Conflict & Collapsing Sites
While the documentary is the point of departure for Doris Frohnapfel’s works, the objectives and concerns of the artist go much further. Her work revolves around documentary photographs which often entailed exploring an unfamiliar place abroad. Politically motivated, the journeys are a concentrated attempt to understand the history and prevailing political situation. The subjective perspective of the journey is continually augmented by an intensive search for relevant clues, a search that locates what is seen spatially and chronologically, capturing and reconstructing its past and history in both textual and pictorial notes. The traveller’s experiences are far too complex that they could ever be mirrored in only one single medium. Chance meetings, travel notes, remembered conversations, things found, materials revealing the history of a place, relevant literature, but also images drawn from other sources, postcards from a flea market or sequences from old films – all this finds its way into the visual projects and shows the diversity of the voices when encountering the ‘other’. In this respect, Frohnapfel has spoken – in a portfolio from 2014 – of a “documentary conception”.
Due to their autarchic aesthetic quality, the photographs actually have no need of any commentary and could, in keeping with the convention of the “powerful” image, stand alone. But the expanded conception of the documentary ties the photography into complex relationships, which, by then resorting to the help afforded by diverse media and materials, can in turn be excavated and brought to light. With meticulous attentiveness, Frohnapfel adapts these media to fit the encountered situation, a quality she also brings to bear for the type and mediality of the image that is used. The photos can be documentary, fleeting like quickly jotted notes or non-representational; photograms, already existing stills taken by surveillance cameras, or large projection surfaces are employed. Found fragments and objects lend weight to the lighter state of materiality of visual photography, casting the photographic document into the directness of material and authentic relationships. These found fragments never freeze into the modus of the past, but are, moving beyond the tracing of clues, translated into the actual. Given that the concept of reconstruction could be associated with the formulation of a truth content and thus an authoritative reading, for Frohnapfel’s work it seems more apt to speak of a construction of the historical, one that results from a multi-perspective approach spanning diverse media. These contexts accompanying the photography appeal to the viewer’s imagination and stand for a ‘past-present’ that amalgamates the temporal lines otherwise dividing the viewer’s thinking. Perception is addressed as an integrated, a whole experience that eludes the corset of strict chronology.
Frohnapfel’s conception of the documentary is always conscious of how spaces are being constantly described historically and politically; the naivety of the innocent gaze has no place here. The work Border Horizons – Photographs from Europe, 2003-2005, takes a look at Europe at a time when it was defined as an open Schengen Area. Establishing an open territory without internal borders while simultaneously reinforcing the external boundaries of the Schengen Area is a contradictory construct. Shot over a three-year period, the photographs to Border Horizons show how regions around borders have changed with the removal of these borders: although the architecture of checkpoints is suddenly functionless, warning signs continue to be visible, proud red-and-white barrier poles now soar upward into gloomy nothingness, border signposts seemingly ashamed of how they have become obsolete. Europe’s proud self-definition is confronted with the many-faceted melancholic atmosphere of the borderline-reality, with the disappearance of old boundary situations and new lines of demarcation looming large. The movement of people and things carves out new paths, while elsewhere the absence of human interaction is observable. Border Horizons expresses itself subtly and pensively about the utopia of a borderless Europe, whereby the criticism levelled against the moment of exclusion inherent to this European vision remains today as relevant as ever.
Frohnapfel understands her work at Europe’s borders as a field study that, besides photography, is based on a variety of media. In a “Retour, Reportage” the visual borderline experiences are accompanied textually by a travel essay that presents encounters and anecdotes which have eluded the pictorial noting. Research on the discussion of the Schengen Area in various press media is given in an appendix to the catalogue. Additional perspectives emerge from several e-mail interviews Frohnapfel conducted with other artists who, thanks to their work, move between Europe’s borders. The catalogue to Border Horizons thus also shows old souvenir cards bought at the flea market as well as stills from surveillance webcams positioned in border towns. Catalogue and exhibition often represent different approaches and are rarely identical. In the exhibition some photos were shown in a large monitor projection, shifting the audience into the Romantic viewer position. The decrepit and discarded landscapes of these borders turned out to be the post-national reply to the sublime outlooks on nature painted by a Casper David Friedrich.
