Secondary Perspective: An Interview with Ingo Mittelstaedt
Published on ArtSlant
Berlin, Jan. 2014: If you venture up to the second floor of the Bode Museum in Berlin, tucked behind in a small exhibition space in one of the back rooms, you will see an unlikely product of history. The piece is relatively simple – a marble bust of the same scale you often find in museums, but it is clear that the statue has withstood a state of catastrophe. It is a damaged relic that was important enough to preserve, but is also far from the quality of the other pristinely conserved pieces that fill the rest of the museum walls – a mixed collection of works from the Renaissance, Italian-Gothic, and Byzantium periods. As perhaps the other few who had viewed the piece, I had immediately thought that the cause of all the damage was from WWII. However, the statue had not been damaged during the war, but because of it. The piece was one of many works of art that had been transferred to the Flacktower at Friedrichshain for safekeeping during a battle in the 1940s – though shortly after the war had ended, a fire broke loose in the bunker. Most of the works were destroyed. It was a marble portrait of Acellino Salvago Antonio della Porta, Italy, c. 1500. I remember thinking how fitting it was that a maimed statue almost identically resembled a human counterpart, as if the sculpture was more true to life in this marred state, bearing a more fragile surface than stone.
I was fascinated to view the same image six months later, in Miami Beach during Basel – though I had seen the piece again not in its original form, but in a photograph. It was a piece by Berlin-based Ingo Mittelstaedtin Galerie koal’s booth at UNTITLED. At the time, I knew nothing more about the piece other than its image, but had recognized it instantly. It was one of two black-and-white framed photographs resting on a wood museum plinth, installed among other objects: white archival handling gloves, a thin branch, and a sheet of geometrically patterned paper. The other photograph was of a landscape, foregrounding boulders that appeared to mirror a similar bust form. The photographs were presented together as if to impart two different schools of thought: the first, the representational turned abstract; and the second, its reversal – crafting recognition out of the non-descript, a nod to gestalt effect.
The image of the sculpture shot in the Bode Museum is just one of many in a series of works Mittelstaedt has been photographing for his latest series, entitled Oxxxoxxxoxxoooxooxxoo. As a whole, the objects that Mittelstaedt shoots are not ones that demand a first glance, but are instead the forgotten objects, the hidden ones – those that you would have to do a double-take in order to see. They offer not a primary, but a secondary perspective as his subject. In these works, Mittelstaedt delays the immediate. Focusing his lens on overlooked histories, he tells the story of relics removed from their context, as if staging an imaginary museum within the groupings of the photographs themselves. In the transcript below, we spoke about his current work, and what led his practice toward this ongoing investigation.
Stephanie Cristello: Ingo, I first noticed your work at koal’s booth in UNTITLED. – actually, it was a specific image that drew my attention. It was a black-and-white image of a sculpture I had seen at the Bode Museum in Berlin. I had thought to myself how strange and wonderful it was to see it again in Miami, as part of your current series Oxxxoxxxoxxoooxooxxoo. I feel like even living in Berlin it would be hard to locate the sculpture, since it is somewhat hidden in the museum. Can you talk a bit about your relationship to the image and the other damaged sculptures in your work?
Ingo Mittelstaedt: In 2011, I had started to take photos in museums, preferably museums of art history. Coming from a background in still-life photography, I thought it might be interesting to leave the studio and work at places that were instead filled with objects, as opposed to creating and staging those objects from scratch. Places where exhibits were staged in any possible way. I also felt that a lot of the pieces, displayed in museums, were designated to represent the past, in a similar way to how photography often is. There was a moment when I asked myself: what would happen if I photograph the objects I relate to? What happens when I focus, not necessarily only on the exhibit itself, but rather on the modes of presentation – and the breaks, the coincidental phenomena, or deformations that take place? And also, what happens when I start to show these photos without contextual information along with other photos of objects and sculptures, no matter what epoch, or which museums they are from? I found that it worked for me quite well. Somehow this series of work embraces the very special qualities of photography: to document and extract the essential of a meeting with an object, the imprint of a situation. I also find it quite intriguing that a maimed old sculpture, which we both had an encounter with in Berlin, and which you rediscovered in Miami, became the trigger for this interview.
SC: Where were the other images in the series photographed?
