Magazine article Artforum International

Candida Hofer: Norton Museum of Art

Magazine article Artforum International

Candida Hofer: Norton Museum of Art

Article excerpt

The Norton Museum of Art's installation of "Architecture of Absence," the first North American survey of the work of German photographer Candida Hofer, opened with an auspicious face-off. In the small entry gallery, two recent sixty-inch-square C-prints depicting empty auditoriums stared across the space at ten smaller photographs, double hung and dating back to 1979, showing a selection of interiors--lecture halls, museum galleries, dining rooms, transit stops, theaters. This introduction concisely encapsulated the terms that have dominated Hofer's practice since the late 1970s: The public interiors that were presented, from the forlorn dayroom of a German convalescent home to the concrete-encased escalators of Zurich's Stadelhofen train station, were all entirely devoid of people, and were shot in a thoroughly idiosyncratic range of styles that included vast panoramas and claustrophobic corner views, sharply delineated feasts for the eye and hazily focused near snapshots. And because the installation was staged so as to imply a kind of proscenium, with those hundreds of empty auditorium seats gazing at the images on the opposite wall, it sutured both the exhibition visitor (for whom those prime viewing seats were seemingly intended) and Hofer herself (retrospectively surveying her oeuvre from the front-row vantage of the present) into the social and spatial dynamic it created.

This sense of being invited into, or having landed in, the world of Hofer's photographs is central to their uncanny effect. Looking at her unpopulated interior views--frequently shot from oblique angles that suggest passing glances rather than definitive visual summaries, and full of furniture, fixtures, and objects that appear to be quietly waiting for someone--viewers may feel as if they're wandering through a world in which everyone has simply vanished. Electrical outlets and carpet stains are suddenly infused with an odd significance, for in this world without people (or, per the exhibition title, in this "architecture of absence"), objects and incident become active participants in some sort of strange, unscripted drama, communing with one another and the architectural containers they fill. If we are of this world--for we all use train stations and go to museums, after all, perhaps the very same ones we see in these images--Hofer makes us feel that we are nevertheless alien to it, that we're trespassing on a secret life of spaces and things.

This is a peculiar and delicate achievement. Hofer doesn't work through a strategy of explicit estrangement (as in the modernist tradition of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy or Aleksandr Rodchenko, say, wherein architectural forms become barely recognizable, nearly abstract); rather, she locates the inherent strangeness of the most deadpan realism. Here is the headquarters of Berlin public radio; here, Oslo's Viking Museum; here, New York's Pierpoint Morgan Library: Seen through Hofer's lens, all of these structures appear strikingly awkward, constructed, contingent. In 1927 Siegfried Kracauer wrote that in photography, "for the first time, the inert world presents itself in its independence from human beings"--and that in making this presentation possible, the photograph confronts its viewers with "the provisional status of all given configurations." Hofer is of course far removed from the late-Weimar ferment in which Kracauer was writing, but his words nevertheless describe her project more aptly than any I know. Focusing overwhelmingly on those spaces in which modern Western culture collects and disseminates information--universities, lecture halls, museums, and above all, libraries--she reveals a fragility in the very project of knowledge itself.

These are certainly not the terms with which Hofer has described her own work. Despite her decades-long focus on public interiors, primarily in the United States and Europe, she has stressed that it is formal--and not social--concerns that drive her practice. …

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