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Carl Aigner

In the Image of Light

Communicative properties and visibility in the work of Stephan Reusse


The question of how the image becomes an object does not primarily refer to any sort of two-dimensional support made of paper or celluloid, to a material space of reference that is, but to time, to that time of exposure which renders things visible or any viewing impossible.        Paul Virilio


Stephan Reusse belongs to a generation of artists producing works that are a crossover of two types of art theoretical discourse that are also interdependent: the one regarding communicative properties (as linguistic, sociocritical, semotic-semiological reflection) and the other a conceptual understanding of art (touching on fundamental questions relating to perception and visibility).1

Different types of media technology are playing a decisive role here, as instruments of artistic discourse, especially photography which in the 70s and 80s – with the transgession of traditional image media and art forms – became an important ferment of reorientation and repositioning. In these works, the communicative potential of photographic images functions as a substratum. This substratum essentially consists of the viewer’s previous knowledge about what is represented. Thus, the series “Safari Deutschland” not only is an ironical and witty, sociocritical reflection on the subject as the Other, but also an example of communicative practice in the area of tension of staging (one’s own) image and the viewer.

Part of this series, dating from the years 1984 and 1986, is that delicious video work „Safari Deutschland, Giraffe“. The series presupposes a canon of “German domestic animals” that in these images are put on stage as holiday trophies. The photographic images thus become iconographic settings of reality and not references to reality (as shown by the photomaterial notation – as if these were images dating from the 19th century).

The series „Collaboration I“, which was developed during the 1980s as well, reformulates the communicative-performative aspect of the “Safari”-images. Staged portraits of artists and meta-discursive artistic reflection result in a communicative area of intersection which leads to pictorial dialogues between artists. Artists as hero(in)es become something like extraterrestrial mutants of their own artistic discourse and are pluralized by Reusse’s photographic performance. The comical and the self-ironical result in a communicative (image) strategy from which the viewer – desiring to get a glimpse of the Artistic through the self-representations of the artists – cannot escape. The “open work” (Umberto Eco) thus becomes an open artistic communication interpreting and integrating the staged character of the image as a way of aesthetic self-reflection.

About his series „Collaboration I“, Stephan Reusse himself says the following: “What is giving access to the persons represented is not the image itself, but in each case an artistic gesture or a performative turning towards the Other. The deconstruction of most images in “Collaboration I” means a turning away from the image towards a mediation between the different forms of expression of two different people. This form of communication seeks to becoming binding through a functional process of collaboration and not through a proto-typical individual work claiming exemplary status”.2

Reusse’s experiences with photographic technology and conceptually staged image strategies at the same time led him to extend and refocus his artistic interest during the 1980s; with perception and technological hardware resulting in highly provocative problem constellations. Photography and its medial specifics – intrapictorially, so to speak – initiated him to thermophotographic experiments where the image as a phenomenon of light became the object of visual interactions. 3 The technological and chemical implications allowed Reusse to treat the themes of visibility and invisibility, of perception and reception. Thermography as a visual machine 4 evoked a new and different image terminology, rendering evident the participation of time in the generation of images.

Photography – writing with light, photo-graphy – constitutes images as a purely temporal effect for the first time in history. This means that the phenomenon Time no longer acts as a theme, but as an inevitable constituent of the image without which the photographic image would not be possible.5 Time is then defined as a factor of light, more precisely: of the velocity of movement of rays of light.

For Stephan Reusse, the experimental aspect and the problem of the appearance of objects is fundamental. It is no chance that in his images, the animal (wolves) are objects of artistic desire. Thermography is indeed dependent on body warmth to achieve representation. At this point, the technological process resembles the method of perception of reptiles which have been an object of intensive study for Reusse. The imaginary reality of thermography, the existential moments of presence and absence, of visibility and invisibility not only reflect the limits of signification and representation, but first of all of immateriality and existence.

The thermographic image is the product of time as thermal luminosity. Thermographic imaging means a referential rendering of visibility to the invisible. The different thermal conditions – which can be marked as thermal difference – can be described as they progress, so to speak cryptographically. Technological perception thus becomes “representation” and expression at the same time. This aspect is a genuine implication of photography as well6.

The radicality of Reusse’s artistic discourse consists less in the transformation of visibility and invisibility, but in the point he expressly makes about his conception of temporality being the essential aspect of the photothermographic image. In other words: Thermography as a sister-art of photography takes part of the inversion, dating back to the 19th century, of time and space, of image and world, of subject and object, of life and death.7 Like photography, thermography is a ruinous art: it renders its object visible as a ruin of time.

Carl Aigner, Wien 2003

  • Compare for example: Kunst und Medien. Materialien zur documenta 6, ed. by Horst Wackerbarth, Kassel: Stadtzeitung und Verlag 1977
  • E-Mail 8.9.2003
  • Compare for example: Bernd Busch: Belichtete Welt. Eine Wahrnehmungsgeschichte der Fotografie, München [hier bitte Verlag ergänzen!!!!] 1989
  • Paul Virilio: Die Sehmaschine, Berlin: Merve Verlag 1989 (the quotation at the head of text was translated from this German version, p. 139)
  • See: Tomorrow For Ever. Architektur / Zeit / Photographie, ed. by Carl Aigner and Hubertus von Amelunxen, vol. I: „Die Kunst der Zeit“. Köln: DuMont 1999.- „It is important that the photographic image has affirmative power and that the testimony of PHOTOGRAPHY does not refer to the object, but to Time itself“, writes Roland Barthes, in: the same: Die helle Kammer. Bemerkungen zur Photographie, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 1985, p. 99
  • See: Im Reich der Phantome. Fotografie des Unsichtbaren, ed. by Carl Aigner, Veit Loers and Urs Stahel, Ostfilder-Ruit: Cantz Verlag 1997; on the history of the optical and visible see the conclusive study by Gérard Simon: Der Blick, Das Sein und die Erscheinung in der antiken Optik. Mit einem Anhang: Die Wissenschaft vom Sehen und die Darstellung des Sichtbaren, München: Fink Verlag
  • Photographers are agents of death, as Roland Barthes is saying somewhere!
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