Mårten Lange, The Mechanism

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2017 by MACK Books (here). Hardcover, 96 pages, with 56 tritone back and white reproductions. No essays or texts are included. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In 1937, André Kertész made a now-famous picture of a disembodied man’s arm awkwardly stuck out of a circular exhaust fan. To this day, “Arm and Ventilator” remains a strange picture (it is reproduced above, from Kertész’ A Lifetime of Perception), putting a human arm where it definitely didn’t belong, the shiny metal fan blades representing a surreal level of potential danger. Beyond its elegant forms and tactile surfaces, the photograph seems to be offering an ominous warning, tacitly arguing that the waves of industrialization that were taking place at the time might not perfectly coexist with the rhythms of humanity.

I was reminded of this perplexing image while paging through Mårten Lange’s smart photobook The Mechanism, as there is a similar picture to be found inside. In Lange’s version, a woman awkwardly reaches her arm (and her head) out of a modern window to perhaps ash a cigarette, the protective grating jamming her up against the side, leaving her arm to dangle out over the perfect whiteness of the building’s exterior. In spirit, the two images share the same sense of weird incongruousness, but in this case, it is the sleek perfection of futuristic contemporary life that is the silently controlling menace.

While a number of recent photographic projects have taken up individual threads documenting the dystopian underbelly of modern existence, from the alienation of office life to the overreaches of the surveillance state, Lange’s book weaves many of these disparate but interconnected ideas together into a richly sophisticated whole. It’s an entirely visual narrative – there are no texts or captions to explain the situation, no places or dates to provide specific context, and this is wholly appropriate, as Lange has set his sights on capturing the layered essence of the modern everyplace, and its sister city, the technology-centric contemporary nowhere.

If there is any one common location to Lange’s story, it is the ubiquitous glass and steel skyscraper. His images of dense cities, office buildings, and urban architecture are universally shiny and geometric, but somehow their rigid formality feels oppressive not elegant. Lonely office workers peer out from squared off conference rooms and repeated window arrays, their isolated man-made environments reminiscent of luxury hamster cages or open plan prisons. Tube elevators silently whoosh passengers up and down these endlessly smooth towers, and nearby plates of stainless steel cladding add to the sense of a world deliberately filled with hard surfaces and edges. There is nary a leaf or tree to be seen anywhere in this antiseptic anti-nature echo chamber.

Information is just as just as assiduously controlled as space. The surveillance is seemingly everywhere – pole mounted cameras, cell phone antennas and transmitters, and any number of less identifiable devices and technologies decorate various towers like sculpture, replicating like out of control mushrooms. But while this information net covers every inch of this world, actual communication is routinely interrupted. Lange’s things are repeatedly locked, closed, wrapped up, and blocked, preventing meaningful interaction, and signs, screens, and billboards lie empty or covered, their power turned off, no message to relay. The few signs that do appear are covered in arcane diagrams with arrows in all directions, incomprehensible technical jargon, or seemingly random numbers, the only obvious advertisement recreating Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, replacing the extended-fingers spark of life from God to man with a singularity upload from man to robot.

When humans do appear in this sterile futuristic world, Lange overwhelms them with the scale of the city. Tiny ant-sized people largely toil in anonymous offices, except for a few brave souls who venture out to fix and clean things, peering over the edges of towering buildings or standing on perilous catwalks high above the concrete below. These tasks seem hopelessly Sisyphean, Lange’s images of men shoveling rocks and washing exteriors bordering on the darkly comical. It’s as if the people are wholly out of place in this mechanized system, only necessary for the jobs that can’t be easily automated.

That Lange’s eerie Big Brother state is constructed from plausibly real life fragments of our own world makes his message that much more unsettling. His photographs have a crisp tonal beauty that makes them seductive, that is until they start to seem quietly scary. As we stare into the shiny black mirror ball that begins the book, we become hypnotized by The Mechanism, and with each passing image, we start to lose track of our boundaries, becoming accustomed to the new realities of Lange’s manufactured world. Near the end of the book, a few lowly humans huddle together, perhaps looking for solutions to this numbing contemporary existence, as “Standard Life” (a stock ticker) falls once again.

In the end, this well-conceived photobook is a memorable exercise in extending truth toward imagination, where turning just a few knobs gets us an outcome that feels oddly extreme. Creative editing has led Lange to something like photographic science fiction, the roots of a potential future found hiding in the visual details of the present.

Collector’s POV: Mårten Lange is represented by Robert Morat Galerie in Berlin (here). Works from this project were also recently on view at Webber Gallery in London (here). His work has not yet reached the secondary markets with any regularity, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

Read more about: Mårten Lange, MACK

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