Arwed Messmer and Annett Gröschner, Taking Stock of Power @Walther Collection

JTF (just the facts): A total of 214 black and white photographs, unframed and unmounted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the book alcove.

The following works are on included in the show:

  • Macht/Power: 12 volumes, 2016
  • Constructed Panoramas: 38 archival pigment prints, 1966/2016
  • Soldiers: 1 set of 55 archival pigment prints, 1966/2016
  • Ladders: 1 set of 20 archival pigment prints, 1966/2016
  • Watchtowers: 1 set of 70 archival pigment prints, 1966/2016
  • Escape Tunnels: 1 set of 30 archival pigment prints, 1966/2016
  • 1 map
  • 1 image printed on vinyl (in hallway)

(Installation shots below.)

A two-volume monograph of Taking Stock of Power was published in 2016 by Hatje Cantz (here). Hardcover, 2 volumes, 1328 pages, with 1627 black and white reproductions. With texts by Greg Bond, Olaf Briese, Florian Ebner, Matthias Flügge, Annett Gröschner, and Arwed Messmer. Graphic design by Carsten Eisfeld. (Cover shots below.)

Comments/Context: In 1965 and 1966, the border troops on the East German side of the Berlin Wall were given a mundane photographic task. They were asked to document the wall, so that engineers could examine the varying integrity of the structure and develop plans for future improvements and renovations. And so the soldiers went out and made thousands of horizontal views on 35mm film, the numerous rolls ending up housed in various classified archives.

Some 30 years later, the photographer Arwed Messmer and writer Annett Gröschner were looking for images of the wall for another project when one of their formal requests was answered by a box full of these rolls. Seeing the potential in these ordinary pictures, they then went back and systematically found other groups of the material in other archives, ultimately bringing together raw imagery of the entire 160 kilometer circuit of the wall. Taking Stock of Power transforms that exhaustive archive into a powerful work of art (in both exhibition and photobook forms), essentially resurrecting the now destroyed wall and conceptually unpacking its visceral presence.

The largest portion of the exhibit consists of panoramic photographs of the wall that were painstakingly digitally stitched together from the archival footage by Messmer and Gröschner. In a sense, these images show us the wall in ways that it was never actually seen, with views that run down entire city blocks or curve around corners. What emerges from these elongated scenes is a profound sense of eerie intrusion, the unforgiving walls, barriers, razor wire, and fencing slicing through the seemingly empty gray city and disrupting its everyday rhythms. Messmer and Gröschner then give the wall a personal perspective through short image captions drawn from the mundane daily reports of the border guards, the small anecdotes and incidents (unrelated to their particular visual locations) providing an intimate human face to accompany the ghostly silence of the pictures. Their full sequence of the entire Berlin Wall fills 12 bound volumes, which are shown reading room-style on a wooden table, with a representative selection of enlarged prints affixed nearby for better close inspection.

Messmer and Gröschner have also built a series of typologies, similarly drawn from the archival imagery made by the border regiment. One gathers together ID portraits of the guards, each in uniform with his eyes now hidden by a small rectangle; the effect oscillates between reminding us of the individuality of these men and turning them into a homogenized, “unseeing” zombie-like horde. Another typology makes a Becher-like grid of the watchtowers and sentry huts that were used to monitor the border area, contrasting the architecture of rickety wooden struts and treehouse nests with that of hulking brick and concrete bunkers, the lack of uniformity attesting to both the range of possible sites/conditions found along the barrier and the makeshift approach that was used to construct the first iteration of the wall.

Two other typologies flip the direction of the attention, documenting the efforts of citizens to circumvent the enclosure of the wall. One group goes underground, tracking the escape tunnels dug into the dirt and rock underneath the wall; with each image a look down a dark claustrophobic hole, the series pulls us into the mindset of stubborn resistance. Another stays above ground and gathers together images of ladders used to successfully climb over the wall, the variety and ingenuity of the efforts creating a similar emotional sense of sustained desperation.

This project is a hauntingly memorable example of how a wealth of seemingly ordinary historical material can be transformed into something more resonant by the eyes of artists. Taking Stock of Power is at once impressively exhaustive and tightly edited, giving the viewer a feel for the wall’s abstract expansiveness and its more gritty personal frictions. Seen together, these two integrated vantage points create a rich portrait of the aesthetic realities of freedom deliberately inhibited.

Collector’s POV: Since this effectively a museum exhibition, there are of course no posted prices. And even though Messmer was shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize in 2019 (for a different project), he doesn’t appear to have consistent gallery representation. As a result, interested collectors should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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Read more about: Arwed Messmer, Walther Collection (NY Project Space), Hatje Cantz

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Gnomic Book (here). Softcover, 136 pages, with 96 color and monochrome reproductions. Includes an essay by Jason Koxvold (in English/Arabic) and transcriptions ... Read on.

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