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by Cheryl Simon
A few years ago, while working at an ad agency’s clippings service, Peter Piller started taking images from the regional newspapers that he was given to survey and using them in his art, organizing the material into categories according to the themes suggested by the pictures’ content: groups of “Ribbon-cutting Ceremonies” or people “Looking for Holes” or “Touching Cars,” or conducting “Site visits” and so on and so forth. Since then, he has amassed thousands of pictures and expanded his collection fields accordingly. The archive now also includes over twenty thousand negatives purchased from the estate of a defunct aerial survey service, subcategorized into groups relating to the visual field seen from above – clusters of “Dirty Clouds,” “Playgrounds,” “Cemeteries,” and the like.
“News” photos of local interest, the pictures Piller collects are, for the most part, unremarkable. The archive comprises records of promotional events, lottery winners, building sites, crime scenes and contested boundary lines, objects lost or for sale, and, of course, aerial survey photos: they’re the kinds of pictures that we barely notice anymore, so familiar are we with the tired conventions of such representation. Produced by amateurs or barely trained professionals, badly framed and poorly exposed, the pictures evince an aesthetic orientation that reinforces the idea that they’ve been taken by rote, in a state of distraction. Moreover, because of the relative flatness of their compositions, even the more unusual or striking subject matter – like missile casings or police searches – appears unspectacular and unimportant, or at best a bit odd. Any significance that the objects and rituals pictured in these photos might once have had would seem lost to the constant flow of the ever-expanding mass media from which the images hail. Likewise, if undifferentiated, the ritual value of the representational act itself is pretty well exhausted.
Piller’s interest lies on the surface of things. An artist-iconologist, he seeks to interpret the pathos of the contemporary world through its pictures.
Piller’s archive, on the other hand, is really quite remarkable. Although the individual photographs may be uninspired, when viewed in the groups determined by the more and less obvious, more or less ephemeral visual motifs that Piller finds in the imagery, these otherwise ordinary pictures begin to reveal something quite extraordinary about the collective unconscious that produced them. The originality of any archive lies in its criteria for selection, its particular mode of administration, and this one is no different. Piller’s principles of categorization are formulaic. Inspired by the visual logic of the vernacular contexts from which these photographs are drawn, the themes are one-dimensional, the basic elements of each picture and the perspectives from which they are seen seldom vary, and each image in each group repeats and reiterates the visual and conceptual conventions of its type. Piller’s interest lies on the surface of things. An artist-iconologist, he seeks to interpret the pathos of the contemporary world through its pictures. He is after the desire driving the representational ritual and a better understanding of the culture’s fascination with the subjects of this imagery.
Piller is also an inveterate record-keeper, and his “archive” is only one of a series of works in which he experiments with forms and functions of cataloguing and documentation that he has produced over the course of his career. In his early photographic work, he took pictures of found objects and phenomena selected for adherence to established taxonomies rather than aesthetic interest. Variations on forsythia bushes, lost articles of clothing, window types, street signs, and so on were depicted using the same full-on and flat perspective as that in the pictures that he has gathered for his archive.
In later action-performances, Piller carried out investigative “wanderings along the periphery” of Hamburg, his hometown, which also involved record making, the action offering a means of gathering documentation for a bookwork account of the excursions. In all, the project produced reports of distances travelled, photographs of various nondescript sites encountered along the way, pictures clipped from local newspapers, hand-drawn maps, shorthand texts noting people and places of marginal interest (“four teenagers at a random spot next to a car”), and transcriptions of overheard conversations (“the estate agent loudly says: it gets quieter in the evening”). While the journal was exhaustive in its detailing of ephemera, it was conspicuously short on anything resembling an interpretive representation of the environment under investigation.
