Stripes, or: the Sky in the 21st Century

Stefan Neuner
A talk at the opening for Claudia Fellmer: Stripes. Photographs (Zurich: August Laube, May 4 – June 1, 2007), 24.10.2013

Claudia Fellmer: Streifen. Fotographie  (Zürich: August Laube, 4.5.–1.6.2007)

A monochrome blue picture, split down the middle by two parallel horizontal white lines. Anyone receiving the invitation to Claudia Fellmer’s show at August Laube must have asked themselves what the photograph portrayed on the announcement of the talk is actually depicting. "Stripes" would be the most concise answer, as given to us in the name of the show – no poetic beating around the bush there. It reveals a specific pictorial aesthetic as the basis for understanding Claudia Fellmer’s photographic works that comes to us from the history of modern art, namely when lines, circles, and squares that we see in certain works of non-representational art from the last century are literally addressed as such in the title of the work in order to ensure that the picture not be understood as an “abstracting” or “abstract” representation of a subject or an idea, instead as something concrete that the viewer can perceive with his or her own eyes: flat shapes on a flat surface. As the most effective morphological means for drawing our gaze to the palpable surface of the work, Modernism saw the reflexive relation of the depicted forms to the physical, rectilinear limits of the image field. We find the most radical expression of this principle of representation in the work of Kenneth Noland and Frank Stella, in whose early canvases one sees nothing but stripes: lines described and repeated by the edges of the painting in such a way that a logical relationship is created between the material foundation of a painting and its content. This is the "deductive structure" (Michael Fried) that the stripes establish in all the photographs in this show (in almost all cases) with an almost geometric precision as they cut the image into two equally sized horizontal fields that in turn lie on top of one another like two parallel stripes. Going on examples such as the image on the invitation, one would in fact presume that Claudia Fellmer’s artistic project intends to exorcise photography of its stubborn iconicity (that is, its representational nature) and transform it into a medium of concrete art.


Actually, few of the works presented here fit such a description. Most of the photographs leave no doubt what they are showing. We can quickly recognize the title-yielding stripes as contrails and the monochrome color field as a blue sky. So, was the suggestion of such modernist logic in the exhibition title misleading? Would it have been more appropriate to name the series for its overt subjects? One quickly discovers that Claudia Fellmer’s work is not about playing the formal, self-referential potential of a subject against a photograph’s referentiality, rather about yielding a very particular dynamic from this ambiguous hovering between two aspects. This dynamic unfolds between a picture that rests at its physical surface and one that reveals a distance through perspective. It unfolds between a view that is directed at a rectangular piece of paper a few centimeters away from our eyes and one that focuses on a thing at a farther distance.  It also unfolds between two propensities in our mind. A field of view that doesn’t show any treetops or roofs or horizon line, instead only blue sky and nothing but blue sky forces us to tilt back our heads. A dizzying back and forth.
  Claudia Fellmer has in fact chosen a photographic subject that perhaps leads to a more subtle level of self-referential signification. What are contrails? Strictly speaking, they are artificial cirrus clouds produced under certain atmospheric conditions at an altitude of roughly 10 kilometers by the condensing and freezing vapors emitted by an airplane. Clouds are instead, as the French photographic theoretician Philippe Dubois emphasized, the self-reflexive photographic subject par excellence. Corpuscular in substance, without a fixed form or body, they do not exist on their own; instead they act as a trace, a reflection, or – as one could also say – as a “developer” of something that is physically bound to it. The way that light breaks though clouds, in and of themselves colorless, indicates meteorological phenomena. One can consider them to be indexical drawings (meaning drawings that do not resemble their referent, but which are produced through physical contact). They are drawings that, as a photographic subject, pointedly expose the signification logic of this image medium: “The cloud with its myriad, floating vapors is like a photograph that with its myriad halide crystals captures the changes of light in an environment in its materiality and the discontinuity of its grain.” As a subject that – like the sky at which we peer – can never be portrayed in its entirety, clouds reveal yet another peculiarity of the photographic image: its fragmentary and serial character. Photographing means cutting out a rectangular image from the space-time continuum of the visible. Every photograph is a fragment, and as a fragment, it urges that it be supplemented. You don’t take a photograph they way you paint a painting. You shoot a whole roll of film and then you choose the best shots.


Dubois worked through all these aspects and yet more in relation to Alfred Stieglitz’s Equivalents, his famous cloud photographs made between 1923 and 1932. For the modernist photographer, the blanket of clouds was a natural motif that reflected the “nature” of the photographic medium. It is in fact not a stretch to attribute a medium-reflexive, self-critical program to Stieglitz’s project like the one that Clement Greenberg formulated for painting. To lift one’s gaze up from the ground came to signify an attempt to go back to the essence of photographic technique in order to assert general principles and certain fundamentals. The sky that Claudia Fellmer photographed, however, bears the signature of another epoch. One can no longer really call it a “natural” subject. It’s not just that her clouds have an artificial shape; we also come to know that airplane particle emissions influence meteorological events. Claudia Fellmer’s pictures provide us with evidence that we can no longer say where “natural” cloud formations end and the “artificial” ones begin. This is a “Postmodern” sky that has been photographed here. It reflects a photographic imagery that one can no longer simply assume to be an objective light impression or a direct recording of some kind of “pencil of nature.” Beyond that, the sky that Claudia Fellmer has depicted in her photograph revelas a signature of our time drawn by a network of transportation routes. However, the “artificiality” of this sky does not in the end correspond to the artist’s strategy. It is no longer a question today of revealing medium-specific foundations, rather a question of gaining ground where there is no longer anything firm underfoot. When art has no collective projects and no objective tendencies in sight to join, one can only posit the lack of a premise to every beginning and an arbitrary start to things. One can no longer confide in any principle other than the one that La Monte Young summarized in an early piece as a credo and generational statement for all his future work: “draw a straight line and follow it.”


All figures:

Claudia Fellmer: Streifen (2005/2014), Photography.