Magazine article Artforum International

Blind Spots: Hal Foster on the Art of Joachim Koester

Magazine article Artforum International

Blind Spots: Hal Foster on the Art of Joachim Koester

Article excerpt

  Nothing is more instructive than a confusion of time frames.
  --Alexander Kluge, The Devil's Blind Spot

JOACHIM KOESTER WORKS along the borders between documentary and fiction. Typically he begins with an obscure story bound up with a particular place, a sited tale that is somehow broken or layered through time. Then, usually in a photo sequence or a film installation, he works to piece the story together, but never to the point of resolution: A historical irony persists, one that can be elaborated further; or an essential enigma remains, one that can be used to test the limits of what can be seen, represented, narrated, known. Like others involved in an archival approach to artmaking (such as Tacita Dean), Koester often accompanies his images with texts, but these serve less as factual captions than as imaginative Legends of his own mapping of spaces, his own "ghost-hunting" of subjects. (1)

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Frequently the spaces are far flung and the subjects long gone (they include late nineteenth-century explorers, early twentieth-century occultists, and post-1968 radicals). Koester is especially drawn to adventurers whose quests have failed, sometimes disastrously so (but then what counts as success in the category of Utopia?). For example, Row House, 2000, considers the story of the Canadian Arctic town of Resolute, which begins with the search for the Northwest Passage, passes through the politics of the cold war, and deteriorates with the discordant claims of government planners, Inuit, and other residents in the present. Clearly, the borders that Koester works are also political and economic.

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In two works Koester has treated Christiania, an abandoned military base in his native Copenhagen proclaimed a free city by anarchist squatters in 1971. In Day for Night, Christiania 1996, he photographed different sites with a blue filter (used in film to shoot night scenes during the day), split the titles between military designations and squatter names, and so remarked the transformations of Christiania at the level of image and language alike. Then, in Sandra of the Tuliphouse or How to Live in a Free State, 2001, a five-screen video installation produced with Matthew Buckingham, Koester used black-and-white photos drawn from archives and color footage shot on location to present, through the voice-over of the fictional Sandra, a range of ruminations on Christiania, the fate of armor in the age of gunpowder, the rise of heroin, and the decline of wolves. The piece is perspectival in a Nietzschean sense, with the audience forced to sort out the various viewpoints on the fly. Both works juxtapose the Utopian promise and the grim actuality of Christiania (Dean again comes to mind), and both are structured through a particular kind of montage--internal in the case of the split-captioned photos of Day for Night, immersive in the case of the installation space of Sandra of the Tuliphouse. Such montage is the formal analogue of the parallactic model of history that Koester advances in all his work--a combination of times within the space of each piece. "You can really grasp time as a material through this simple act of comparison," Koester writes; nothing is more instructive than a confusion of time frames. (2)

In other works focused on adventurers Koester also uses temporal frames to highlight historical ruses. For the photographic sequence From the Travel of Jonathan Harker, 2003, he retraced the journey of the English protagonist of Dracula through the Borgo Pass, only to find, in fabled Transylvania, suburban tracts, illegal logging, and a tourist hotel called Castle Dracula. Among actual explorers, Koester has taken up the Swedish scientist Nils A. E. Nordenskiold, the first European to venture deep into the Greenland ice cap. Nothing is more Northern Romantic than a fascination with explorations gone awry (the emblem here is Caspar David Friedrich's Sea of Ice, 1823-24, also known as The Wreck of the Hope), and Koester's recent exhibition at the Greene Naftali Gallery included another piece about a polar expedition, the 2005 film installation Message from Andree (first seen at that year's Venice Biennale). …

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