Astrid Peterle/Karin Mack - Spaces of the self

Text in the Catalogue on Karin Mack. By Astrid Peterle

Karin Mack’s photographs lead us into spaces of the self. These spaces are opened up not just in her self-portraits, but also in the landscapes, i.e. photographs in which references to the self are not necessarily provided by the subject depicted. True, these image spaces often capture the artist’s self, for instance in the many self-portraits; yet the landscape details in particular invite the observer to access their own archives of sensory experiences. There are many different spaces of the self in Mack’s oeuvre: the self in private, the self as a stage from which to deconstruct socially attributed roles, the self as a reflection within the space, the self as a shadow in nature.
    Conceptually the self is both certain and questionable. Philosophers in all ages have sought to define what the self actually is and what constitutes its nature, without of course being able to give a definitive answer. Artists, likewise, have addressed the subject of their own image, whether in self-observation, self-questioning or the deconstruction of the self. The medium of photography and its intrinsically complex relationship of apparent rendering of reality and construed image reality seems particularly well suited for an artistic approach to these topics. 
The self-portrait is a recurring constant in Karin Mack’s oeuvre. In recent decades photo theory, particularly feminist motivated photo theory, has made a distinction between the “image taken of oneself” as a self-image/self-portrait and self-portrayal/self-representation. Art historians often pigeonhole artists who appear as both the objects and subjects of their photographs to one or the other specified category of “self-photography”. Both forms, the self-portraits and the self-representations, are to be found in Mack’s works. In what way do these two forms differ? Self-portraits/self-images generally designate those images which refer to the person depicted, i.e. the photographer. Photographs intended as self-portraits refer to the artist’s emotions, their inwardness and subjectivity. That is not to suggest the problematic assumption that a self-portrait is the expression of a genuine core of identity, a fixed and immutable “essence of identity”. I deliberately use the expression “photographs intended as self-portraits” as I only mention the connection between self-portrait and inwardness in this context if it is intended by the photographer. To infer the personality of the person portrayed from their self-portraits becomes problematic when it is wrongly interpreted as a way in to the artist’s psyche.
    Self-representations by contrast designate those images in which the artist does appear as a model but the focus lies elsewhere, outside the artist’s self: for example the representation of social and cultural roles or the complexity of identity, which is always determined by different factors (gender, ethnic background, social status, cultural localisation, sexuality, etc.). Already in the 1970s – before she encountered feminism – Karin Mack created series of self-representations in which, treading the path towards her own emancipation, she addressed the prevailing role clichés of a “feminine ideal”. Das bin nicht ich, das ist ein Bild von mir [That’s not me; that’s an image of me] was the title Bodo Hell gave to an essay for Mack’s publication of her self-portraits in 1985. Bodo Hell’s formulation is particularly apposite to Mack’s self-representations from the 1970s – for the image of the self as representative of a social role model that goes beyond the individual self. It is a formulation that also recalls a phrase of Roland Barthes, who pointed out that the complexity and constant process of “becoming oneself” are difficult to capture in a photograph: “‘Myself’ never coincides with my image; for it is the image which is heavy, motionless, stubborn [...]; and ‘myself’ which is light, divided, dispersed [...]”.
In the Trifogli – three-leaved photo montages from the early 1980s – Karin Mack appears to refute Roland Barthes’s assertions with a particularly refined artistic device. Edith Almhofer once described it in the following terms: The artistic device “is based to a not insignificant degree on a strict compositional form, a strictly observed arrangement of - in each case - three individual images, with the actual self-portrait always framed between excerpt-like views of the outside world. This often serves to construct an imaginary place [...]”.3 The unusual technique used here by Mack opens up a poetic space in which the self emerges “light, divided and dispersed” out of the background of possible cross-references and associations. These self-portraits, then, are not about exposing what is inside, but opening up an associative space. The topic here is not the category “woman” in general or her construed ideal image, but the individual complexity of a woman.
Reviewing Karin Mack’s oeuvre, from the development from self-representations to self-portraits, from the negative prints to the montages and the landscape photographs, one is struck by the way in which Mack subtly and inventively sounds out the possibilities of her medium in her photographic work. She operates from the premise that “form follows content”. Whether she is capturing the point of view of both subject and object using camera perspectives and mirror devices in her photo series of the 1970s or arranging self-portraits and object photos into strictly composed montages, she is always looking for the most adequate form for the contents she is working with. This approach is particularly evident in the way in which black-and-white and grey tones are compacted to the extreme in two of her works. In 1982 Karin Mack was working on the complex issues of death, parting and remembrance. It gave rise to a cycle entitled Weiße Schatten auf Schwarzem Schnee [White Shadows on Black Snow]. As Roland Barthes pointed out, photography has in itself an affinity with death. He talks of photography as an “image that produces Death while trying to preserve life.”4 Karin Mack goes one step further: she turns the positive of photographs of people in a static pose or of fences of stately private homes into negative prints. The effect created by these images is startling: they make the people look like erased memories, yet without obliterating them. Rather, it seems that every detail, every outline stands out even more clearly – just as in our memories some things seem strangely clear and sharp while others appear to have evaporated.
