Behind the Image - by Stefanie Heckmann

Behind the Image
– On Peter Freitag's Work
by Stefanie Heckmann
translation by Pamela Selwyn

But when a belief vanishes, there survives it -
more and more vigorously so as to cloak
the absence of the power, now lost to us,
of imparting reality to new things - a fetishistic
attachment to the old things which it did once
animate, as if it was in them and not ourselves
that the divine spark resided....

                          Marcel Proust, Swann's Way

Why, wondered the postwar German writer Arno Schmidt, can't we simply hook other people up to our brains and let them see the same images and memories we do? Today, only fifty years after Schmidt expressed his desire for such networks, universal access to memory and experience appears to have become everyday and the detour via the mind obsolete. At a time when the media provide us with ever more perfect pictures of the reality around us, the creativity and imaginative capacity of human memory has largely been replaced by a pool of photographic or digital images. Images produced by the media, which pass in quick succession, overlay individual memories and ideas. At the same time, the progression of images fosters the atrophying of our ability to concentrate on one thing over a longer period and to develop a coherent system of references. For the computer generation, reality will be practically indistinguishable from the experience of it as mediated by photo reproduction, television, video and computer simulation.

Art has become part of an all-encompassing media culture; it has absorbed the counter- and subcultures into itself. Elements from advertising, fashion and lifestyles, music, etc., once outside its catchment area, are extracted from their contexts, and the set-pieces welded together into new pictorial orders. Peter Freitag's computer prints also draw on the store of public images. The artist works with pictures he finds in the advertising brochures of conventional tour operators and processes them digitally on the computer.

The kind of pictures of vacation paradises we encounter in travel catalogues have long become frozen into clichés, and, mutually interchangeable, are stored in our memories. The small format advertising photos show cheerful pseudo-worlds which the eye scans quickly without being struck by anything in particular. Most of the pictures offer glimpses of hotel rooms in which people in groups engage in simple activities that we associate with leisure. The protagonists lie on their beds, read or drink, sit at table or play with their children. The scenes convey an impression of happiness and contentment and satisfy the human longing for harmony. The message is clear, unequivocal and devoid of contradictions. The depicted objects appear to draw their meaning from themselves. The aim of the pictures in the catalogues is to give the potential customer a positive impression of the vacation spot, hotel, beach or swimming pool, and to encourage him or her to buy a holiday package.

It is all the more surprising to find such images in an art context, and more astonishing still that they manage to grab our attention. What makes such pictures interesting for the visual arts?

At first glance, the artist's interventions into his prototypes are scarcely perceptible, since the surfaces of the pictures still appear homogeneous. What matters is that Peter Freitag has extracted all moveable objects, such as the glasses, books, toys and dishes with which the figures originally occupied themselves, from the preexisting scenes. Only the people, rooms and very basic furnishings remain. He then copies the respective backgrounds into the empty spaces left by the removals. The pictures also appear as a series, enlarged several times and with heightened color contrasts. The dots, a clear indicator of a printed prototype, remain visible or are laid over the picture evenly after digital processing.

The scenes in travel brochures, which show people at the pool, in hotel rooms or at breakfast, do not document actual vacations. They are mostly situations staged with typical models, which merely suggest a cheerful, relaxed holiday atmosphere. Hotel rooms are always comparable to stages on which we perform the roles of travelers with the props we find or bring with us. Whereas holiday snapshots, however, generally retain the fullness of what we have experienced and seen, the photos staged for the catalogue, with admirable economy, show us just enough to fulfill our expectations of an idyllic holiday scene. They offer simply constructed, emotionally satisfying basic situations, pandering to conservative role clichés and managing with only a few key props. These make it easier for us to recognize the usual constellations. For these dramatizations exploit the fact that we do not perceive things, pictures, or situations explicitly in everyday life, but merely skim them superficially in order to compare them with what we already know. A few, carefully chosen optical clues thus generally suffice to facilitate recognition.

The images from catalogues provide such convenient models among other things because they are realized with limited means. If one extracts an element -in this case, objects-from the sparsely staged pictures, whose sole aim is recognition, the appearance of reality collapses. The order of things is disturbed. The picture's system of reference is lost. Without the enlivening presence of the objects with which the figures were originally involved, the other furnishings become frozen into mere scenery. The rooms resemble empty stages, on which the figures are abandoned and act in seeming isolation from each other.

