Gabriele Heidecker | Fair Reflections ( de | cn )

in: Art Affairs. Gabriele Heidecker, Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2007

What distinguishes the work of a fair photographer from the project of the installation artist and photo­grapher Gabriele Heidecker? She has accumulated hundreds of stunning photographs in little more than five years. Organized according to fair and date, they constitute at the same time a pictorial record of the history of the art fair phenomenon. But the primary goal of the now completed work is not its informational or documentary aspects: in the pictures taken in Basel, Cologne, Paris, Madrid, Berlin, Miami, and Beijing, Gabriele Heidecker is more concerned with atmospheric appraisal. Fair portraits have been created that attempt to track down and correlate locations, works of art, and on-the-spot protagonists.

The connecting moment for this photographer is the dis­tance from the subject confronting her. Gabriele Heidecker zooms to the situation under investigation with a telephoto lens, looks for an appropriate degree of focus or blur, a merging of contours, the fleetingness of a movement captured: a brief moment in time. In the resulting constellation of space, person, and work of art, the concrete subject dissolves into an abstract color composition. For instance, in the Miami 2005 series we see a woman in a black costume with a red shawl around her neck on a black and white seating arrangement (fig. 104). If one knows her, one might recognize her, but that is not relevant. It is her graceful bearing and pensive glance, which calls to mind the urban melancholy of Edward Hopper. But in contrast to Hopper, as if behind a veil of mist, the room loses its contours and dissolves the boundary between subject and surroundings. Photographs like this one achieve an almost painterly quality.

Theater pieces with established and changing performers

More than five years on the bullet train of contemporary art is half an eternity. Time has also left behind its traces on the faces that have lived through the grueling process of meticulous planning and daily presence for years or even decades. Especially the faces shot at relatively close range of the postwar art scene authorities—for instance the portraits of Harald Szeemann (fig. 13) or Annely Juda—which show lines on the forehead or around the eyes that look like they were left behind by a pencil.

The variety of ways in which each of them handles the undeniable stress factor of the business of art presen­tation and purchase is also plain to see. Some gallery owners present a pose of discipline, while others simply turn away from the public, browse through a newspaper or loll around unceremoniously in their booths, as if this room within a room were an extension of their living rooms. Since most of the individuals were unaware they were being photographed, they appear in moments of communicative concentration, or with facial features slack with exhaustion.

Exhibition booth dramaturgy

The aerial perspective of the labyrinthine snarl of par­titions and interstices of Art Basel Miami Beach 2005 recalls the famous scene in Wim Wenders’ Der Himmel über Berlin [Wings of Desire], in which the angel looks down on the ground floor hustle and bustle from the top floor of Berlin State Library. It happens only very seldom, but in Art Affairs it is the glance of the photographer that slips free from the fair visitors. Extracted from the overwhelming mass of art and human beings, the architectural skeleton of the fair building becomes visible in its sober utility. Within these more or less hermetically separated spheres the most diverse aesthetic forces are at work, and it can happen that conceptually oppo­sed works are hanging cheek by jowl on the same wall or in the same line of sight.

When Gabriele Heidecker repeatedly captures what is located to the right and left of a barrier, things that do not belong together find themselves convening in the framework of a picture. “What happens at the inter­faces of the booths?”the artist asks. For instance, in a photograph from ARCO Madrid 2007 this involuntary correspondence acquires the character of a dramatic scene in two acts (fig. 128). On the left shadow-covered third of the picture two young women in black gaze with amusement at a laptop mon­itor, while on the light-suffused right side of the booth partition the waxy white sepulchral figure of Yin Zhaoyang squats on a table. Stories unknown to the director are being photographically staged here.

Art reflections

Mirrors, mirroring windows, glass cases, the glass panes of framed pictures, monitors, and the myriad of smooth reflective surfaces of works of art, in metal, stone or Plexi­­glas: by the sheer density of all these elements, an art fair becomes a true hall of mirrors. If there is a basic theme that Gabriele Heidecker has kept in sight throughout her career, it is the reflection in each other of people, spaces, and works of art. Scenarios that could not have been better arranged, owe their existence to chance. For instance, the slender female leg in a fishnet stocking and high-heeled shoe, which peers with casual elegance from a chair with a mirrored side panel, looks like an advertisement for expensive brands of footwear or panty hose. An unknown owner’s bag lies on the floor with its contents disgorged. A seductive knee is reflected in the highly polished surface of one of the objects lying on the floor.

Pictures in which people in works of art and works of art within works of art are reflected, attain their own special dyna­m­ic, which allows them to become a new installation. The photo­graphy work Pietà by Rauf Mamedov furnishes a reflective surface for a youth with a magnificent head of curly hair photographed by Viktor Kirillov (fig. 80). Reflected in each other, with serious demeanor, the youth watches like a guardian angel over the figures with Down syndrome in medieval costume.

