The two objects are viewed from overhead and depicted approximately life-size in the illuminated image. The black plastic covering of the automatic transmission can still be identified; the rod next to it with the brackets and small accessories also comes, one is left to assume, from the automotive world. Though the meaning of their juxtaposition may not be clear at first glance, the image is evidently attempting to describe the objects’ conditions. Lit with flash from the front, they are photographed against a background of square tiles, the chilly whiteness reinforced by the lightbox in which the 91 x 66 cm image is presented. The work’s title can be translated as “Are you ready?”
For the past several years, the artist Beate Gütschow has used lightboxes—a kind of image shell omnipresent in public spaces and sometimes referred to as “city light”—to present her photographic works. Illuminated from behind, the images impress viewers with their luminosity and sharp contours. These advertising media can lend even the most profane products a kind of aura, as one senses in their luminous glow the former glory of church windows in addition to the striving of modernity for immaterial visual forms. The promises of modernity are also the focus of Gütschow’s artistic explorations. Thus the cityscapes from her earlier work series entitled S reflect urban utopias—photographic fragments of real constructed architectures that, when digitally assembled, yield new, synthetic, drawing-board architecture. These large-format panels are hybrid constructs of photographic depictions, classic image perspectives, and new forms of image montage.
Gütschow offers new interpretations of traditional genres of pictorial representation. With her series I, she has left behind natural and urban landscapes and has entered an inner realm, the interior, which includes the still life—a depiction of things or objects. Yet these rooms have nothing in common with the daylight-flooded interiors of Dutch painting. The various settings are contemporary locations that remind us of photo studios, advertising agencies, laboratories, or offices. These are chilly, functionalistic rooms in which a great variety of things appear to stand under careful scrutiny or, in the case of the photo studios, to be in the process of being turned into “images.” There is a pause, a short delay, before, one can imagine, the objects are rearranged again.
Some of the objects she photographs are automobile components, torn from the world of perfectly designed surfaces. They have ceased to be autonomous things and are instead mechanical organs extracted from the complex organism to which they once belonged. As a result, the titles of the images of which these objects are the protagonists might sound somewhat ironic. The names are taken from advertising slogans that the artist found on the websites of various manufacturers. Gütschow has laconically called the exhibition of these works Produktpolitik (Product Politics). The show explores the after-life of objects, now that they have ceased to be products.
The photographic constellations of things and devices remain enigmatic; the function and purpose of their juxtaposition cannot be determined at first glance. If for the Surrealists the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table was still an expression of beauty, the things in Gütschow’s new works seem instead to be lost, without any clear connection, homeless. This hermeticism of the objects stands, as suggested above, in a strange contradiction to the absolute precision and transparency elicited by their presentation in the lightboxes.
Transparency: With this quality of photographic depiction, the photography of the Neue Sachlichkeit (or New Objectivity) of the late 1920s heralded a new era. The picturesque glorification of the world that characterized artistic photography prior to World War I had come to an end. The apparent immediacy of precise, photographic representation discovered in objects a new world of motifs to be explored, a world of modern products to be portrayed. These images of objects are rendered with an empathetic gaze, as if the essence of things might in this way voluntarily reveal itself to the eye of the camera. “Objective meaning” without any kind of “artistic transfiguration” (Walther Petry) thus stands at the beginning of the modern history of objects in photography.
If the identity of things is today defined above all by their marketability, this also changes how they appear and how they are viewed. In Beate Gütschow’s works, things appear at first glance naked and without context, and yet the artist is always staging the objects, even though this staging is not always evident. While the photographic space, the setting, is included as part of the image with utmost precision, the partly incidental, partly enigmatic, partly random arrangement of the things follows a certain contemporary notion of vision. In some of the constellations Gütschow found inspiration in photographs that sellers on eBay took of their products—summary juxtapositions of objects that were to be sold, photographed with iPhones in garages or basements.
In Gütschow’s modern still lifes, the illusionistic dispositif of commercial photography meets the crude realism of the new image culture of the internet. Presented in lightboxes, the objects that have served their time and now stand at the end of their value chain appear as cannibalized components and eerie revenants of our consumer culture.
Ebner, Florian. “Things, Naked.” In Beate Gütschow: ZISLS. Heidelberg, 2016, pp. 66-75.
Translated by Chris Michalski.