Nothing is ever quite what it seems

Jan Winkelmann

A strange situation. I’m sitting at my desk one April evening and wondering what to write about Andreas M. Kaufmann. Just like the first time I sat down to write a text about the same artist, I find myself captivated by the hypnotic play of light outside the window. In a multitude of hues of red and yellow, the setting sun is sending into the night the world on the other side of the pane. Don’t think for a moment that the sight of a horizon shot through with colours makes me sentimental, impressive though the sight is, but I must admit I find myself drifting into a session of memory surfing. It might be a good idea, I suddenly think, to write a piece based on my personal encounters with the works of Andreas M. Kaufmann over the past eight years instead of an essay structured by specific discursive criteria or a strict line of argument.

‘Kleine Kunstgeschichtsmaschine’ (‘Small Art-History Machine’) (1991-92) is the installation that marked the beginning of our friendship and my interest in Kaufmann’s oeuvre. To me, it remains the most fascinating example of Kaufmann’s work, and possibly occupies a key position in his early output. It was first exhibited at ‘TIEFGANG’, a show I co-organized with Roland Scotti in 1992. The venue was an old bunker in the vaults of Mannheim Palace. Due to its simple yet startling usage of the given environment, Andreas M. Kaufmann’s contribution was among the most stimulating and impressive of the 40 exhibits.

In the oblong bunker space, a slide projector rotating about its own axis projected a basic line drawing based on Michelangelo’s fresco ‘The Creation of Adam’ and depicting the Heavenly Father’s arm. The arm orbited around the space in frenetic circles, mercilessly scanned every bump in the walls. Sometimes moving at a snail’s pace, it would suddenly contract to nothing more than a dot of light, and then continue its almost unbearably slow progress before abruptly expanding, eruption-like, and racing about until once again it slowed down, became clearly visible, only to shrink once more into a barely visible dot of light. Although delivered in a repetitive, unvarying rhythm, it was a gripping performance that entranced and captivated the viewer. The effect described was achieved through nothing more than varying projection distances and angles that made it possible to perceive the movement of projection at different speeds, although objectively the projector was rotating at constant velocity. Standing in one corner of the room, the projection onto the opposite wall – the farthest distance – was clearly focused.

Kaufmann achieved with the simplest means an astonishing deconstruction of image and space or, more aptly, caused one to permeate the other. Thanks to the rotating projector, the static image was not only set in motion but a startling dynamic was produced by the ceaseless waves of distortion and re-adjustment. This staged spatio-temporal continuum decomposed the identity of the image, and the architectural space was permanently rhythmicized by the uniformly continuous deformation and re-genesis of the motif. Already in this early work, the main elements characterizing Kaufmann’s subsequent output were unmistakable: projection, movement, usage of existing visual material, and direct confrontation with an existing spatial situation.

In spring 1995, Åsa Nacking invited me to curate a project at rum, an exhibition space she and Mats Stjernstedt were running in Malmö. For my part, I asked Andreas M. Kaufmann and Thomas Eller to come up with a joint site-related project (‘YOU!’).

Somewhat off-centre in the darkened, almost cube-shaped site, two slide projectors stood opposite each other on top of a rack fitted with a rotary mechanism. Each apparatus was projecting in opposite directions a photographic self-portrait of Thomas Eller. The fact that the figures’ postures suggested they might be moving in the running direction of the projectors heightened the dynamic impetus of the moving projections. On one wall in the space, the photographed figure had been cut-out and pasted on aluminium – the material version of the projected image. Since both images were identical in size, the projections briefly covered up the sculpture in the course of each rotation.

This interaction of moving projection and static sculpture ruptured the integrity of the space in a number of ways. The various moments of experience produced within the installation transported viewers into the midst of a stylized, imaginary dual between two opponents, but equally made them liable to feel fenced-in by the moving projections. The direction of view also played an important role: were the figures looking into each other’s eyes or observing the observers? Were the viewers chance onlookers relegated to the side-lines, or witnesses in the thick of things? Only the sculpture physically shared the real, three-dimensional space of the viewer, and in the dark space it was difficult to tell if one was looking at a ‘real person’ or a photograph. All the same, it was the viewer’s only point of reference to the projection, the only bridge between illusion and reality.

