Friderike Heuer’s spaces between

At Blackfish, the photomontage artist's series "Zwischenräume" considers a world under constant surveillance

In February, metal sculptor Steve Tilden and glass artist Jen Fuller’s collaboration Stories, a series of works rooted in Greek myths, fills the main sections of Portland’s Blackfish Gallery. It’s augmented by Free Fall, a large selection of photomontages by Friderike Heuer based on air disasters (think Daedalus and Icarus), each one incorporating an image from one of Tilden and Fuller’s pieces, as well. Blackfish’s intimate back room gallery is given over to another of Heuer’s photomontage series, The Spaces In Between, dealing with the ever-presence in the contemporary world of surveillance. For the past few months I’ve been looking at the images from Spaces, off and on, and thinking about them. In January I sat down with Heuer, and we talked about the series and the ideas woven through it.

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“I want to be alone,” actress Greta Garbo famously sighed in the 1932 movie Grand Hotel.

Fat chance, artist Friderike Heuer seems to reply in her series of montages Zwischenräume.

In Heuer’s world, which is also ours, everybody watches everybody, and there is no true alone.

The images in Zwischenräum – which translates from the German as Spaces, or, as Heuer more loosely has it, The Spaces In Between – are fraught with the realization that we are relentlessly, inescapably, seen. Created with analytical precision from her own photographs and remnants of mostly 20th century northern European paintings, they are teeming with portents of spying and entrapment: infrared cameras, piercing eyes, chain-link fences, metal locks, microphones. Sometimes the implements of surveillance are prominent: brute reminders of conformity through force. Sometimes they’re almost unnoticeable: the hidden persuaders of advertising; the quiet collators of computer and cell phone data mining. Always, they are there, even as the people in these fascinating and nervously crowded images seek to dodge them – to find “the spaces in between,” those private refuges from the probing eye.

"Rotkäppchen"

“Rotkäppchen”

Heuer’s 24” x 18” archival jet prints on German etching paper are seductively combined, and narrative but fractured – pieces of story with the plots cut out. Her images, overlaid and manipulated and streaked with lines of paint, are like collages, but not quite. “I do everything on the computer,” she says. “It makes it easier and harder at the same time. What’s harder is making it seem like a coherent piece. In collage, no one expects the jags and breaks not to be there. There’s a fluidity to these that you don’t ordinarily see in collages. People look at them and often don’t see that they’re montages. They’re like paintings.”

If the jags and breaks aren’t immediately apparent to the eye, they are to the mind. The pieces in this series have political implications but are also complex and deeply personal, defying quick-hit analysis. They create less a statement than a mood of unease; a sort of stunned, stop-time wonderment at a state of being in which we find ourselves. How did we come to this? How do we escape? How do we live with this? What do we do now?

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The spaces in between are paramount to Heuer, a photographer, fine artist, and scientist with published works on cognitive psychology. Now 62, she came to the United States from her native Germany at age 30, interrupting a career as a lawyer to attend the New School for Social Research in New York, and found herself, as so many immigrants do, between cultures. At the same time, as a 20th century European from the generation immediately following World War II, she was deeply aware of the culture of watching, which has only intensified in the decades since. The images in this series contain elements from both Europe and America, and although politics in the narrow sense isn’t their purpose, they are politically charged in a way that American art rarely is: firm, but also subtle; historically informed but non-didactic, with ripples of possible meaning.

Spying for political advantage is as old as human civilization. If we’ve gotten better at it over the millennia, it’s partly because we’ve developed more sophisticated tools. “Enlightened rulers and good generals who are able to obtain intelligent agents as spies are certain for great achievements,” the Chinese general Sun-Tzu wrote sometime between the sixth and third centuries B.C.E. in his treatise The Art of War. By 1989, when the Berlin Wall in Heuer’s native Germany finally fell, political and personal surveillance had become hopelessly intertwined: the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police force, had an estimated 91,000 officers, with a network of close to 200,000 citizen-informers, keeping tabs on their fellow citizens and reporting to a rigidly repressive government any human activity or thought that seemed suspicious.