IM: In the start, I only took photos in museums. I spent a lot of time at the Museum Island in Berlin. At theBode Museum, the Pergamon and Neues Museum ("New Museum"). I visited the Ethnological Museum in Dahlem quite a few times, too. After a year or so I realized that I could combine them with photos that I shot in nature or of architecture. I also started to take photos on my travels, for example in the Netherlands and in Brazil. Basically I can find my subjects everywhere as long I have my camera with me and enough time to get in the right mood and concentrate.
SC: Where does the title of the series come from? In one way, I can see how the repetition of X's and O's speak to ways of cataloguing, or are serial in a way, but they are also universal codes and signifiers for romance. Do you think that your series borders on these two concepts? Between the archival and the romantic?
IM: The title Oxxxoxxxoxxoooxooxxoo is borrowed from a 1991 study by American psychologist Thomas Gilovich on people‘s tendency to willingly recognize patterns within random structures. It works almost like an image and can be read in various ways. I like that it refers to xoxo, the abbreviation for hugs and kisses. In a way, it stands for my romance with the medium. But you can also read it in a very simple way: the X stands for a great shot and the O for a failed shot in photography, where this series is in many ways a combination of both. Oxxxoxxxoxxoooxooxxoo definitely combines the idea of the archival and the romantic – the idea of cataloguing, or archiving in itself is linked to romanticism for me. Archiving, in this sense, is a means of preserving things as they are. To leave a perfect trace of the present in place of the subsequent. The archive helps us to remember and to satisfy our lust for nostalgia. It verifies the importance of our being.Oxxxoxxxoxxoooxooxxoo has both of these sides: a sentimental view on things, which were made long ago, as well as a decontextualization of new perspectives on the preserved.
SC: I never really view the images as existing on their own, but rather as part of a larger system. How do you decide to arrange the images? It seems that they rely on their installation, or that the placement and proximity of the work helps to define the piece as a whole.
IM: Yes, I think it is an impulse to always read and synchronize the image we see with images we have in our mind. I believe that there is no such a thing as an image that exists on its own. When I install works in exhibitions, I try to come as close as possible to the linkage of images I have in my head. A mind map is a good reference, as you can connect its components in different directions. The series I do are anything but homogenous. For me it is more important to define the sequence – the proximity and the distance of every single image in the installation.
SC: In your earlier work, in series like Chromas or Items, you seemed to be working more within a still life tradition in painting, but through photography and studio installations instead – still very tied to Art History, but in a more direct way. Do you see this project as a departure from your older work? And if yes, do you see yourself having a different connection to History as a subject?
IM: For many people, Oxxxoxxxoxxoooxooxxoo seemed like a big departure from my previous works. I see it as an enhancement of the way I work. It benefits my studio work, and vice versa – I guess I was a little bored in the studio. That’s why I started this project. I mean, I never decided to be a studio artist in the first place. I had always appropriated materials. That’s what I still do, but not only by arranging things on tabletops. You are right; my work is very tied to art history. It is a visual alliance. Sometimes it even feels like, as much as I’m a photographer, I am equally a spectator and devotee to art and its history. It’s almost like a game, where you see different -ism’s though the lenses of photography. So for me, it feels very natural to develop different connections to history as a subject.
SC: It seems like you are engaging with similar forms and aesthetics of Classicism, but fundamentally redefining them. For example, motifs of mirroring, symmetry, and silhouette are broken and never perfect, and the subjects themselves reflect that: portraiture, still life, landscape. Is your approach a form, or a product of what you photograph?
IM: I wouldn’t say that I engage Classicism as a form. I use it more as a vessel, just like I used Modernism, and its self-referential preoccupation with color, in Chromas. As much as I get involved in art history as a subject, I also try to tell a story about photography and its transformative qualities. It’s the process of abstraction itself that fascinates me, which is inherent in the medium, as well as the aesthetic alienations resulting from the change from three to two-dimensional.
SC: It feels like this series is an ongoing investigation – one that can be uncovered over a long course of time – do you see it continuing?
IM: Definitely. It feels as if I just have started. There are still so many places I want to visit and take photos at. Also I have the feeling I need to display this work more often and in different contexts to fully explore its possibilities, since it is equally dependent on exhibition and site.