Approaching Europe by way of a detailed gathering of material is continued in Athens 487 – the Ostracised, 2008. The work reminds us of the Maastricht Treaty on the European Union signed in 1992. While the exhibition title alludes to the procedure of ostracism practiced in democratic ancient Athens and thus the banishing of citizens, 277 porcelain shards from an abandoned Maastricht ceramic manufacturer were shown in 27 vitrines. Photographs of every single shard are set in the bottom of the vitrine. Shards stand for an indifferent, heedless approach to history, culminating in a grim mountain of rubble. It is first through their photographic visualisation that the single shards are individualised and presented in a large wall installation. By once again paying attention to these fragments and dealing with them ritually through numbering, naming, inscribing and arranging them, a new appreciation is shown, the reconstructive procedure lending them meaning. The subjectivity of collecting is shielded from being assigned the status of random arbitrariness by quoting scientific procedures of categorisation.
The vitrines function here as media that constitute seeing in space and, as a kind of window, enable a contemplative beholding from many perspectives. The exhibitions are also conceived as a media for arranging the material and in this function they are comparable to the vitrines. Because the exhibition is a space visitors can walk around in, the sequence of the objects and photographs can be continually realigned and balanced out. The artistic staging of the photographs, collages, catalogue cards, objects and vitrines does not offer a closed, cohesive narrative; instead, visitors are given the means for generating a plurality of individual narratives. Frohnapfel’s arrangements of the material show the intersubjective agreement we cultivate about fictions and assert once again that our ways of approaching reality are constructions, which, while able to approach this reality asymptotically, can never grasp it – as is claimed – comprehensively.
This engagement with the past concerned with securing its traces is continued in the 2010 exhibition Multitudes and Parts. Held in the KERAMION in Frechen, the relics of historical ceramics are given studious, museum-like attention. Doris Frohnapfel however has focused mainly on the objects and shards stored in the museum’s depot because they are considered less important. Here, too, the artistic presentation in the form of vitrine works succeeds in shifting the coordinates of how we look. In the vitrines, which are placed directly on the floor, fragmented pieces from different excursion locations like Frechen, Rome, Milan and Leipzig are brought together and arranged into a situation enabling a new comparison. With their clear and transparent order, the vitrines offset the chaos of the mounds of rubble, countering it with a new, organising view. The distinction between valueless shard and exhibition piece becomes fluid; the artistic work on the objects triggers processes of reinterpretation and revaluation.
Beyond this, the Frechen work initiates a transformation of the historical shards in the form of a pictorial re-rendering that shows them in abstracted silhouettes, arranged into groups of forty objects. The brightly coloured arrangements of inkjet prints seem to have erased all traces of history and intentionally translate the shard outlines into a contemporary, attractive ornament. The artist understands such abstraction processes as the work that is needed to “reflectively bring the past to the present”.
Doris Frohnapfel’s criticism of the economic practices of our time and the circumstances they create comes to the fore in her examination of the places where financial transactions are carried out. In Paperworks &, 2009/2011, the artist restages the trading floor after the stock exchange has finished business for the day. The tattered sheets of paper discarded by the brokers, lying scattered over the floor, are imitated in the form of paper snippets and, in the artist’s studio, are thrown on the floor again, arranged, photographed, reworked on the computer and completed as purely paper works. Through this process they are far removed from a realistic representation and have shifted towards abstraction. The black-and-white contrasts are so stark that the concrete traces of the discarded sheets become increasingly elusive, barely perceivable to the eye, an effect that is intensified by adding photograms as a supplementary medium. Because the photograms, in contrast to the print of the photograph, insist on maintaining the status of the original, the work itself turns into an art-immanent commentary on the economic value of artistic work, a value that in the art business is often determined by the dividing line between the uniqueness of an original and serial production.
The exhibition project The Return of Investment, shown in 2010 as part of the Open Space section of the Art Cologne in the Galerie M 29 Richter Brückner, continues the investigation into the “history of the mentality of capital”. In the work Human Capital Market, 2010, Frohnapfel examines the neoliberal idea of human capital and, drawing on detailed research, traces it back to its brutal origins in the slave trade. A presentation table shows a vitrine with postmarks from places to where slaves were sold in the financial centre New York, whereby the table has exactly the same height as those used at the slave auctions. The outer walls of the object show the facades – cut into stainless steel – of buildings where the buying and selling of slaves took place. The elegant sleekness of the exhibition piece deliberately and literally glosses over the blood-drenched background of slavery. Even if these processes of exploitation are no longer primarily played out on or negotiated via the body, they still impact on the individual. The English titles of the works translate the phrases used in neoliberal newspeak and its definition of human potential into one of the darkest epochs of exploitation in human history. Given the contemporary financial crisis, the small toy covered wagon in Own Your Share of Business, 2010, symbolises the naivety of current finance speculation, which – well over a century later – has not moved beyond a simple “go-west” optimism. Past and present are correlated when a miniature projection in the covered wagon shows film sequences taken at the time of the 1929 Stock Market Crash.