     In 2006 Mack led us into the thicket of a forest, a grey shaded darkness, with the four-part series Im tiefen Wald [In the Deep Forest]. And even if the dense foliage evokes fear-ridden events in the forests of our fairy tales, it does not create an impression that we would have to describe as fear. It appears she is far more interested in toying with the anxiety within ourselves, perhaps also in toying with the fun to be had in scaring.
From the mid-1990s onwards Karin Mack began to look more closely at the genre of landscape photography. Now it’s the landscape images that become spaces of self-discovery, “bearers of emotions and projections”, as Mack herself describes them. Mack’s landscapes are usually deserted; they do not depict, or comment on, the way in which mankind has impacted on nature, as has frequently been the case in recent years with other landscape photographers. Her images focus on the emotional context, the colours, the structures or the incident light. And for all their poetic qualities these photographs do not create the impression of an idealised landscape.
The literary theorists Manfred Schmeling and Monika Schmitz-Emans describe the landscape in general as an object of aesthetic representation: “The object ‘landscape’ is [...] always an aesthetically organised object shaped by aesthetic means of representation, even when it is perceived as what one refers to as a ‘natural’ landscape outside painted, drawn or photographically produced images. (Even someone – for example a traveller – observing a ‘landscape’ observes it at least implicitly as a potential object of aesthetic representation; they perceive what they see as an ‘image’).”5 Just as the self-portrait may be described as a “conscious look by the photographer at her own body”6 , Macks landscape images show that there can also be a conscious look at the landscape that surrounds the body, a look that is tied with a reflection of subjectivity in the similar way to the self-portrait – even if in landscape images the self as something obvious steps away from the image, giving the observer more space for their own subjectivity. One might at this point argue that any photographic landscape image, any photograph at all in one way or another refers to the self, namely that of the photographer with her subjective view of the world. But in the case of Karin Mack’s images the landscape in particular is linked with the concept of self. Mack describes an experience of nature she had early on, the moment when she reached the summit of a mountain range after a long ascent: “I remember the moment in which my consciousness seemed to rush together into a single point and at the same time expand to infinity as a moment of absolute happiness.”7 Moments of happiness seem to occur in many of Mack’s photographs of landscapes and details of nature – feelings that can transfer to the onlooker. Roland Barthes described in the following words his position as someone viewing landscape photographs that evoke a longing in him: “For me photographs of landscapes (urban or country) must be habitable, not visitable. [...] Looking at these landscapes of predilection it is as if I were certain of having been there or of going there.”8
On her travels Karin Mack from time to time creates Selbstporträts als Schatten [Self-portraits as Shadows]. They link her self, so to speak, with the landscape. Shadow as matter is a strange hybrid of subject and object. The genre of the Selbstporträt als Schatten adopts a similar in-between position: the artist does not want to portray herself in the photograph, but wants to make her presence manifest nonetheless. And so she captures her shadow, which permanently leaves its trace on the photographic paper as an indexical impression. A good example is the Selbstporträt als Schatten from 1972, taken in her studio at the time; once again it illustrates Mack’s keen sense of composition. Light comes in through the open window and projects onto the floor the shadow of both the artist and the window frame. The shadow perspective of the window ends at the foot of a bookshelf against which photo tableaus are leaning, connecting the fleeting shadow-surface projection with the artist’s manifest work. In the same way as the artist’s self pours onto the floor as shadow and spreads across the room, she herself is also always present in her works, whether physically or not.
Another form occasionally found in Mack’s oeuvre, are Selbstporträts im Spiegel [Self-portraits in the Mirror]. In these mirror portraits the self merges with the space; it is simultaneously manifest and dissolved, for the camera covers the photographer’s face, turning the self-portrait into an impersonal one. The self is visible yet barely identifiable, in a way similar to the shadow portraits.
Of course one might wonder what prompted the artist to go from self-representation to mirror portraits and shadow portraits. The fact is that Karin Mack moved to the Netherlands in 1994 and suddenly found herself in a situation of “foreignness”. This raises new questions about one’s identity and one’s relationship with the new living environment. According to Mack herself she regards her 11-year exile in the Netherlands as an enriching and broadening of her personality. For her, sharp boundaries no longer exist: wherever she photographs her shadow, that is her home, right there and then.

Translation: Stephen B. Grynwasser
 See on this subject Solomon-Godeau, Abigail: Trouble, Gender, Sex. Gender ideologies and their manifestations in photography. In: Ingelmann, Inka Graeve (editor): Female Trouble. The camera as mirror and stage for feminine productions. Exhibition catalogue of the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich. Ostfildern 2008, 21-27.

 Barthes, Roland: Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography (English translation 1981). London 1982, 12.
3 Almhofer, Edith: in Die Presse of 18 December 1985.
4 Barthes, Roland: Camera Lucida, 92.
5 Schmeling, Manfred; Schmitz-Emans, Monika: Einleitung in dieselben (editor): Das Paradigma der Landschaft in Moderne und Postmoderne.(Post-)Modernist Terrains: Landscapes – Settings – Spaces. Würzburg 2007, 21.
6 Bronfen, Elisabeth: So sind sie gewesen. Inszenierte Weiblichkeit in den Bildern von Fotografinnen. In: Ingelmann, Inka Graeve (editor): Female Trouble, 19.
7 Mack, Karin: Felsen, Gebirge. Unpublished text 2003.
8 Barthes, Roland: Camera Lucida, 49f.