22.04.2009 / Modernism och postmodernism

Gabriele Leidloff: Goethe (1996)

Leidloff`s implicit rendering of mortality in the radiographs of body parts presented on viewboxes is made explicit in her radiographs of death masks. These are displayed as flat objects on tables. We look down upon the death masks in the same way that we view the body in the coffin at a funeral. We are above, the departed are below. Somehow their features are softened, "humanized", reenveloped in skin by the soft x-rays that have surrounded the plaster of paris molds taken from the faces of the famous dead and from anonymous murderers. Whether her subjects are associated with the greatest achievements of German history, men such as Goethe and Beethoven, or whether they are common criminals, it is difficult to avoid some of the obvious associations of these objects with the work of other contemporary German artists. We are again made aware of the disjunction between the imperishable nature of the deeds that outlive us and the evidence of our corporeal mortality. And this lesson is equally true whether we are responsible for great accomplishments or terrible crimes, whether we are speaking of Goethe or the most problematic aspects of German history. Whether in reaction or declamation, I do not believe that the work of a German artist of Leidloff`s generation can escape the influence of the Holocaust. Death viewed through the medium of scientific and medical technology recalls the mechanization of death and the depersonalization of our most intimate experiences in the modern era, hence the anonymity of the figures in the mannequin radiographs and the unknowability of the individuals commemorated in the death masks.

The picture of the Goethe mask is, of course, a notable exception. In Goethe, the spirit of art and science are joined as in no other figure of the German enlightenment; he was just as interested in optics as in poetry. The seductive softness of Goethe`s features invite us to touch the surface of the picture, but the absolute flatness of the medium distances us and recalls the finality of life. We can read Goethe`s words, be affected by his thoughts, gaze upon his face, but we can no longer speak to him as he still speaks to us. The flat, unemotional presentation of death by photgraphic means has its own tradition. Since the time of the American Civil War, dead children in the arms of their mothers and adults in their coffins have been propped up in formal portraits, a tradition that has been extensively discussed in the exhibition "Picturing Death" (5). Photography so strongly inscribes the presentness of the object that its pastness becomes all too apparent. There is hardly a photograph that does not play upon our sense of nostalgia. And nostalgia is always associated with loss. Is this doll by Leidloff screaming and what is the nature of the orifice posed in the mouth of death?

One of the felicitous attributes of the backlit crystal lithium computer screen is the way it brings a kind of inner luminosity to colors. Black, mother of all hues, works particularly well, taking on a kind of vibrating depth that it would never achieve on paper. Leidloff's radiograph of Goethe's "life mask" is haunted by the background black, out of which it struggles to swim. The "life mask" is imbued, already, with the nullity of the beyond. The hooded eyes, underlined with pools of that same iridescent darkness that frames the whole; the form of the face, egg-shaped and phosphorescent gray; the lips sealed, holding back, perhaps, a renaissance of words; the image, framed by its shimmering penumbra, seems to be changing before our eyes from "life mask" into death mask. Goethe's ironic anticipation of everything that must come after Goethe is not lost on us. But I think the essential power of the piece derives more from its conceptual energy. Without being labeled "Goethe" who would know? The word "Goethe", however, cathects all the terrible silence sealed in the skull-like image; the image itself amplifies the word, making out of it a kind of double metonym in which name replaces gesture, and the gesture itself-ordering a life mask to be taken-becomes an ironically self-conscious commentary on the oeuvre.

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Автор: Mikael Hörnqvist

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