble avant-garde shop window decorations, in which a product is staged in a flashy way, and yet the matching colors between background and object makes the latter almost vanish (Makramee Shoe, 2019). In Straws and Stripes and Apples (both 2018), textile backdrops emphasize the two-dimensional nature of the photographic reproduction as if the pictorial space converged with the depicted object – unless a fold challenges the illusion.
These works – like Annette Kelm’s oeuvre as such – are meticulously visual creations that draw attention to what we see and how we see. Like a frame structuring the view, the compositions unfold references and a manifold context, but in the end they prompt us as viewers to reflect on the potential of wrepresentation as a means to analyze both present and past reality.
ANNETTE KELM (*1975, Stuttgart) lives and works in Berlin. She belongs to the most important representatives of contemporary photography from Germany. Beside important group exhibitions like the 54th Venice Biennale (2011) and the survey show on portrait in contemporary photography at the Kunstmuseum Bonn and the Kunsthalle Nürnberg (2016), her works have been presented within solo exhibitions at international institutions such as Salon Frieder Burda, Berlin (2020), Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna (2018), kestnergesellschaft Hanover, Germany (2017) the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (2016), VOX. Center of Contemporary Image, Montréal (2016), Kölnischer Kunstverein (2014), Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main (2012), KW - Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin (2009), Kunsthalle Zürich (2009) and Witte de With, Rotterdam (2008). In 2016 Annette Kelm has recently received the Camera Austria-Prize and is represented in collections of the Tate Modern, London; Museum of Modern Art, New York, Centre Pompidou, Paris; Kunsthaus Zürich, Switzerland and the Guggenheim Museum, New York amongst others.