"The Lock"

“The Lock”

The United States, despite its cherished myth of individual freedom, is far from immune to the intrusive gaze of the inquisitive eye. At times it’s taken an eager and energetic lead in peering over its citizens’ shoulders and between their sheets. Spying was prevalent and important during the Revolutionary and Civil wars, and became ruthlessly politicized during J. Edgar Hoover’s long reign over the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Sometimes the snooping and counter-snooping took on comic proportions. As a young journalist in the late 1960s I once climbed with an enterprising photographer onto the roof of a public library building, where the photographer began snapping pictures of F.B.I. agents, who in turn were methodically snapping panoramic photos of the crowd at an anti-Vietnam War vigil on the sidewalks below. Soon enough the G-men realized we were there, and started shouting at us. “Press!” we cried, and scrambled back down the fire escape. The agents raced after us and stopped at the roof’s edge, snapping away at us with their cameras as we descended. From that point on, if we hadn’t been already, we were On File.

Forty-five-odd years later – after hundreds of thousands of secret government files on “subversive” citizens, and closely held presidential enemy lists, and post-9/11 security ramp-ups, and the soft surrender of private information through credit cards and discount shopping cards and Internet searches on sites with cookies and voluntary posts on social media sites that mine our information – who knows where any of those photographs are now, or what their existence means?

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The works in Heuer’s series, it strikes me, do what good art so often does: besides intriguing us and pleasing us with their structure and technique, they remind us of important things we’d as soon forget. We are all vessels of information, and inquisitors from government to academia to Wall Street and Madison Avenue would love to have us spill. The spills come hard, and the spills come soft. Satellite cameras and drone weapons work in tandem, following up probes from space with pinpoint destruction on Earth. Most of us acquiesce easily to the prying of commercial and entertainment culture, trading personal information for convenience or pleasure. The gaze comes from security cameras, iPhone snapshots, paparazzi, and selfies. It comes from wiretaps, hackers, bureaucracies, employers. “Reality” television shows soften us up for the true reality that the camera and microphone are always on. There is no 40 acres and a mule in the middle of the wild, away from people and the anonymous gaze. That’s not just pie in the sky: it’s Google Earth, too. With 7 billion people on the planet and a projected 9 billion by 2050, we’re squeezed together. And when we’re squeezed together, everybody’s business is everybody’s business.

But Heuer’s montages are about something more: about “the tension between truth and fiction, science and fantasy,” as she puts it in her introduction; about trying to slip away, into unreachable regions, into the spaces in between, and never really being able to elude the gaze.

They also seem very much about what Freud, in his slim and provocative 1929 book of the same name, called “civilization and its discontents” – Das Unbehagen in der Kultur; literally, “The Uneasiness in Culture.” The implications in Freud’s book are multitudinous, but the dilemma it describes is simple. The individual desires freedom. The culture desires conformity. At one extreme lies anarchy. At the other extreme lies the police state. An easy balance is almost impossible.

"Surveillance"

“Surveillance”

The rub of this irresolvable conflict is evident in the montage Surveillance. It’s a furtive, unsettling image, dynamic and static at once. The women, in the anonymous block-figure style of the Bauhaus, are from the German artist and choreographer Oskar Schlemmer, whose work was denounced as degenerate in the late 1930s as the Third Reich was tightening its control of images and allowable thought. Something immensely sad and weary reveals itself in the slump of their heads and shoulders as they labor on the factory floor. The supervisor peering out the window at the women is from the Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler, an advocate of the late 19th and early 20th century lebensreform movement, a Romantic mishmash that embraced various causes from raw and organic food to nudism, sexual liberation, and alternative medicine. It’s ironic yet somehow fitting that a figure from the “new man” movement becomes the overseer: some of its precepts eventually morphed into extreme nationalism and Nazi ideology. The surveillance camera sits in a box on the wall, keeping everything under control.

Heuer also has some of the women in Surveillance dangling from marionette strings, because, she says, “there’s so much manipulation of the women” in Schlemmer’s paintings. It’s a theme she picks up in other pieces, including The Lock, which portrays a pair of delicate women’s hands from a privately owned painting in Philadelphia, overlapped by a photograph of an old industrial door in Brooklyn. The image that emerges is of a very lush prison, an elegant woman held like a bird in a cage. “Having these fine lady hands locked away from reality,” as Heuer puts it. “And only the man has the key.”

Another sort of lock, the lockstep marching of In Perpetuity, comes from the Soviet social realist painter Aleksandr Dejneka. It’s the Soviet army, and Heuer has reddened the faces ideologically and brightened the background with a vision of hope. Echoing and amplifying the march of rifles across the montage are the equally geometric demarcations of a patterned window. “They were on the verge of something,” Heuer says of the post-revolution Soviets. “They had so many ideas. Little did they realize how Stalin would pervert it.” The image of an artichoke stands in for the intrusive microphone of the surveillance state: the thorn in a doomed Utopia. “The war never ends,” Heuer says. “It’s the unending story of mankind.”