Andreas M. Kaufmann’s show at the Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum in Duisburg in 1995 gave me a first opportunity to see a work of him using moving images, namely the film medium and the possibilities of video projection. The source of pictures and point of departure for the video installation ‘Allein mit viel zu viel’ (‘Alone with Much too Much’) (1993-95) was Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’ of 1950, a film addressing the issues of truth and the latter’s degree of dependency on subjective perception. In three consecutive accounts given from the viewpoint of respectively one participant and interspersed with an outline plot, Kurosawa’s film relates how a samurai warrior is murdered and his wife subsequently raped. Kaufmann’s installation projected the three versions simultaneously instead of one after the other. Originally of varying lengths, were synchronized to identical duration and shown without sound. The shortest sequence therefore had to be projected so slowly that its visual action was identifiable only in the case of extremely rapid movements.

Kaufmann projected these three videotapes onto the walls, floor and ceiling of the exhibition room. The viewers’ only chance of gaining anything like an undistorted impression of the individual film scenes was by standing relatively close to one of the three projection beams. The three varying projector perspectives in the room corresponded to the various narrative perspectives in the film. In consequence, all three films could not be followed at once. The film’s concession to the impossibility of simultaneous perception through the consecutive and linear cascading of three different plots found an equivalent in the various viewing angles of visitors to Kaufmann’s installation. Since their points-of-view were dependent on physical standpoint, the general incompleteness of perception was neatly pinpointed. Visitors experienced the boundaries and inadequacies of their own perception, but were also made aware of the questionable nature of perceived reality as the objective truth. Like in other works by Kaufmann, the strategy underlying this installation is aimed at unsettling individual perception. It comes down to one question: is what we see really what we see, or in fact something different, and what we are seeing is only what we think we are seeing?

The large-image projection by Kaufmann I saw the following year in the group exhibition ‘CL III Storage Area GE 62 E’ on an abandoned US military site in Ober-Olmer Wald by Mainz, took a similar approach to perception and its psychological preconditions. ‘Videopainting No. 3’ (1996) was projected onto a wall opposite the door leading into an overground munitions bunker. Depending on the point in time visitors happened to enter the bunker, they were confronted by either an oversized hand or fist. This projection, which initially looked like a still, imperceptibly changed over a longer period of time. The hand clenched into a fist, which for its part opened out to become a hand. The entire process lasted more than an hour. It was impossible to follow the change as such, since the extreme, computer-aided motional deceleration meant there were none of the jerky motions typical of slow motion. Taking place below our perceptual threshold, the transformation was perceived as a difference on the basis of time and a change enacted over a period of time, but not as movement. The process was complete by the time the brain detected any change in the image. Taking his cue from Erik Satie’s ‘Musique d’ameumblement,’ Kaufmann calls the monitor-presentation concept for his video paintings ‘Video d’ameumblement.’ Their presence should be as matter-of-course, says the artist, ‘as a painting hanging on the wall, for instance.’ Conceived as a loose series, the video painting show everyday activities first isolated then integrated into repetitive, endless motional series. Due to their simplicity and clarity, the actions depicted in the video paintings remain open as commonplace gestures inviting generalization and interpretation. That in turn opens up a framework of connotations determined not least by the context of exhibition.

For ‘fast nichts/almost invisible,’ a show that I mounted in a disused transformer station in Singen am Hohentwiel in summer of 1996, Kaufmann carried out a scarcely noticeable intervention (low visibility was indeed typical of all the works in the show) in a site still bearing strong traces of its former function. He installed a peephole in the outer wall of a room not accessible to the public. ‘Untitled’ (1996) gave visitors a view into a closed-off section of the building, but the distorting peephole so contradicted the conventions of ‘normal’ seeing that it was a view pre-determined by the choice of optical device rather than a chance to glimpse forbidden territory. A strong wide-angle lens was necessary in order to offer a full view of the room through a hole that was merely one centimetre in diameter, but the distortion was considerable. The view necessitated distortion, and vice-versa. With this simple yet very precise intervention, Kaufmann made it clear how perception – together with seeing, its determining component – lacks objectivity. Perception, in other words, is always influenced by external factors. Ultimately, every perception is a construction that is wholly subjectively conditioned in various ways. When all is said and done, there is no such thing as a neutral, objective and undistorted view.

The principle elaborated in ‘Kleine Kunstgeschichtsmaschine,’ the first work I mentioned, was carried forward by ‘Große Kunstgeschichtsmaschinerie’ (Large Art-History Machinery) (1992-93). I first saw it in Leipzig in 1998, at a small Kaufmann show staged at the gallery of the Leipzig Academy of Visual Arts as one of the events marking the opening of the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst Leipzig.

