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Interview with Collier Schorr & Monika Condrea

Interview by Ben Carlson

Collier Schorr

Arrangement #4 (Blumen), 2005. C-print.

The aphorism printed on the back cover of Blumen, the forthcoming second volume in Collier Schorr’s series Forests and Fields, reads, “One cannot describe one’s self with a still life. Still lifes are simply endnotes, pointing towards something too theatrical to be directed with human flesh.” Yet, Schorr’s ephemeral flower arrangements are both a continuation of and a radical departure from the desire-laden portrait photography for which she is most well-known. For the past 13 years, she has spent her summers making pictures in rural southern Germany at the family home of her collaborator, Monika Condrea. Schorr has cast nieces, nephews and their androgynous friends in staged images, often making pointedly artificial use of emotionally charged props, from plastic skulls to antique Nazi uniforms. Blumen, however, is a largely abstract portrait of “German-ness.” Whereas the preceding Forests and Fields publication, Neighbors, pictured a Germany of the imaginary by situating alluring youths in a picturesque landscape, the new book offers a displaced narrative in which flowers, potatoes and bits of string, among other materials, become ciphers of hidden historical and psychological forces.

Fragile and transient, Schorr’s posed landscapes exacerbate the dynamic of absence and presence inherent to her medium. These improvised, site-specific constructions last only long enough to be photographed before flowers begin to wilt or the wind blows everything apart. Dematerialized, the sculptures exist only as silhouette images of themselves, occupying an ambiguous place somewhere between the descriptive and the chimerical. The bold bursts of color punctuating her image surfaces are disassociated from the delicate matter from which they emanate. The threads holding her flowers aloft create their own pictorial edges. Through the camera, Schorr’s spontaneous assemblages enter a space of fantasy, yet the formalist composition of her photographs draws attention to the elusive concreteness at their base. Schorr characterizes these works as “shrines to nothing,” and indeed it is the play between legibility and illegibility that makes them so compelling.

There is a further literary quality to the way Schorr has organized Blumen. Interspersed among the flower arrangements are several caesuras, images that interrupt a straightforward reading. The detours—reflections in a shop window, the abstract pattern of seats in Berlin’s Olympic Station, the astroturf of a tennis court at a women’s prison—explode the logic of the monograph, leaving Blumen irrevocably open and incomplete. The enigmatic gaze of a blond boy lying on his side, for example, cannot be consumed, or exhausted, by a thematic interpretation. He is one link in a chain of related yet discontinuous fragments. The book offers no complete portrait, for such a synthesis of its elements would necessarily be a falsification. Instead, the sequence of images leaves its subject in a state of continuous flux. Pictured as a geography of surfaces, Schorr’s Germany becomes an opaque and unknowable entity. Falling somewhere between a portrayal of the real and a figuration of the imaginary, her photographs dream a documentary and record a fiction. In this gap between what is described and what is illustrated, she finds a means of negotiating psychological interiority and social mask. A catalog of endnotes, Blumen becomes a way of pointing towards an illegible reality just beyond description.

Arrangement #3 (Blumen) from Tryptic Lilly Pads, 2006. C-print.

Monika Condrea: We met in Schwäbisch Gmünd in 1989 because friends thought I might be interested in working with you on a documentary project.

Collier Schorr: I was coming from New York with a newer Germany in mind after looking at a lot of photography coming out of Düsseldorf Academy.

Monika: Gursky, Ruff, Struth.

Collier: Yes. I have to say I was also losing interest in New York, where I felt like I had no tangible subject. No view.

Monika: It is strange to me that even though your father was a photographer, you didn’t entertain the idea of taking photos in New York. Most people would assume that New York City was a place to go, not to leave, in terms of inspiration. Did you have a romantic notion of the life of the expatriate?

Collier: No, I’m a romantic, but that would have been a big leap for me to think about leaving New York in a more permanent way, the way writers like Chester Himes and James Baldwin went to Paris. Maybe it is closer to the pattern of an archeologist, who has to travel to find his subject.

Monika: Was Germany what you expected? Or, more to the point, did it match up to what you had pictured?

Collier: I’m not sure I had such a sense of it as a landscape. My initial reflections of Germany were formed by the Holocaust films we watched in grade school. So to me, Germany was black and white—ghettos, partitions, barbed wire fences, survival, Anne Frank. A set history where I was assigned the role of oppressed.

Monika: And when you got there…

Collier: It was green.

Monika: So did the landscapes of Andreas Gursky line up with those views in my hometown?

Collier: Yes and no. Certainly the infrastructure, road works, signage and cars looked familiar, but your town is very pastoral, more typical Southern—farmlands, very hilly.

Monika: Unremarkable.

Collier: Only if you are used to stopping the car because a herd of sheep is crossing the road. Perhaps I was looking for something unremarkable enough that it could be re-written.

Monika: Did you assume, when you came to Germany, that people would not want to talk about the war? And have you ever felt that you focused too much on it?

