Iris Veysey: ‘Candida Höfer’s Memory at Ben Brown Fine Arts’
A piece by 2015 Observer / Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism runner-up, Iris Veysey.
A sumptuous auditorium stretches across two square metres of photographic paper. Every detail is clear: the white painted curls of the wooden chairs; the flying figures on the painted ceiling; the steps of the stairs, peeping out from behind the balcony. Candida Höfer’s camera has recorded every flourish of ornamentation in the Yusopov Palace. It ought to be lifelike and yet, somehow, it isn’t.
The uneasy relationship between the camera and the building has long haunted architectural photography. In 1910 Adolf Loos observed, ‘the inhabitants of my interiors do not recognise their own house in photographs.’ For Loos, the photograph transformed architecture. After all, to inhabit a room—to feel and use a space—is quite different to seeing it at a distance, in a picture. In Höfer’s new series, Memory, the meeting of the photograph and the interior seems as strange as ever.
Memory collects Höfer’s photographs of St Petersburg, taken in the summer of 2014 and first exhibited at the State Hermitage Museum earlier this year. Ten of these images now find themselves in London, where they are exhibited on the clean white walls of Ben Brown’s Mayfair gallery. It is a teasingly small sample, but one that will have to suffice until the complete series is published next year.
The subject matter is not new. As in most of her work, Höfer has chosen to photograph the interiors of public buildings. Here her subjects include the Hermitage, Catherine Palace and the Mariinsky Theatre. Yet rarely has Höfer given her work such a suggestive title. With few exceptions, Höfer chooses descriptive, topographical names: Napoli, Firenze, Louvre, Dresden. Memory is a potent and perplexing title. Whose memory—mine, yours, ours? At its most basic, photography is the recording of a momentary scene before the camera; it is an act of remembrance in itself. Memory might well refer to Höfer’s own process of remembering St Petersburg. A title can be a signpost, a guiding hand offered by the artist to the viewer, but Höfer’s does not lead in one direction.
We each bring our own baggage to the table when we look at art and I cannot help but bring my own memories to Höfer’s photographs. I recall my visit to St Petersburg in 2006: the fur-swaddled people on the streets, the bright winter sun, and the bitter cold. Economic disparity is par for the course in large cities but somehow it felt especially acute in St Petersburg: my abiding memory is one of opulence and deprivation in precarious coexistence. Crumbling Soviet blocks skirted the edge of the city; grubby trams careened down pin-straight boulevards, past the confectionary of baroque mansions. In the palaces, splendour and warmth ruled supreme; at the Hermitage, room after golden room unfolded in a seemingly endless parade of grandeur. The weight of history, both recent and distant, hung heavy across the city.
But Höfer doesn’t reveal the everyday noise and confusion that lies beyond the doors of these great halls. As in all her work, people are conspicuously absent. No occupant interrupts the zig-zag of the tiled floor as it sweeps across the hall, or disturbs the neat rows of seats at the theatre. The camera is left to luxuriate in every element of design: the mirrored walls of Catherine Palace, the gaudy tiling of the Hermitage, the sea-green stone of the columns at Pavlovsk Palace. In some sense, the apparent solitude of these spaces suits them well. These buildings are sites of fantasy and indulgence; they seem to exist on a different plane from the humdrum muddle of daily life. Even as they are open to the public, they remain steeped in impossible wealth and majesty.
Perhaps Höfer’s title is anthropomorphic, suggesting the rooms themselves have memories. These are old buildings which have borne witness to history. Yet a glacial, almost sterile, sense of calm and order pervades the pictures. The rooms are spotless, gleaming with a diffuse white light. There is no hint of past trauma or delight; it is as though the years have not touched them at all. Rooms are often described as warm and welcoming, or cold and unfriendly. Think of the first Mrs Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea, recalling the sanctuary of her Jamaican bedroom (‘I am safe. There is the corner of the bedroom door and the friendly furniture’), or of Georges Perec’s description of the staircases in apartment blocks (‘nothing is uglier, colder, more hostile, meaner’). There is nothing so obviously emotive in Memory.
In this seeming impassivity, Memory recalls the work of Höfer’s mentors, Bernd and Hilla Becher. Although Höfer has never been as scientific as the Bechers, with their neat monochrome grids of architectural types, she has inherited their sense of objectivity. Where the Bechers rigorously catalogued utilitarian structures—water towers, blast furnaces, railway stations—Höfer methodically records the grandest of architecture. In every picture the vanishing point is centred, the space divided with beautiful symmetry. The rooms may all be different, but the compositions are uniform.
The curious exception to this rule is Höfer’s picture of the Mariinsky Theatre. Here, the camera leaves its central position and swings to the side of the auditorium. Looking out from the circle, the view is splendid but asymmetrical, the seating curving in on the left, the proscenium arch half-seen on the right. The perspective seems somehow more human; this is how the theatre might appear to a member of the audience sat in the circle. Small details indicate imminent occupation: the wooden struts of the technician’s table; the instruments in the orchestra pit, waiting to be played. In this, more than any other image in Memory, there is a sense of human use and interaction.
In Alexander Sokurov’s film Russian Ark, the camera glides through the Hermitage in a meditation on memory, history and place. The passing of time is carefully staged: actors in period costume stream through the building as the camera moves relentlessly on. Sokurov’s film seems a far cry from Höfer’s work: one moving, the other still; one a re-enactment of the past, the other appearing impervious to time. Yet in both works the building is resilient. Sokurov’s Hermitage endures even as history unfolds within it. Höfer’s Hermitage, in its strange emptiness, might be the end point of this narrative; after the years have passed, after the people have gone, it is still beautiful, still here.