Projects and Footnotes, Sceptical Reconstructions, 2006

The frontispiece to the review of Doris Frohnapfel’s work since the year 1995 that you have before you now is a shot of the entrance to the Villa Wittgenstein in Vienna, designed by the philosopher of language Ludwig Wittgenstein for his sister in 1925/26. The ceiling is adorned by a lamp in the form of a simple light bulb. Without additional ornamentation, which could distract it from its task, this simple light bulb is the source of light. Thereby, in the metaphorical sense, it is also the realisation, reduced to essentials, of the same clarity in the service of its function as Wittgenstein sought to prove for the logic of language in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: the total identity of image and concept.

Frohnapfel titles her retrospective documentation along the same principle: Projects and Footnotes, and thereby gets a hold both on the content of the publication as well as on its analogically designed layout. A layout at the top of whose pages are located examples from her current series of work, amongst them illustrations of the related publications, installation shots, exhibition photographs and explanations. The image, in its supposedly independent meaningfulness is added to – or relativised – through marginalia: that which is known, or that ‘with which there is to know’ – the associated, the connoted. On one hand, the artist takes up handed down forms of representation, like the Grotesques in Renaissance wall painting, or the peripheral stories of the life of saints on a retabel from the Middle Ages. On the other hand, she tackles a formal game with the “objectivity character” of her photographic works, in the spirit of French ‘securing traces’ ideas from the 1970s, which subtly examine common means of representation from within the scientific context, as well as truth as such.

Matter of Fact – Tatsachen – is the suitably dubious title possessing a double meaning for a series of photos from 1995 that reproduce diverse sites at which people met their death under tragic circumstances, either by their own choice or thanks to someone else. What, however, do these shots express? How much to they relate of the dramatic event that took place there? And generally: what kind of truth do images possess? “A picture says more than a thousand words.” Even more than a painting, a photo is considered as an unerring witness of the moment. Its objective information content is however deceptive. It is always an interpretation of a “like so”, manipulated by the photographer as well as by the individual viewer. In an analogy to the dubious nature of the artistic image’s claim to objectivity, in his late work, Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein rejects the ideal of the exactness of language: words are ambiguous and vague, the meaning of a word does not permit itself to be discovered through logic, but rather only through the recognition of the sense in which it is used in the everyday “game of language”.

Photos that lean so far towards the documentary do not provide any answers. They are more questions than statements. Looking at them, we are repeatedly thrown back on ourselves. Thus, similarly to how the artist herself approaches the comprehensible, exercising her subjective grip by means of the “objective” (Note: In German, a camera lens is also called an “Objektiv”), we are animated in the face of these pictures both to remember, and to think on. In contemplation of the scenes of death, our imagination of the life of the particular person more or less unravels itself into ‘rewind’. This review takes place almost inevitably – like in the moment when the unimaginable happened, with that “click click”, by accident, by chance – then we have a tendency towards retrospectively reconstructing the course of events, to manipulating them in our thoughts, in our wish to make what has happened not to have happened, in a desperate fantasy of omnipotence. Everything could have turned out quite differently, if I had (not)….

Places are storages of history, and history is the sum of all stories. Frohnapfel’s older photographs are all black and white, which reinforces their documentary character. And that’s how we imagine the past, mediated through the films and albums of our parents. These black and white times appear further away than the present, colourful ones. Apparently we are better able to assess them and to separate them into all their good and bad component parts than we are able to assess the multi-coloured present in all its complexity. In Doris Frohnapfel’s recent colour photographs, what has taken place moves closer. However, in spite of this, individual destiny has here too something consistently exemplary about it. What is intended is not the individual.

The artist’s shots are established on the margin of being documentation of a real place or existing person and of being a photographic abstraction. However, the aestheticisation of what has been discovered remains in the background. Be it in photographs, sculptural artworks or video films, Doris Frohnapfel attempts a reconstruction of the past, tracks down sediments of history, instigates an archaeology of society and describes the other side of things without demonstrating it explicitly. During her sojourn in Norway between 1998 and 2005 she photographed Herdla, a former Nazi airport near Bergen, as well as Skjolden, where at the beginning of the 20th century, Wittgenstein had that hut built, on un-traversable terrain with a view onto the Sognefjord, in which he sought to battle his doubt by means of his logic, and which the artist reconstructed from its foundations. She roams through Cites Banlieues in Brussels, La Cité Moderne from 1922 and La Cité Modèle from 1958, built city utopias, and mirrors of contemporary designs for society with fundamentally similar aims, which produce completely contrary transformations. The idyll of orderly everyday life in the Spanish enclave “Septem Ceuta” in Northwest Africa is deceptive against the background whereby this region was recently the cause of unhappy headlines, when refugees made to cross the border fence with Morocco or else failed in the attempt. The remains of items from the historic pattern storage of a demolished Dutch porcelain manufacturer are presented in a didactic manner, like elements of an archaeological discovery.

In this artistic attitude, a typically European consciousness of history reveals itself, marked by knowledge of how things are bound up in a development. Doris Frohnapfel succeeds in creating energetic spaces out of text, photography and sculpture, representations of a dynamic history, one that is open to the continual becoming of the present. It is not only that which has passed that manifests itself in things and can be reconstructed, but every future composition and state is always virtually included as well. Frohnapfel’s work sharpens sceptical awareness of how many past conditions remain in existence within the evident momentary present and can potentially still be effective in the future. What is prima vista legible and what should be more fundamentally questioned? The connection between faculties of remembering and the ability to imagine is repeatedly socially relevant. The repression or refusal of remembrance moreover hampers our capability for imagination and positive visions. Frohnapfel handles all these themes with great formal restraint. Her prime concern is to carry out a semantic investigation that follows the tradition of the ‘linguistic turn’ in art made by René Magritte, Marcel Broodthaers or Joseph Kosuth: Where does the border run between word and image? What does an image describe? The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus anyway ends with the recommendation: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Thereof, Doris Frohnapfel takes a photograph that states something – whereof it absolutely must be spoken.