Matthias Hoch

Private Eye
Roy Exley

A first glimpse of Matthias Hoch’s super-clean colour prints, showing the intimate details of hi-tech industrial units, the backrooms of sorting offices, data-processing centres, banks and clinics or the slick facades and interiors of contemporary buildings, is rather unnerving. These images seem to manifest the architect's or engineer's most idealistic visions, somehow supra-real, searching for a perfection that doesn't really exist, the near-perfection that they portray seeming to transcend reality. Hoch has created images here which have a sanitised, cleansed demeanour, suggestive of that digital tweaking favoured by the commercial artist. The truth is that, except for the erasure of one or two insignificant details, such as trade names or other identifying marks, these images are undoctored. Relieved of their identity, these machines, installations and fittings become props for a sci-fi world à la William Gibson or Philip K. Dick, a future world where the ubiquity of surveillance and control is, while invisible, complete. A world where the citizens lie low, waiting for a power-cut to disable the electrical panopticon, and release them into the light of day; a world whose dustless sterility could only have been maintained by those Korean robot bugs from Gibson's Virtual Light , that cleaned up when you weren't looking, even the special ones that eat the dust off the wallscreen.

Based in Leipzig, where he studied, Hoch is the odd-one-out in that coterie of German artists who, using photography, have established international reputations for themselves. Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth, all contemporaries, were tutored at the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf by Bernd and Hilla Becher; this tutelage is evident in the strong documentary feel of many of their images and a common aesthetic thread which connects their work. Hoch's is a more private vision and, although his images share the formalism of the Düsseldorf school, his work differs in that he tends to pick up on detail, to penetrate, rather than survey the scene. There is an element of the intangible here, proffered fragments that reveal only tantalising traces of obscured wholes, leaving the viewer pondering visual conundrums - latter-day still-lifes minus fish, fruit, or fowl.

Whereas Bernd and Hilla Becher's images exude an air of nostalgia for the old monolithic skeletons of heavy industry, Hoch`s images are filled with an air of expectancy; assertive precursors of revolutionary technology, they replace the Bechers' gravity, with an aesthetic of levity. In his early work, where he isolates sections - snatches, partial views – of industrial units in cameos whose visual forms veer towards the abstract, the aesthetic rather than the analytic prevails. Nevertheless Hoch captures something in these scenes that others overlook, and we feel privileged to be allowed to share this private vision.

The aphorism - Reality is a Construct - that opens the recently published catalogue of his Parisian photographs, gives an insight into Hoch`s motivation for the creation of these images. He is examining here not only the ways in which we perceive the world around us, but also how through our perception we synthesise whole suites of underlying meaning. Hoch`s approach is reductive; he segments things, obscuring their contexts and their meaning, ridding them of any narrative traces. We are obliged to re-invent them, to re-construct their identities, bringing our own diverse solutions and desires to resolve their visual conundrums, just as, in Fedora, one of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, every inhabitant visits its museum of imaginary images and "chooses the city that corresponds to his or her desires". This visual transformation of the objects and sites lovingly presented in Hoch`s photographs, draws us into an intimate relationship with them, but the inevitable, impenetrable, membrane of distance stops us short. Ultimately their meaning is concealed. As much as these images seem vulnerable before our gaze, they remain inviolable on account of the distance interposed by the photographic process.

Through the ubiquity of absence, his images present a beauty that is, ultimately, cold. No good citizens traverse, or repose in, these scenes - scenes which are for them, but not of, through, or because of them. Hoch`s images are timeless infinitesimal slices of time which have somehow become detached, they are historical yet at the same time prophetic -
handing us their interpretive task.

In his most recent series of photographs, Hoch has turned his lens upon that wonderland of capitalist fantasy, La Defense, on the outskirts of Paris, with its massed ranks of corporate palaces, soaring office blocks, architectural playthings; with their acres of glass facades and cladding, along with the Toytown road system which weaves around and beneath their vast bulwarks. Again detail predominates - the stillness and silence of these interiors verges on the claustrophobic; we are marooned here without the key-code to escape. In Hoch`s Paris #27, the sumptuous colours of this interior - the peppermint green leather chairs and claret-coloured walls - are seductive pacifiers, but ultimately we want to escape from its mausoleum-like sterility. Any fantasies of entombment prompted here are made all the more palpable when we see his Paris #37, where we witness shrubs ominously incarcerated in a line of wire and sheet metal cages, any escaping fronds to be summarily lopped off -
the anally-retentive's solution to the modernist dilemma of how to present plant life in a strictly modernist format.

In Paris #40 Hoch takes us down into the bowels of La Defense to an underground car park, where slick-surfaced and jauntily-angled concrete pillars penetrate the floor with consummate ease, looking for all the world like the exotic innards of some post-industrial power source - its deserted spaces presenting a pure structural essence that barely betrays its function. In Paris #25 a bank of video monitors flickers its information to a non-existent audience, whose presence is nonetheless conjured by the row of truncated partitions which mark off aisles or workstations either side of each monitor. The esoteric purposes of this place are obscured by the lack of functionaries, for, as readily as we might imagine a throng of people in this space, we cannot predict what they might be doing or what patterns their formal functions might follow.

The balconied staircase in Paris #2 reminds us of those exactingly achieved models of architectural spaces, created by that other German artist, Thomas Demand, for his constructed photographs. The crisp detail here, unsullied by traces of human activity, has its chilling angularities warmed by the buffs, beiges, mushrooms and ivories, whose calming colours bathe its unevenly illuminated surfaces. Hoch studiously avoids the spectacular - those soaring buildings whose awesome masses enclose and enfold these scenes.

Although an obvious comment might be that Hoch has an eye for these details - whose reluctant cameos are mere traces of the whole - this is not the point. To appreciate Hoch's work, we must follow the text that coalesces around the series as a whole, a meta-narrative which compensates for the lack of narrative, as he builds up a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts. He conveys a compelling, if sometimes sinister, beauty through an understated simplicity, in a visual language that is all his own. Through absence and enigma this deceptive simplicity is able to convey complex but elusive connotations. A future is prophesised here that we cannot possibly predict, through images of a past we never even witnessed. In the final analysis, Hoch leaves us to consider an ineffable beauty.

Published in: Portfolio #32, Edinburgh 2000, pp. 50-55.