The impression of isolation or disrupted communication is heightened by the circumstance that the attention of the figures in the prototypes was originally directed at the objects and not at the other people in the room. If one removes the objects, they gaze into nothingness, while the viewer automatically connects the meaningless gestures and the actions of the figures and tries to interpret them. Confusion arises between what we see and what we know.

The new atmospheric moments of alienation that we can read into the pictures are not a characteristic of the figures themselves. They could proceed from them only if the depicted persons had a coherent identity. This is not the case, however, since the models in the staged catalogue photos are only types who serve as projection surfaces. They appear as stand-ins or figures of identification, just as the objects rather generally represent leisure pursuits.

The psychological or sociological interpretation of the situation is a creative achievement on the part of the viewer trying to interpret the disparate and seemingly mysterious situations. Although the faces and rooms remain identical to the prototype, the clashing of differing codes, which no longer produce a coherent image, permit the pictures to participate in psychological or social phenomena such as isolation and community, loneliness, sexuality and communication, which the viewer reads into them. Through manipulation, the artist produces a lack, which runs through the picture like a fissure and serves as a peg to hang our imagination on. The viewer notices the empty spaces intuitively and instinctively begins to fill them with his or her own ideas and imaginings.

Peter Freitag's works involve research to the extent that the artist does more than simply scratch the surface of the pictures, penetrating the images and allowing us to experience their scope of meaning by altering it. His subtle adaptations reveal the images behind the images, which are in a position to hold our gaze. Originally unequivocal in appearance, motifs, aims, and contexts, the advertising photos gain a new iconographic quality from the artist's interventions. The manipulated prints no longer depict definitive contents. The pictures look like stills taken from a larger context, without providing an interpretation of what they show. In this way the works force us to pause, without sacrificing any of their fascination to the realization of how they were made. Their strength is their ambivalence; the message is left open. One can read all sorts of things into the situations. They suggest stories that seemingly need only to be reconstructed, but actually remain to be told.

Without the original order of things, the pictures cannot simply be consumed anymore. The psychological dramas whose trail we think we are following find no resolution in the picture. The new pictorial situations thus provoke a form of seeing that slowly and searchingly feels its way forward, which leads to a constant comparison of already known types of pictures with the new, mysterious scenes. Only gradually are the origins, quality and specific intention of the original material revealed, along with its importance in the context of the adaptation. Alternating with the perception of the Other, the new view of persons, spaces, and situations or the diagnosis of psychological and social states of mind, new systems of reference emerge. A central question that arises is that of whose game is really being played here.

The artist's decision to restrict himself to images from travel brochures is no coincidence. One could, however, imagine other groups of themes as well. The already highly typified, clichéd and reduced images in the travel brochures are nonetheless particularly conducive, with only slight manipulation, to disrupting pictorial orders and changing basic emotional situations, and thereby to making us aware of the ways in which pictures function. The pictures do not illustrate the complete randomness of images in the media age, their vulnerability to manipulation or the interchangeability of what they show. Instead, Peter Freitag's works make us conscious of the fine line between reality, reproduction, and fiction and the great extent to which the production of public images serves the longings of the viewer.

Peter Freitag's computer prints are closer to painting than they are to media art. Although the pictures owe their existence to the possibilities of the computer, they appear to swim against rather than with the tide of electronically produced images. The artist is interested neither in following current electronic trends nor in criticizing media culture. His works seek instead to demonstrate how much painting as a traditional art form needs redefinition and an opening towards the new technologies. Much like painted images, they chiefly exude tranquility. They create an intimate space in which the viewer is invited to fathom its mystery. In keeping with painting since Modernism, they also reflect their own conditions and possibilities, and encourage us to treat images analytically- on the one hand because the concept and creation process are plainly evident and can be reconstructed, and on the other because, paradoxically enough, the mystery of their effect remains ultimately untouched by these circumstances.

"Painting is the visual place to which the viewer can return as often as she likes, without recourse to rewind, fast forward, or repeat buttons," someone wrote recently in an art magazine. In this sense Peter Freitag's pictorial spaces invite us to stay a while, and to come back sometime. Without a second glance, memory, recognition and also Proust's idea of "imparting reality to new things" would be unimaginable.