Doris Frohnapfel’s travels in the Mediterranean, visiting Tunisia, Algeria and Lebanon, from 2012 to the present, are currently assuming a prominent place in her work. These are countries close to Europe and where, as former colonial territories, traces of this shared history are still discernible. The motivation behind these journeys is far removed from that of setting off on a tourist jaunt. The photographs refuse to indulge an attitude geared to enjoyment; the exotic is consciously avoided. The one-dimensional attitude of seeking out ‘touristy’ experiences gives way to a sharp eye for the dissonant moments and contradictions of a place where different actors and interests come into contact. One thing the places Frohnapfel shows have in common is that they are all subjected to a capitalist reinterpretation. The contradiction between the tenacious inertia of the existing and a planning gaze tinted by visions of the future is discernible everywhere.
Under the impression made by the architecture of Algiers, Frohnapfel imagines a possible meeting between Albert Camus and Le Corbusier in the work L’Etranger Le Corbusier, 2012. This fictive encounter is in fact quite possible given the historical dates. The writer and architect were presumably in Algiers at the same time, both exposing themselves to the heat and dazzlingly strange light of this place. The profound changes to the city Le Corbusier planned are quoted – as bright crosshatchings – in the postcard collages of Light and Shade, 2012; representing the universal claims of modern architecture, the yellow of the pigment markers penetrate into the spaces of the tradition-bound Kasbah.
The works on the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli also explore the clash between local history and the ambitious undertakings of city planning informed by the optimism of progress in the 1960s and 1970s, projects which may be read as postcolonial incursions into an existing urban fabric. The example of the international trade fair building designed by Oscar Niemeyer in 1962, the Rashid Karami International Fair, epitomises the whole complexity of modern building construction in the Near East. In 1975 construction work had to be stopped because of the civil war. The International Style has since faced the dusty and indifferent reality of a land ravaged by civil wars and violent conflicts. Frohnapfel’s photographs show the trade fair building as a ruin of modernism, used for varying purposes and increasingly losing its contour and stability on its outer rims. Accompanying the photographs of Tripoli, the vitrine Nails and Dividers, 2013, plots the chronology of the trade fair grounds designed by Niemeyer. Chunks of concrete from the Niemeyer building, rusty nails and an arrangement of compasses symbolise the futility of the grand planning gesture which, epitomized by the architect’s self-confident swing of a compass, wanted to mark out, develop and reinterpret space. The dialects of disinterest, oblivion, slow decay and continuous damage irritate and grind away at the language of modernism. The timelessness asserted by the architecture of modernism and its transregional aspirations are incessantly overridden in the reality of the Near East.
The clash between modernism and tradition is illustrated in several digital poster collages and vitrine works housing complex arrangements of materials. In the vitrine Mediterranean Coordinates, 2013, materials washed up on the Tunisian coast are brought together and laid over the lines of an old sea chart of the Mediterranean from the seventeenth century. The found objects not only witness a past age but also appeal to the viewer to spin a storyline about them and generate meaning, to take them as fragments and complete in their imagination a splendid mosaic floor like those in the ancient Punic palaces. In her detailed investigative work, Frohnapfel is acutely aware that remembering – like imagination – stems from a mental construct. The precise naming of the objects and where they were found ground the imagination. The vitrine Rubble of Reconstruction, 2012/2013, carefully displays the rubble from condemned buildings and derelict sites in Beirut. The exhibited chunks of debris are the remains of destructive business speculation in land and property, which, together with their history, are remorselessly cleared away for the purpose of attracting new investors, turning them into drab and faceless blocks. The spatial dimension is concretised by marking the place of the find on maps. A poster is also part of the work Rubble of Reconstruction; it shows the cartographical and photographic positions of the locations in front of a large shot of a wall mosaic from Beirut. As a medium, the map not only provides orientation; it is also the place various strands of perception are condensed, the artist subjectively situating herself in notes and remarks, creating the space for fictive sequels.