The march of unexpected and uneasy juxtapositions continues. No More Unicorns blends a peeling storefront windowsill, a pair of mountain goat skulls with a tiny infrared camera inside one of the eyeholes, and the long elegant fingers of Queen Maria of Yugoslavia, from a 1925 portrait by the Serbian painter Paya Jovanović that is now in the collection of the Maryhill Museum of Art, caressing the other skull. Maria was stripped of her citizenship and had her property confiscated by the new Communist regime in 1947 – the same year that Jovanović painted the official portrait of the emerging Yugoslav strongman Josip Tito. The seeing eye moves on, and the artist travels with it.

"Zwischeräume," or "The Spaces In Between"

“Zwischeräume,” or “The Spaces In Between”

Like so many others in the series, the montage titled The Spaces In Between is both crowded and lonely, fraught with circumstance. Heuer photographed the silver-toned busker in the top hat in Dresden, performing his human statue act for tourists. Paris is a hotbed for such street performers, and many also come from Poland to perform in the wealthier cities of Germany. “They’re standing there all day, stock-still,” Heuer says. “And if you give them a euro or two, they’ll maybe crack a smile. They’re real people, but they pretend to be statues. They’re in Germany, but they’re from poorer countries. And they’re stared at all the time. But they stare out, too. So the idea of surveillance goes both ways.” The looming, sometimes ghostly figures are from paintings by Dejneka, the Soviet artist. One, in silhouette, overlaps the silver man; the others crowd together in a tension of closeness. A woman stares wide-eyed and blank-faced from behind a chain link fence. In the lower right corner a microphone sits, amplifying and (who knows?) perhaps recording. White swatches streak down the image; patches of unclaimed territory peek in small diamonds from behind the grid of fence. The feeling, once again, is compelling, strange, disturbing: like the statue-man, artificially trapped in an intellectual construction made flesh.

The Wrench Wench returns to the theme of the factory floor, juxtaposing a forest of industrial wrenches with the profile of a young woman by the fascinating early German expressionist painter Paula Modersohn-Becker, who died of an embolism shortly after giving birth to her daughter in 1907, at age 31. Behind her hand, which holds just one of a repetition of wrenches, lurks the obscured image of a small camera. On her head, sitting like an ironic crown – ironic because the worker will never break free from her laborer’s place in the pecking order of ownership and wealth – is a string of pearls: princess of the assembly line. Modersohn-Becker, Heuer points out, did escape, at least partly, finding a tentative space in between: “She would go to Paris for six months at a time. Doing it on her own, and as far as I know, she was penniless. And then she would go back to Germany.”

"The Wrench Wench"

“The Wrench Wench”

One of the most arresting images in the series is Rotkäppchen, or Little Red Riding Hood. Heuer’s photograph of a full-lipped girl in red and pink is the montage’s dominant image, taken at Oaks Amusement Park in southeast Portland. “There was a festival going on, and she was just whirling around,” Heuer recalls. At first glance it’s a happy scene, but the girl is interrupted. For security reasons, her face is cut off below her nose (a rare case of the gaze averting to allow some privacy), and the trim and uniform woods she’s entering are outside Weimar, the town of Schiller and Goethe, and a region that is now a center of the rise of ugly Neo-Nazism. “You can bike from there to Buchenwald concentration camp,” she says. “You go through lines of beech woods, and the ground is covered with bluebells and primroses. Beautiful place. And then you arrive at Buchenwald, and you go through those doors.” With the girl’s fading-away feet, the piercing light among the trees, and the horizontal streaks across the plane, Rotkäppchen conveys a sense of something imminent and disturbed. “I wanted the Bad Wolf lurking in the background of this German order,” Heuer says. “I wanted to get this idea of Little Red Riding Hood really being in danger. And the danger is right where the beauty is.”

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In this series, Heuer offers a welcome reminder of the layers of history, philosophy, technology, tyrannies, and freedoms that have marched across the 20th century and into the 21st. Her work, steeped in European sensibility and prodded by her recognition of the shrinking space between technology and individuality across the globe, is technically adept and intellectually provoking. It suggests not fear or paranoia, but awareness. This is our world now. How will we live in it?

Any way, it appears, except alone.

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