Camerota 2012
©: Zita Oberwalder


Amores – Flucht mit schlechten Schuhen

Art critic Ulrich Tragatschnig has described Zita Oberwalder’s works as representing “an escape route from photographic unambiguousness”, saying that what they show is “not an ending-point or a target, but a point of origin and signpost”.  The magnificently titled current exhibition at the Keplerkoje gallery in Graz, ‘Amores – Flucht mit schlechten Schuhen’ (Amores – escape in bad shoes) does just this: it is a sensitive yet eclectic view into the ephemeral nature of life, teasing at it gently while leaving its mystery intact. Her photographs ask more questions than they answer, looking beyond the everyday structure of objects and motifs into hidden truths. 

This escape route could also be described as a form of exile or even self-exile—that of the artist as observer. The title of the exhibition, ‘Amores’, is a reference to the poet Ovid, a recurrent theme in Oberwalder’s oeuvre. The show begins with a small, framed, exquisite analogue photograph entitled ‘Ovid: “Dies Land, es liegt nahe dem eisigen Pol” with the text: Tagelange arktsiche Temperaturen ließen im Februar 2012 einmal weite Teile der Schwarzmeerküste einfrieren. der Hafen von Tomis’. Tomis was supposedly the place of Ovid’s exile, and while this picture is part of a project undertaken by Oberwalder to trace the poet’s journey, it also demonstrates quite clearly that exile is not a location but a state of being. As we view this photo, are we standing on the outside looking in, or are we watching the unknown? Ovid wrote that the cause of his exile was “a poem and a mistake”, casting himself as a tragic, lonely figure; at the same time, Oberwalder points out that there is a theory that his exile was imaginary, a playful literary invention, and he was in fact writing in Rome the whole time. 

One could argue that if being an artist is a form of self-exile, then this is particularly the case for the art photographer, looking onto the world as an outsider through the lens of the camera. Many of the photographs in the current exhibition have a strongly poetic quality, while Oberwalder herself describes them as short stories. Their titles are sometimes witty snatches of overheard conversations, ostensibly unconnected with the image, such as ‘My grandmother was Russian’. It is what the imagination does with these snatches, these starting points, which is interesting – and this is likewise how her pictures work, as signposts and starting points for our imaginations. There is a narrative behind them, though not a conventional one that can be used to unravel and make sense, but rather one that creates a tension and an interplay between disparate elements and motifs, between focuses that shift within the same image, between contrasting textures, abstraction and precision. In ‘Camerota’, we see a tarantula tattooed onto the back of a shoulder, the skin so finely detailed that you want to reach out and brush the sand from its tiny hairs; at the same time, the background has blurred into an abstract reverie. In ‘Botanischen Garten, Graz’—a 100 x 100cm black-and-white digital print on Aludibond—a fish swims out of a murky background and a label above seems to offer the viewer a clue, while actually confusing further: ‘Afrika’, it simply states.

Botanical gardens feature frequently in Oberwalder’s work: she describes them as ‘no-man’s-lands’, a strange mishmash of flora from farflung places that hold an enduring appeal for her. Her photographs of them, however, are not necessarily recognisable as such. They have a tendency towards abstraction, yet are coupled with a feeling of spatiality that hints at another facet of her work, architectural photography. She explains that she is in her private life surrounded by architects in her friends and family, and so spends a lot of time thinking and talking about architecture. The striking ‘Bühne/Potsdamerplatz Berlin 2010’ portrays both the theatricality of a demonstration and the sheer drama of the place, the square as a stage.

‘Amores’ might at first seem a rather random collection of photographs, each a fine story within itself but with no common thread; and yet on closer inspection one finds the traces that run throughout. Beyond being a personal archive of discovery and journey, and beyond the imprint of Zita Oberwalder’s own character — a delightful humour, an aesthetic curiosity, a playful and original delight in the things of life — there is something further. Quietly radical, her approach turns photography on its head — turning away from precision, focus, order and coherence, not through visual, technical blurring but rather a blending and shifting, the subtle re-processing of reality. It is not so much a capturing of the moment but the capturing of a fleeting poetic truth, photography as poetry. “One could imagine Zita Oberwalder’s photographs as the collected sections of a single, big city — her city”, writes E d Gfrerer. Exile is indeed a location of the mind, but one that Oberwalder embraces and shares with us, happily.

Verfasser / in:

Kate Howlett-Jones


Wed 30/01/2013


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