Many years ago, when the world was a simpler place than it is today and the endless and boundless information circulating through the internet was a promise in the far distant future, the serious German newspaper »DIE ZEIT« undertook an interesting experiment with a picture. The same picture was printed in all sections of the paper, with a correspondingly different caption each time, and without the project being mentioned anywhere in the newspaper. The result was as predictable as it was surprising: in the finance section the picture of a woman in worker’s clothes in front of some steel tanks in a factory hall served as a visual transmitter for the text dealing with the merger of two large dairy firms. In the political section the same picture underlined demands for higher wages in the metal-working industry, in the culture (feuilleton) section the picture accompanied a description of the performance of an artist with the theme »job and exploitation«. What was so surprising in this media stage-setting was not only the fact of how absolutely well, how indisputably, the text and picture information seemed to belong together in all the different cases. What was really disturbing was how long it took until one slowly realized, while reading the newspaper, that one had already seen, perhaps even more than once, the picture one was looking at. Apparently the respective captions for the same picture exerted such powerful information that they appeared to be different photographs each time in the perception of the reading viewers themselves. I can remember well, after having seen through the manoeuvre, that I still had vague doubts as to whether it was really one and the same photograph because the context was entirely different each time.
Still, and particularly due to the current situation with its exponentially increased flood of images and media, the experiment in »DIE Zeit« appears to me to be significant. On the one hand, as a sign of the image fixation in our society. On the other, more crucial, as irrefutable proof for the total manipulability of any iconographic depiction by the context in which it is placed. Meanwhile, the brittleness, the dubious nature of what images convey in terms of information has increased dramatically. In the process of a tremendously rapid »iconic turn« taking place, and which is still ongoing, images are not only limitlessly available but also digitally permutable in a manner which allows them to seem essentially. Or to put it another way: Those who deal with the pictures of our world today do not necessarily believe that they are real but assume from the start that they are not congruent with what is depicted.
It is just on this basic principle that the art work of Wolfgang Ellenrieder is founded. In his painting he has taken appropriate action as a result of the fact that the anchoring in reality of our world of images has become so porous that the images’ previous forgery is always inherent in any potential truth they may contain. If Ellenrieder constructs small-town idylls from model kits and then photographs them, or draws his pictorial themes from stock-art catalogues or hard-core porn CDs, then it is not in order to come to a standstill in a simulacrum at the repeated proof of the dissolution of truth – which meanwhile is seemingly almost obsolete. Rather, he creates his own reality in his photographs and pictures: the truth of the forgery. This is exactly why the photographs of his little model houses sometimes seem more real in a maliciously poisonous sort of way than the dreary bourgeois reality in the suburbs of our small towns. And this is also why the »passe-partout« pictures from the stock supplies of the photograph agencies, these universally and always appropriately utilizable bastardized images, appear in their pictorial translation all at once as specific and as personal as the mainly feminine faces of the porno stars. By means of pertinently chosen detail, but particularly due to the chosen medium of painting, they regain a momentum, a characteristic that had been long lost. The dependence of the picture on a context is proven in this case in a sort of backwards volte-face. The primary image medium – painting – injects electronic paradigms that have been exhausted by a total media permutation with its own original context, namely the phantasma of the original, and charges it with an aura of paradoxical authenticity.
Ellenrieder shows an interesting focussing of this causality of argumentation in the series of small and medium format tent pictures made in 2005. At first sight these have a simultaneously idyllic as well as a disturbing effect. In contrast to the porn or stock catalogue paradigms, the artist is availing himself mainly of pictures from private internet sites. Photographs from these sites are often of holiday situations whereby the tents are not only the central aspect of the composition but, in a photographic act of personalization, emerge as actors, as protagonists. What obviously fascinates Ellenrieder in these photographs is the peculiar uniformity that arises from what were originally highly intimate documents. It is as though the personal viewpoint is no longer capable of creating anything but an anonymous standardization. Not only do the tents – in general all dome-shaped tents – resemble each other; the surroundings, the colours and the perspectives of the photographs all are strangely similar to each other. Only occasionally can a figure be seen sitting in front of one of the tents. Usually the tent is presented – like a metaphor for the fundamental human yearning for some form of dwelling – as a lone actor. Sometimes as a solitary example, sometimes as a pair and occasionally as a vaguely ordered flock of gabled tents. The complete uneventfulness of the scenes and the fact that they really posses no information value at all – except for the persons taking the photographs and their personal environment – endow the pictures with an unusual, almost surreal intensity which is heightened by the watery, cloudy coalescence of the painting technique. What has been made public twice, once on the internet and again through being painted, has thus lost its intimate character but has certainly not gained in general significance.
While Ellenrieder in his painting makes identifiable the interchangeable character of the surrogate material that he uses in the above-mentioned examples, painting maintains the tents in a state between proximity and distance. Neither an approach to metamorphosis nor a distancing is possible. Hunched into themselves, the tents formulate a terra incognita, a foreign space that signals withdrawal and unassailability. Like gigantic alien eggs, they sit on the grass and in woods dappled by sunlight. What goes on inside them, if anything goes on inside them at all, remains a complete mystery. As flying architecture placed in a blurred setting, the longing for a localization, for a placement, is evident in them. However, even more clearly they convey the feeling of complete homelessness which, paradoxically, is intensified by the titles of the works. Whether »Hockenheim« (p. 28), »Roskilde« (p. 35), »Chiemsee« (p. 33) or »Taubertal« (p. 39), we constantly find ourselves in the same nowhere of clearings which cannot decide if they want to be civilized cultivated landscapes or rank overgrown natural ones. This determined geographic naming does not facilitate identifiability but on the contrary creates a uniformity which undermines all attempts at spatial ascertainment. As in Ellenrieder’s »Spatial utopias«, spatiality in the tent picture series also appears elusive, virtual, withdrawn. The tangible melancholy, which is perhaps discernible only at a second glance, arises precisely because of this: the paradigms, private photographs, wish to document a specific memory and a temporary dwelling as home – but the transposition into a painted picture only unearths stereotyped anonymity and a homeless itinerancy.
Stephan Berg in
›Wolfgang Ellenrieder – parallel‹,
Kerber Verlag Bielefeld, 2006