Christian Vogt – Today I’ve been you
24 October 2009 to 14 February 2010
Christian Vogt (born 1946) belongs to those Swiss photographers who thoroughly shook up Swiss photography in the aftermath of 1968. Photographers, faith lost in the idea of truth in a single image, began their attempts to break through the boundaries in which journalistic reportage photography and the emotionally detached “Sachfotografie” (non-subjective photography) had become confined. They practised photography as an image medium in its own right, equipped with its own specific tools, and borrowing strategies from art and literature.
After studying photography in Basel, Munich and London, Vogt soon rebelled against the conventions and started his own search for images reflecting his inner life. And with success. In the early 1970s he published his first “sequences” in the prestigious journal Camera, and Du carried his photographic research of an abandoned railway line in the Alsace. This work heightened his awareness for those places where knowledge of their past conditions our perception of them. In 1975 Vogt was awarded the Grand Prix at the first Fribourg Triennial of Photography for his series of surrealistically inspired blue-toned cloud images (“Wolkenbilder”). In the following year, in one of the first exhibitions of the Fotostiftung Schweiz in the Kunsthaus Zurich, he showed, among other works, his “Frame Series”, with which he established his name in artistic circles as well. In this work he playfully and visually convincingly challenged the established strategies of photography showing that the photograph was more to be understood as image than as a reproduction of reality.
Vogt has remained true to himself. In his artistic work over the last forty years he has continued to explore and give new form to the relationship between visible reality and its photographic reproduction, between image and text, between looking and knowing. With great creative invention he pushes his oeuvre forward in series and cycles, the importance of their conceptual development being equal to the actual creation of the imagery. His works repeatedly revolve around similar themes: the representation of time and space, the relationships of elements to each other, the changes of these relationships and of places over a period of time, simultaneity and duration, text and image. Polarities converge building areas of tension in which events or coincidences suddenly occur and condense into enigmatic images.
The exhibition “Today I’ve been you”, has been put together in close collaboration with Christian Vogt. It is not meant to be a retrospective but to record for a moment the current state of his work – without completely losing the historical perspective. Both “Photographic Notes” (1981 and continuing) and his latest work, “Skinprints” (2008/09), contain text elements, already introduced in Vogt’s work in the early 1970s. In the “Notes”, short haiku-like texts, hand-written diary-like entries, appear under the small format photographs, while in the precisely positioned stamps in “Skinprints” the text becomes the image, and the skin on which they are recorded becomes the existential background to questions like “Am I what I think others think I am.” Vogt writes in English, as it allows him to say many things very simply, and in German when he finds it better. In contrast to the spontaneity of the texts of the “Notes” and their poetic associations, the texts of the “Skinprints” were evolved over an extended time span. They are attempts to come to terms with personal injustices or injuries and to communicate perceptions and experiences in a concise way. As Martin R. Dean writes in his essay in the catalogue, “Today I’ve been you” is perhaps the most disturbing sentence: “This reads as if the skin – the skin of a lover – was making itself talk. At the same time, the sentence forms one of the hardest contradictions, not least because the lover always expresses this wish when love is coming to an end.”
The “Photographic Notes” and the “Skinprints” build the framework for three additional large-format works from the last few years: “Flaxen Diary”, “Nebelbilder” (Fog Images, both 2003–09) and “Naturräume” (Natural Spaces, 2008/09). The pictures in “Flaxen Diary” achieve their unconventional impact in part through the use of a ring flash mounted directly onto the lens, freezing the moment or movement – this not in the sense of the “decisive moment”, representing the climax of an anticipated process, but rather as if under a surgical microscope or on a dissecting table. A scene is cut out of the fabric of space and time, with no shadow and exact – as if struck by lightning, while the before and after remains in the dark.
In contrast to the inherent tension of these colour images, the large panorama format “Naturräume” appear at first as dark and almost impenetrable works. Looking at them more closely reveals an unexpected three- dimensionality, a depth into which we are almost imperceptibly drawn. Vogt gives us no horizon, no sky or ground as a visual foothold. Leaving behind the wealth of detail of the image surface we find ourselves in a universe where the memory of his grandmother’s enchanted, overgrown garden resonates. No longer able to see the brush for the branches we are in danger of losing the overview and, with it, ourselves.
“Nebelbilder” achieve a similar impact in a different way. On the one hand, by the mere suggestion of spatial depth and landscapes behind a thick veil of fog, Vogt provides seductive projection surfaces for internal images. On the other, the viewer becomes almost painfully aware that he has only a piece of paper sprinkled with an infinity of microscopically small ink droplets in front of him. We take flight internally, and externally we crash. Inside and outside: again two polarities which Vogt tries repeatedly to integrate in his images.
“Photography is always seeing, wanting to see – and to surrender yourself to where you see nothing, I find is exciting”, Christian Vogt comments in reference to “Nebelbilder”. Photography for him is never reproduction or semblance, but always a question of the significance of history/narrative hidden behind the surface. It is a reflection on the subjectivity of the photographic eye, in the awareness that the real image only emerges when perceived by the viewer. His entire oeuvre, shown here only in part, can be understood as an investigation of seeing in relationship to photography. “Seeing” above all in the sense of “understanding” and “perceiving”. Vogt is very well aware that here there are insurmountable boundaries: “You don’t see it, if you don’t know it.”