In his new body of work, German photographer Matthias Hoch introduces new European cities that serve as his sounding board as he searches for clarity in a world that continues to race toward the future, becoming bigger, faster and more incomprehensible. Hoch’s main city is that of Almere, Netherlands which is near Amsterdam. The city was first conceived of thirty years ago as a ‘new town’ or futuristic city that would attempt to offer its residents all of the accoutrements of living in a larger city. Yet, Hoch’s photographs of the city begin to reveal a tension between the idyllic intentions that were considered in the initial development stage, and the glaring lack that is echoed throughout the architecture, perhaps serving as a metaphor of the inconsistencies of modern, contemporary life.
Before exploring any incongruities that Hoch’s work might highlight, we first must take into consideration two strains of art historical thought that can be utilized when viewing his work. The first is what Charlotte Cotton refers to as the deadpan aesthetic. In The Photograph as Contemporary Art, Cotton defines this aesthetic as “a cool, detached and keenly sharp type of photography” that helps to move the medium beyond the individual perspective, allowing it to explore such liminal spaces as which exists between the man-made and the natural world. 1 According to Cotton, this aesthetic is seen today mainly within a school of photographers she labels as ‘Germanic;’ both because of nationality and because a large number were educated under Bernd [and Hilla] Becher at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf. As Cotton explains, “Their approach was encyclopedic: they created typologies of nature, industry, architecture and human society through the sustained photography of single subjects.” 2 Although Hoch studied at the East German Leipzig Academy of Visual Arts from 1983 to 1988, Cotton includes Hoch in this school of photography, as she discusses one of his earlier photographs, Leipzig #47, 1998. Cotton considers this image as an example of when photography’s use of the deadpan aesthetic was at its height, as it captures the point between the completion of a building space that had been “designed with a purpose” but is “yet unused,” or in other words, before the architectural interior has been altered by an occupant putting her or his mark upon it. 3 Hoch’s ability to capture this point leads us to the second method to consider.
In his essay Spatial Stories, Michel de Certeau defines space (espace) and place (lieu) as being clearly distinct from one another. For de Certeau, place is a location that implies stability, or rather, immovability. “The law of the ‘proper’ rules in the place.” There is no movement with place. Space, on the other hand, is defined as a “contradistinction to the place.” Space does not possess the same rules or stability that place is defined by. Rather, space is defined only when there is movement between place[s]. As de Certeau states, “space is a practiced place.” 4
Hoch’s images can be a strong argument as to the defining of ‘place’. Returning to the town of Almere, Hoch presents a strong visual metaphor of ‘place’ versus ‘space’ in his photographs of the city center, and what is known as the Pop Zaal which was built with the intention of being the heart of the development, as it houses an auditorium, disco, bar and ancillary spaces. In Almere #15, an image of a structure that Hoch defines in his notes as a work-station/ console/ DJ booth while in Almere #16, Hoch photographs the empty bar. 5 Both images are examples of how Hoch uses single subjects; a console and an empty bar, to define a ‘place’ that has no movement or practice. Hoch highlights the irony of the Pop Zaal in his notes as he discusses how although the Pop Zaal is featured on the cover of many brochures and architectural magazines, after two years in operation, the people who ran the place had given up because the cost was too high and the younger generation would rather go to Amsterdam. Therefore, although the city center was intended to be defined as a ‘space’, without movement, it has never been able to evolve past existing as a ‘place.’
Hoch also seems to be using single subject photography to draw attention to the disparity of the man-made landscape and the natural world, by focusing on one detail of a new outdoor playground for children. In Rotterdam #26, a light slate-color sculptural piece sits on top of a green surface made up of biomorphic shapes that alternate between light and dark shades of green, encircling each other resulting in a luscious patterning. Instead of actual natural elements to make up the playground, the children are offered signifiers or stand-ins for the real deal: the green surface serves as a signifier of grass while it could be suggested that the slick concrete sculpture could be a replacement for an actual stone. In his notes, Hoch writes that the green surface is made up of a synthetic material that is soft and flexible and “walking on it gives off a simulated feeling.” The same can be said in Almere #5, where a man-made canal runs around what can be described as an island or an oasis within a contemporary urban setting. Within the canal, small streams of water jet out, creating a simulation of movement within the water, or currents. Within the island, small circular patterns of grass serve as space for planted trees to grow.
What is it that Hoch is hoping to illuminate by his images? There is no literal reading into Hoch’s photographs as he is able to employ the ambiguous so well by not giving any identifying details of the cities that he photographs (apart from the titles) while he decontextualizes his subject matter. Hoch departs from visually consuming the locations he photographs by using a visual architectural vocabulary that captures the state of the contemporary urban landscape. The Italian writer, Massimo Carboni, writes about Hoch’s post-human locales as a way for the photographer to “evoke the squalor and psychological and social desolation of everyday life in the overwhelming anonymity typical of today’s cities.” 2 Hoch’s conceptual photography and deadpan aesthetic allows us the viewer to explore the metaphor that he presents us with images of the contemporary urban landscape. Do we project ourselves within this scenery? Do we identify with the need for our surroundings to be defined for us or do we abhor what we might think the future could bring; further detachment from the natural world? Hoch never even suggests that he has the answer; but as we the viewer insert ourselves into Hoch’s allegory, we can’t but help to ask ourselves if we are going in the right direction.
1 Cotton, Charlotte, The Photograph as Contemporary Art, (London: Thames & Hudson, 2004), p. 81; 2 Ibid, p. 82; 3 Ibid, p. 89-90.
4 de Certeau, Michel, “Spatial Stories” in The Practice of Everyday Life, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), translated by Steven Rendall, p. 117.
5 All works are from 2007 unless otherwise noted. Additionally, all reference to Hoch’s notes are from notes sent by the artist to the gallery April 18, 2008.
6 Massimo Carboni, “Matthias Hoch at Studio d’Arte Contemporanea Pino Casagrande,” translated by Marguerite Shore, Artforum XLV no. 2, (October 2006), p. 276.
Published in: Matthias Hoch, Almere, Rotterdam, Naarden, Leipzig, exhibition catalog, Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco 2008.