Memento Mori at Tate Modern
- Series: Media Art
“Gerhard Richter is not a painter he is a media artist!” Mischa Kuball told me in London recently. And he is probably right.
Walking through the expansive retrospective at Tate Modern it is difficult not to be struck by the media sensibility of Richter’s work.
Clearly his painting comes out of a moment of massive media intensification in post-war Western Europe – particularly in West Germany where Richter existed in exile from the East after 1961.
Painting from Photographs
His early paintings of Luftwaffe air raids and consumer durables are based on photographs found in magazine articles and newspaper advertisements from the early 1960s. Rather than painting from life Richter paints from life’s representation. Or more precisely the representation of life as it is sold.
The modern painter acts as a media artist – not only in exploring fully the medium of paint but in repositioning the painterly technologies of figurative representation and abstraction in terms of more advance media technologies such as the digital image and photoshop.
Richter has continued – like Francis Bacon or Sigmar Polke – to paint from photographs throughout his career, often in an out of focus black and white, or in the grey scale of cheap newspaper reproductions, and always with the source of the image elsewhere, deferred.
And it is the particular nature of this deferral that perhaps defines the media artist at work in the iconic sweep that is the Richter Retrospective. For the media artist, as it is for Richter, the deferral is history.
History as Image
Modern history is in many ways a deferral to the camera, to the mechanical or technological reproduction of history itself, a deferral to history’s own image. History then appears to reside in these frozen moments – ‘pseudo events’ – in these instants (representational or not) of life and death, their ‘closeness’ accessed within their inherent distance.
In a particularly sly gesture Richter reverses the media process and applies it to his own painting. He subjects his painting Halifax (1978) to the scrutiny of the camera, producing 128 close up black and white photographs showing the surface of the painting in detailed fragments. Here the intention to get as close as possible has the opposite effect – it moves you away from the work.
Seen together, the grid of images resemble aerial photographs of desert landscapes and are immediately reminiscent of satellite imagery of bombing campaigns pumped out by the media during recent wars in the Middle East. Richter seems to be reminding us of the role abstraction plays outside of the art gallery as media technologies have always offered the benefit of breaking up the execution of war into a series of abstract concepts.
This condition of closeness in distance may well be the nature of mediation in art (i.e. the nature of modern history painting) about which Richter is a subtle investigator.
No more is this so than in Richter’s famous candle paintings, each one a so called Memento Mori, designed to remind the viewer of their inevitable death. The painting is invested with an almost tangible aura (for Walter Benjamin, the very definition of closeness in distance), an authentic experience vital to painting and outside of the mass produced reality of modern media technologies.
This certainly seems to have done the trick in terms of creating an object of great monetary value: one of the candle paintings sold for £8 million at Christies in London last month (the value, for someone, of their mortality, or, more to the point, the value of being reminded?).
But perhaps this is the point for Richter – the image was created as part of a series of candle paintings. Each picture, no matter how burdened with the weight of human mortality, existing like a frame on a roll of film.
To this end, the candle paintings may have more in common with Tony Conrad’s experimental film, Film Feedback, than with appeals to the classical role of the artist in painting.
But the real appeal in Richter’s work appears to be to a particular kind of eventfulness - a transfer, whether it is from one medium to another or from one state (bodily/national etc) to the next – that ‘takes place’ without loss and outside of time.
This is, however, when the work begins to look once more like ‘painting’ and less like media art, perhaps.