Collier: I do think that it is a form of narcissism to talk about one’s oppressor and until my art education in the late ’80s I didn’t have any other reference points. I needed to start at “that beginning,” before I could digest ’70s upheavals, student movements, terrorism, performance art, the looming economic success of a rebuilt Germany. In a sense, I needed to start at my idea of the beginning. But maybe you should explain a little about your family, because that is what is made the project teeter on the edge of documentary.

Monika: My family is originally from the Transylvanian region of Romania that was settled by Germans. My father was Romanian and my mother was an ethnic German. So, for the most part, they lived in a German town, surrounded by Romanian culture and politics. We spoke German and were educated in German schools. Towards the end of WWII, when the Russian army entered Romania, my mother’s family fled to Austria. Their German-Jewish neighbors had either emigrated or were rounded up by the German and Romanian armies. So they experienced these radical shifts in power. They returned after the war and lived under the Ceausescu Regime until the ’70s. This conflation of identities left them in a perpetual state of yearning for a past that was shaped by costume, craft, farming and folk dancing. When you approached me, you had already found out that I had a bunch of nieces and nephews that lived in the area.

Collier: The curator Helen Molesworth wrote that she saw my cast of characters as kind of Fassbinder-esque troupe and that the viewer would encounter the same actors over and over. The repetition underscored the theatricality, which made it feel like a kind of quasi-documentary.

Monika: There is an element of schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder in your work. My nephew Herbert has played a Nazi soldier, an American G.I. from the ’60s and the ’80s, a current Bundeswehr soldier. So if one were to analyze him or if one were to look at the project as a documentary, he would seem to be an illustration of a psychic wound.

Collier: Or an apparition. That was never as clear for me as when Herbert was standing outside his house dressed in a Wehrmacht uniform and he saw his elderly neighbor looking out the window. He was convinced that the neighbor, who had been in the Hitler Youth, thought he was seeing a ghost.

Monika: My immediate family repatriated to Germany in the ’70s and I can’t imagine what they left behind, because as you know, the family houses are filled with all this stuff from Romania.

Collier: That’s what inspired my latest series of still lifes. Your sister’s house, where we keep the studio, is just filled with these little tableaus, mise-en-scenes of daily life. A vase of flowers is used to hold up a piece of Plexiglas so that a basement room can be aired out. They seem to have is this urge to decorate with useful things.

Monika: Is it important that you find these “arrangements”?

Collier: My interest in still life was to see it as a kind of collage and using space as syntax, that the construction functions as a commentary on the place and the objects rather than just a representation.

Collier Schorr

On Left: Arrangement #2 (Blumen), 2005. C-print. On Right: Arrangement #5 (Blumen), 2006. C-print.

Monika: Do you think these “arrangements” have shaped your ideas about constructing still lifes?

Collier: Your sister and brother-in-law have a very specific visual language, which I think is formed by this conflation of Romanian craft culture and the practicality of ’70s German design. The things they choose to keep and to recycle—the use of cellar rooms to keep fruits and vegetables cold or a rack of tools that probably dates back to the early ’60s. These things give them pleasure, whether it is fresh flowers they bring home from their garden or a collection of plastic buckets that seems to endlessly multiply. They wouldn’t be there if they were a blight on their landscape. I think their interest in gardening, the eclectic groupings of stuff, led me to want to make something more of flowers.

Monika: I remember talking about this and you had an idea to deracinate the flowers. We cut them out of people’s gardens and then transported them to an elevated and more dramatic landscape and essentially built site-specific sculptures, which we then left as very vague signposts.

Collier: Quite in the same way that the portraits were realized. Using a landscape to heighten the sense of drama. I looked at a lot of Mapplethorpe pictures in the last years and I was really drawn to the bondage pictures and wanted to bring that kind of tension and domination to a still life. That was the idea behind tying up the flowers, so they were elevated and trapped simultaneously. The nature becomes staged and I think I was always so aware of the forests and fields as being the locus of some theater, the military theater was only one possibility. It is also the theater of escape, migration and gentrification.

Monika: How do the landscapes further the idea of a portrait of the town?

Collier: The basis of the project, as I discussed it with you some 15 years ago, was to take a place that was foreign to me and to inscribe it with a series of projections. But the process of moving through a small place for so many years created other objectives.

Monika: About seven years into the work, I sensed a shift in how you saw yourself functioning within the community. Before, you were an outsider and you brought aloofness and maybe an American conceit to the pictures, a Hollywood idea of conquest. But, then, because you had met so many people and photographed many kids from childhood to adult, you actually became a resident. You had a stake.

Collier: That transformation could not have been expected, but certainly to have an attachment to the land and a better understanding of the language and internal struggles led to a more nuanced portrait. The work starts with a view from afar (i.e., the flowers as heroic in a saturated landscape) but finds itself in the domestic (an upside-down bucket decorated with potatoes).

Monika: Perhaps the inside can only be shown if it is felt.

On Left: Arrangement #8 (Blumen), 2006. C-print. On Right: Arrangement #16 (Blumen), 2008. C-print.