Three Men: Orhan Pumak, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and MATTHIAS HERRMANN
by AA Bronson for Eikon Magazine
Istanbul, January 14, 2011, 9:29am: I am sitting in my hotel room overlooking a panorama of Istanbul, a vast array of clay-colored buildings, and to the left, across the Bosporus, a line of immense mosques with minarets like soldiers on the horizon. Everywhere I go a jumble of histories is thrown one up against the other: to go on a walk is to undertake a series of unexpected yet oddly muted spectacles, the whole imbued with a quiet melancholy. Perhaps melancholy is the wrong word; we should consider hüzün, the word that forms the nucleus of Orhan Pamuk’s reflections on the city and people of Istanbul. It is the same quality shared by the architectural photos of Matthias Herrmann, where one feels the presence of human life, and yet it is some other not quite known past that breathes into the space of the photograph. Today, on a tour of mosques, I wish Matthias were here to share in my exploration, to bring his eye to Istanbul.
Two Men, Prater 2010©Matthias Herrmann
Paris, January 19, 2011, 3:23pm: Looking again at Matthias’ photographs from his recent exhibition, I try to discern what binds them together; they are very much a set. For this endeavor, I return to the idea of “family resemblances” as described by Ludwig Wittgenstein, another gay renegade of Vienna. Wittgenstein revolutionized set theory with the simple observation that in a family there is a cluster of physical similarities that defines the family, without there being any one shared characteristic, a big nose, for example, or a wicked tongue.
Matthias talks about his photos in the context of “good pictures” and also “travel pictures,” but the subtle net of relationships that binds these works together is more complex and more simple than this (and difficult to navigate in this brief text).
Bat Sanctuary, Kenmare, Ireland© Matthias Herrmann
For example, Abandoned Hospital for People with Mental Illness and Bat Sanctuary, Kenmare, Ireland both show seemingly abandoned buildings for social outcasts—on the one hand “people with mental illness;” on the other hand, bats, or should we say vampires—both rather ordinary buildings, although of different types, both imbued with a subtle melancholy which is difficult to describe; perhaps it is hüzün.
In most of the photographs people exist as absences, or as representations of representations; they are never directly recorded. In Michel-Ange: Le Déluge (extrait)…, a photograph of an open book depicts Michelangelo’s fresco, overlaid with a photograph of a formal garden, in which a statue seems to be missing. In Galerie Mezzanin…, a framed photo shows a woman in lingerie, her face turned away and her arms lifted in a classic erotic pose: the title suggests this is a picture of a picture of a picture of this woman without a face. In Three Men, three classical Greek sculptures of idealized men are at once erotic, and sadly absent, in a setting that seems to be a museum, but is ironically the Vatican. In Two Men…, a cartoon-like image of two idealized men on a billboard is divided by a green column. In Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien… and Nymphenburg, Magdalenenklause… human presence is indicated by an empty chair; a sullen rope indicates the museum context, in one case dividing the viewer from the chair, in the other dividing the chair from what is viewed. In Maggazino: Grossetto…, rows of empty suits, together with an abandoned cardboard box, suggest the lack of masculine presence. In Tourist Attraction…, a baby seal becomes anthropomorphized, referring (I hope) to General Idea’s meta-diorama Fin de Siecle, in which three fake baby stuffed seals are stand-ins for the artists themselves: thus, the trope of the baby seal stands in for death, and also for AIDS and for infection.
from the Series For
Example: Dix-Huit Leçons Sur La Societé Industrielle (Revision 7), 2008,
C-Print, 88 x 76,4 x 2,8cm ©Matthias Herrmann
These are two of many themes that repeat at random through this family of photographs, themes of hüzün, of loss, of absence, of the outsider, of male beauty, of the museum as a site of sadness, of the photograph as an object of contemplation. Together they form a family of images that can be seen as a self-portrait of the artist. Like his erotic self-portraits of previous decades, they have a quirky humor and a capacity to turn subject into object, but now infected with hüzün. Like Orhan Pumak or Ludwig Wittgenstein, Matthias Herrmann proposes a subtle re-vision of the ordinary—and of the self—transforming our idea of what we are.