In comparison with its small forerunner, the second ‘art-history machine’ had not only grown in scale – it ran on seven projectors instead of one – but the projection technique was now augmented by collage. The projector magazines were loaded with reproductions of classical paintings arranged in chronological and historical sequence. From Giotto to Walter Dahn, images went flying through the space. Although the rotation speed objectively appeared to be constant, the varying speeds produced exponentially multiplied the subjective impression of almost dramatic dynamics in the continuous alternation and simultaneity of slow and fast, focused and blurred, distorted and undistorted. The historical sequence of works displayed soon became asynchronous, and the superimposition of individual projections produced a permanently changing light collage. This dynamic visual tapestry spread over the walls, parts of the floor and the ceiling. Viewers were integrated into this pattern as blanks composed of shadows on the walls, and also served as additional projection surfaces. In this function they became part of the installation, thus complying (consciously, at best) with the artist’s intention.

The effect produced by the permanently changing colours and shapes and the parallelism of different velocities bordered on overstimulation. It deprived the fleeting pictorial masses of individual content and meaning, and reduced the pictures to mere surfaces. Now they defined the space as autonomously moving light signals devoid of meaning, diversely showed it up in a ‘different light.’ The deconstruction that took place was a pointer beyond the spatial visibility of the installation towards the projected images’ original context. Kaufmann was striking up a cheerful yet acute swan-song for the avant-gardes of the 20th century. The most progressive of the progressive, whose sacred ideals ultimately met with failure, are now part of art history. Reduced to a reproduction, they were forced into ready-made (slide) frames that made it impossible to judge the true size of the original. This usage of reproductions of existent pictures also introduced into the installation the momentum of recollection, an elementary human faculty that is no less vital for individual identity than art is as part of a civilization’s collective identity. This recourse to ‘found footage’ reflected a decision not to further swell the ocean of existing pictures. The available material was instead re-arranged in unusual and striking fashion, even if only for a limited period of time.

The last work I wish to discuss takes me back to the starting point, and so the wheel comes full circle: to ‘Kiss’ (1994-95), a work Kaufmann produced three years after the ‘Kleine Kunstgeschichtsmaschine’ and two years after the ‘Große Kunstgeschichtsmaschinerie.’ From autumn 1999 onward, it was on display in the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst Leipzig during the ‘MOVING IMAGES. Film – Reflexion in der Kunst’ show I co-planned with Dirk Luckow. With ‘Kiss’, the artist again expanded the rotating-projection principle by this time projecting, with the aid of a scene from a film, not one photographed image but a sequence of images that were already animated. Here again, the specific formal disposition of the scene shown served as point of departure. It featured one of the most famous kisses in film history, namely between Kim Novak and James Stewart in Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo:’ Revolutionary and pioneering in filmmaking terms at the time was the slow circular pan shot around the kissing couple. With this technical achievement, Hitchcock greatly intensified the passion of the kiss and at the same time in this key scene visually created a kind of traumatic maelstrom in which Scottie realized that Madeleine and Judy are one and the same person. Kaufmann projected this scene with a rotating video projector in a room flooded with red light. The motion of film camera and video projector was so precisely synchronized that the same part of the sequence was always to be seen on the same piece of wall. Due to the rotating projector, the dynamism created by the rotation of the camera was virtually cancelled out, but at the same time the movement of the projection put motion into the room, meaning a tension arose between the image and the moving projection. By detaching this scene from its context, Kaufmann succeeded in breaking up the linear narrative structure that is characteristic of film, yet at the same time he upheld another important parameter associated with that narrative form, namely the temporal experiencing of a work.

Alongside the formal visual experiences of moving projection already described, another striking and, in my opinion, essential feature of ‘Kiss’ is the deliberate sparseness of the means. This economy is a hallmark of most, although not all, of the artist’s works. Kaufmann knows how to achieve maximum effect with a minimum of sculptural and technical techniques. The confusion triggered by a visual effect that is often baffling when first observed opens up an approach that enduringly and subtly places in question our perceptual conventions as viewers. Nothing, indeed, is ever quite what it seems.

Translation: Tom Morrison

Published in: here you are, Cat. Städtische Galerie Wolfsburg (Salon Verlag, Köln), 2000.

© 2000 Jan Winkelmann

German version