Beat Streuli. Oxford Street, 1998.
Dr. Isabelle Azoulay – about the Portraits in the Lutz Teutloff Collection, Berlin, November 2010
Dr. Isabelle Azoulay is a french author, philosopher and sociologist who also writes essays on sexology, feminism and art.
Even the bewitching Tilda Swinton caught by Hussein Chalayan anxiously raising a warning finger to her lips enjoins us to silence and mute contemplation; the fear in her eyes will remain etched in our memory for some time yet.
You really do need to gird your loins before taking a stroll through Lutz Teutloff’s portraits and department of staged photography.
Because over and beyond the icons - the stuff of which utopias are built - like Burri’s Che Guevara, Robert Salas’ portraits of Fidel Castro and the postulating politicians portrayed by Robert Lebeck, the views and vistas so surprisingly revealed as we meander through the exhibition highways and byways clamour relentlessly for our attention. Bewilderment is the dominant note and our old certainties have difficulty withstanding the assault mounted on them. Whether it’s Roger Ballen’s bitter-sweet perception of desperate poverty, Tracy Emin’s girl in a bridal dress wandering over a rubbish tip, Micha Brendel’s furious overpaintings or Gerd Bonfert’s unsettling lack of focus, this selection of photographs doesn’t go easy on us. It subjugates, and the air in the room is thick with threatening ambivalence. Seized by an awareness of our own powerlessness, we flick the switch on the wish machine. It stands there like a fog machine, at first we don’t realize what’s going on. No sleek dreams spring from this font. Didn’t André
Breton say “Beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all.” All the excessive demands this world makes of us have left their mark. Our life-affirming vital instincts, our sense of fascination carry very heavy baggage. Our physical need to communicate always holds a strain of fantasy in check. We run wild and think that we’re free and creative yet all that comes out in the end are the shadows of our own demons. And what about us? The beholders? It’s seduction that we want, a celebration, a revelation or a catastrophe, anything that will stop time in its tracks. We waste our time waiting for adventures that never seem to come. The only thing that really happens is the waiting time itself, as though adventure were a capricious lover, forced to spread her favours among so many, who banks on our weary resignation and whispers “Since you have waited in vain so long for me, how about imagining that I don’t really exist?” We stumble blindly through the world in search of the sensuality that could give us a haven of refuge, closeness and warmth. Yet in the moral grey zone of daily life at the point where we live out the very worst kind of contradictions these photos really do signal a return of jubilant sensuality as in Garry Winogrand’s photo of Marilyn Monroe standing on the subway grate. In their morality, cleanliness and order positive utopias have always been intimately related to stark reality. Our corrupting eye, constantly yearning to be deceived and enamoured of grief, rummages in the frozen depths of our lives looking for comfort. Perhaps we will find it in music as with Jaume Plensa’s melancholy portraits of Arvo Pärt, Carl Orff and Alban Berg. As though hibernating, we immure ourselves in the finely calibrated unpleasures of rationality and yearn for the advent of amnesia where rapture and its oblivion may actually touch us. We dream ourselves into the steam bath of passion while we restlessly pick up and discard one fake palliative against loneliness after the other. Commercialization of all forms of intimacy and our collective obsession with confession and shock self-exposure has only exacerbated the situation. We have marginalized ourselves without any help from devils or keyholes. And there on the margins we sit waiting for the song of the sirens and hoping that some glass coach iridescent with rainbow hues will come along and carry us away. Propagating truth in a life of falsity has left us completely drained.
All our transgressive instincts rear up and rebel against the dour stolidity of reason. Narrow vents give us a meagre trickle of air to gasp at. And the many photographic signatures collected by Lutz Teutloff seem almost to constitute a family album. The disfigured faces in the flower collages, the staged torture scenes by Schwarzkogler, Gillian Wearing’s death masks, Zhang’s soaped up man, Felix Gonzales’s self-portraits with masks – this mirror image of the panopticum of our fears and anxieties offers up a disturbing diagnosis. Like sets of computer tomography images showing cross sections of our brain, these photographic signatures build up an unsettling map of our fantasy world. While the tears of Eros are wrung out from the soaked shrouds in the gutter, we stagger on in a state of unremitting subjection, no longer daring to lay definite claim to anything. With the very best of intentions we continue to throw ourselves into the inflationary bargain sale of what’s new. The invention of botox sets a final ironic flourish on our desolate state to rival the window dummies photographed by Helmut Newton. In our desperate efforts to smooth out what is beyond repair we’re like Bluebeard’s wife frantically scrubbing the key to the forbidden chamber while the tell-tale blood never ceases to flow.
And yet even so there is such a thing as a moment of grace. The bliss which never materializes and which grappling with the vicissitudes of life has put way beyond our ken, does appear in silhouette every now and then. Our unfulfilled yearning, cowed by the logic of everyday life, finds a companionable echo in the moment when Tilda Swinton raises her finger to her lips. Our gaze meets and holds her gaze and we drink deeply from the flowing spring. It’s moments like this that make us realize why works of art so often leave us melancholy – quite apart from the fact that they form part of the cultural education programme – and we draw a deep breath of gratitude and relief.