Such extreme superficiality in documentary production finds conceptual correspondence in a wide range of cultural practices, both historical and contemporary. Certainly, Piller’s interest in the cultural resonance of visual artefacts, especially vernacular photography, and the symbolic value of massive accumulation invites comparison with a number of like-minded archival projects. Plainly, the artist’s iconological methods owe a debt to Aby Warburg’s approach to archiving – in particular his pursuit of the pathos formula, the sublimated psychical energies of a society that are expressed in its visual culture. Similarly striking is the extent to which the layout of Piller’s “clipping” installations and publications resembles that in Hannah Hoch’s Mass Media Scrapbook, a correspondence that also suggests a retrospective reading of the pathos formulae expressed in Hoch’s project.
Perhaps even more significant is the extent to which the artist’s deadpan, repetitive style and fascination with the vernacular correspond to the strategies and preoccupations of a number of contemporary artists – Hans Peter Feldmann, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Thomas Ruff immediately come to mind. Although Piller’s work is decidedly more ordinary, he nonetheless shares with his contemporaries an appreciation of the aesthetics of the banal. Richard Goldstein has suggested that the banal projects “an enigmatic surface, a willed simplicity that generates contemplation of emptiness”; these features provide the operative tensions in this type of work.1 Part and parcel of the postmodern condition, such an aesthetic orientation operates as a critical strategy. It not only reflects the lifeless commodity culture in which it participates, but may even be seen to self-reflexively identify with it. More, the banal façade enacts a refusal to perpetuate the spectacular and largely abstracted existence of other, more commercial visual productions of late-stage capitalism.
On the other side of the coin, banality, as reflected unself-consciously in the representations of commodity culture, may well echo the paralyzing effects of a routine and highly regulated existence rather than represent an instance of resistance or refusal. All of which brings us back to our discussion of Piller’s “Archive”: if distraction is the existential corollary of banality, the images that the artist chooses for his archive are a striking testament to the lifelessness of contemporary culture, evidenced by its inability to represent itself, its values, and its concerns. Piller’s cataloguing procedures thus operate more interpretively than defensively. The extraordinary consistency of the representational conventions in each collection makes the concerns that shape each group’s visual field easier to discern, and no series is more effective or disturbing in this regard than Munitions + Deco.
While the extent to which the pictures gathered for this series treat the rarefied artefacts of warfare so casually and, in some cases, comically is obviously unsettling, and it is more startling still to observe the extensive trade, symbolic and real, that exists among such artefacts, the emotional impact of the series lies with its reflection on more existential concerns. The pictures were taken from the eBay auction site, and so the pathos formula of these homemade production shots encompasses energies particular to the private domain. Centre-weighted and well lit, the “munitions” may occupy the focal point of the pictures, but a great deal of ephemera from domestic life shares the frame. Technically, the televisions, drying racks, trophies, and brooms that surround the missile casings serve as scale indicators – note that two empty shell casings in this series are much bigger than a cigarette pack, and several rest uneasily in their chairs. Yet, the reiteration of these objects of war and domesticity speak more directly to the changing relationship of political and private life, to the prevailing sense of loss that we feel for places of safe harbour and the sense of certainly and security typically conveyed in representations of home.
In the end, Piller’s intention is not to reflect on the ordinary, everydayness of the subjects and rituals depicted in this imagery, or to contemplate related material concerns, but to redress the failure of expression that besets us in an age of mass representation.
1 Richard Goldstein, « Just Say Noh : The Esthetics of Banality » , Artforum, January 1988, p. 81.
Peter Piller lives and works in Liepzig and Hamburg. He won the Bâlose Art Prize for his Art Statement at ArtBasel 2006, and has exhibited widely at museums and galleries internationally, including Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art (the Netherlands), Bonner Kunstverein (Bonn), Frehrking Wiesehöfer (Cologne), Barbara Wien (Berlin), ProjectSD (Barcelona), Andrew Kreps (New York), and the 2008 New York Photo Festival.
Cheryl Simon is an artist, academic, and curator whose current art and research interests include explorations of time in media arts and collecting and archival practices in contemporary art. She teaches studio arts at Concordia University and cinema + communications at Dawson College.