The Lebanese capital Beirut is another coordinate in the Mediterranean region journeyed by Frohnapfel. The different ways of looking at Beirut are mirrored in the conscious use of analogue and digital image formats. The juxtaposition of Confrontation and Construction Sites visualises this contradiction and the tireless work on and in space. The decision for analogue or digital depends on the motif and the strategy of the respective approach. For Confrontation Sites, 2012/2013, Frohnapfel chose to use an analogue 6x6 medium-format camera with only one focal length. Shot from a pedestrian’s perspective, the photos show office buildings and facades from the 1970s and document the hopes pinned on the architecture of the International Style at the time. In contrast, the photo series Construction Sites, 2013, photographed digitally and more fleetingly in just a week, show the myriad attempts, driven by an unbridled enthusiasm for investment, to redevelop Beirut.
During her second Beirut visit in 2014 Frohnapfel shot the Photogenic Sites, photos which in the first instance focus on bomb-gutted homes in Beirut. None of the architectures here exude the optimism of a better future. Frohnapfel shows the damaged city in the strange beauty of gaping facades and construction materials laid bare. The artistic approach by no means remains in an aesthetically-motivated nostalgia for ruins however, showing parallel the constant efforts put into rebuilding what has been destroyed. Cables are re-laid in the rubble and, seemingly indefatigable like Sisyphus, people here continue to work on and shape the spaces they live in.
The rubble and debris a constantly changing city leaves behind are sought at their source, registered photographically and rendered visible as objects. In the work Transformless, 2015, the fragments and found pieces are this time not exhibited as originals but cast as bronzes. The concrete readability of a history of violence and destruction is annulled in the cast and given the status of an altered object: the piece of rubble is transformed into an art object that fits in with the conventions expected by the art market and yet remains “formless”. Thanks to the material of bronze, a metamorphosis of debris into a precious metal with a variety of possible uses takes place – a transformation process that also casts a scrutinising eye at the transformation of economic value.
The artist, who after studying fine arts in Cologne also graduated in architecture from the RWTH Aachen and in the 1990s worked in an architecture bureau specialising in urban planning, has maintained an interest in the processual structures of cities in many of her works. A photographic depiction of the architecture is always connected to the city. Here urban life with its overlapping and often conflicting aspirations can be read in terms of shifting contours through time. In this respect, journeys can also be undertaken in familiar terrain; the artist’s explorative eye makes finds in the local neighbourhood. The project Commons & Cologne, 2015/2016, which Doris Frohnapfel is currently carrying out together with the artist Ina Wudtke as part of the StadtLabor für Kunst im öffentlichen Raum, is conceived as a critique of urban planning in Cologne. The artists are monitoring the massive commercial occupation and reframing of Cologne’s Breslau Square and the adjoining Kunibert neighbourhood in a series of photographs and performances which expound the problems which arise when the extravagant fantasies of investors encroach into a traditional mixed residential and small business quarter, with firmly-established structures and somewhat out of step with the times. Walking tours are to trigger awareness for how urban planning reframes one’s living environment, redevelops spaces commercially, gearing them solely to become business opportunities, and thus bars the way for other definitions of space. The burgeoning process of gentrification is critically accompanied by a diverse array of artistic media and forms of performance.
Travelling, searching, digging, finding, collecting traces, rearranging things, presenting – Doris Frohnapfel’s set of artistic practices leads to a subjective perspective, one though that communicates intersubjectively, giving the viewer the necessary material to construct the contexts of the places explored. The moment of reflectively hauling the past into the present is not only immanent to the works; it also represents a way of addressing the audience. Frohnapfel considers the viewer in terms of emancipation. Drawing on photographs, vitrines and objects, she puts together new constructions which, in the spirit of Umberto Eco, constitute an open work, demonstrating that we can only really deal with history and undertake political action in a critical dialogue with the interpretations put forward by others. Frohnapfel’s works are underpinned by an understanding of aesthetics that is not pressed into the conceptually constricting corset of beauty; instead, they argue and contend, operating on a broadened concept of aesthesis as an expression of human perception in all its diversity. The artist’s constructions are testimonies, acts of bearing witness stemming from a condensing of subjective perception, which can in turn generate new, currently relevant perceptions.