The proximity of the fair pictures to Gabriele Heidecker’s installations is especially evident here. However as in the mirroring colonnades in Virtual Way (2002) or the quadratically plotted installation with reflecting glass surfaces in Virtual Place (2004), these artificially created situations—in which real persons become an integral part of an optical maze—are simply the reflections, distortions, and overlappings that Gabriele Heidecker finds at the fairs. Her eye for the choreographic mastery of chance is the artistic intervention of the Art Affairs series.

Overheating and the end of days

The Damien Hirst skull inlaid with 8,601 diamonds en­titled For the Love of God, with a selling price of 75 million euros, underscores the fact that the art world is forever topping its self-valuation anew. There is no taboo that has not been broken, and no price that cannot be paid.

If death and its cohorts have been inspirational themes for illustrative and written crafts since antiquity, works of art in the form of Christian crucifixes, skulls (fig. 134), and skeletons also appear in the photographs of Gabriele Heidecker. The photo of a pink-clad old woman lying in a coffin by Angela Strassheim tells of an ending in more ways than one: during the dismantling of the fair it un­willingly became a part of a memento mori still life: stacks of chairs, clothing folded for departure, and a wheeled suitcase stand on the floor in front of the framed photograph.

Another comic example is Yin Zhaoyang’s gold-colored sepulchral figure, which crouches with eyes wide open as if afraid. As insanely as coincidence would comically have it, the camera captures the moment exactly when a couple—male and female gallery colleagues—sitting in a booth and facing the same direction as the sculpture, look with astonishment at something outside the frame of the shot.

Certainly one of the most unbelievable strokes of luck of the Art Affairs series is the reflection of the light box work of the artistic duo PSJM in the photography of Aino Kannisto displayed behind glass (fig. 135). In the right third of the photograph a frontally shot woman with long black hair appears to be speechless. With her mouth slightly open, she stares with dumbfounded amazement over a shoulder-high wall. In the glass, directly before her eyes, the reflection of a skull is gleaming, surrounded by a black oval. Ghastly and simply beautiful.

Prospects in China

The globalization of the art market continues. For example, in recent years China has become an established player in the arena of contemporary art, with Art Beijing — the city‘s second art fair — taking place for the first time in 2006. The pictures taken by Gabriele Heidecker here quickly make clear that the Western school view should get ready for some aesthetic surprises. In contemporary China a simultaneity of the non-simultaneous reigns.

In spite of all the complaints about factory-like production by some Chinese artists, a trend promoted by blind consumerist rage in the West in the first place, the immense aesthetic and handicraft wealth of Chinese traditional art that is still being passed on to the youngest artists cannot be overlooked. One need only recall the landscape painting, the calligraphy or the woodcuts. In that regard China sets standards that some of the Western art academies have abandoned in favor of a solipsistic striving for self-fulfillment by professor-artists and students. For instance, the young Beijing female artist Huang Min, with an effortless brushstroke, provides a realistically rendered glimpse of a group of tourists in an artificial state of nature. The mountains and valleys are reproduced in detail with the thousand-year-old Chinese landscape painting technique (fig. 127). Gabriele Heidecker imme­diately integrates the Western level of perception, by presenting a German-Chinese discussion circle in front of the painting in her photograph. Another “Heideckerian reflection” shows Wang Shugang’s broom-wielding Buddhist monks in the glass of an entrance door (fig. 137). An entire spectrum of levels of meaning presents itself, from “Tradition and Modernity” to the coexistence of different cultures within one nation.

If one mentions the Western view of China, one thinks inevitably of Uli Sigg, the former Swiss ambassador to China and the largest collector of contemporary Chinese art. We see him in Art Beijing 2006 before a picture of the representative of politpop, Wang Guangyi (fig. 138). The revolutionary pathos resides neither in politics nor in consumption: the word “ART” stands out in large letters above the head of a proletarian fighter.

No element goes closer to the core of Chinese tradition than water. For thousands of years it symbolized the most important virtues, but also the perils of life: it is necessary for existence, it is refreshing, it flows and is soft to the touch, and it hollows out stone with uniform continuity. But it can be violent and a threat to life. In one of her still lifes, Gabriele Heidecker shows another kind of powerful wave motion. Countless red tote bags with information about Art Beijing lie overlapping each other on the floor of the entrance (fig. 136). In the name of art, the energy flow of the Chinese artists sets in motion a dialogue between cultures, streams of visitors flow through the hall aisles, and a flood of gallery owners and collectors from across the globe ensure that these works will find an established place in the international world of art.


First published: Art Affairs. Gabriele Heidecker
Contributions by Jean-Christophe Ammann, Ulrike Münter, Marc Spiegler
German/English/French/Spanish/Chinese
Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2007

Translation: Geoffrey Steinherz