The Manipulation of Reality as an Aide-Mémoire

The work of Rosy Beyelschmidt

Photography is popularly seen as a rational medium, closely in touch with the actual and the material, its distinguishing feature the reproduction of reality. Does this mean that photography is a documentary tautology, with the advantageous capacity for recording the transient? - and that the more complete this tautology (thanks to technical progress), the better? At bottom we all know that this view was a pious act of wishful thinking on the part of photographic pioneers whose faith in progress was somewhat naive, and that it has proved too generalized in relation to what is termed documentary photography. Countless forms of manipulation, from the edited-out to the touched-up to the prettified (and so forth), remind us that these lofty goals are continuously prone to abuse. The mere selection of a subject implies the elimination of countless other pictures. (In a photograph of the conflict in former Yugoslavia, for example, who cares about what has not been destroyed? Our targeted awareness, and the medium that serves it, edit out this material.) And we have yet to consider the many views of reality, and possible interpretations of a given image, that are made available by differences in the knowledge, outlook or circumstances ofthe beholder.

Not much remains of the supposed objectivity of the photographic image. Even early photography was aware of this, and saw itself as being in relation to and indeed in competition with the fine arts, its claim to objectivity contrasting with the subjective creative freedom of the fine arts. Indeed, it was this that demonstrated photography's capacity for experiment; and it has been all the more important in a media world of trick effects and advertising strategies, where the manipulation of reality has proved the very definition of progressive photographic work.

Rosy Beyelschmidt's approach to photography also has to do with manipulation. It is not that she is at its mercy; but she avails herself of manipulation in order to identify it, and thus her own self, and through that the existence of humanity. She is not out to deceive others; but in her quest she offers a semblance, and in concealing she reveals. Her method is based on the insight that human knowledge does not constitute a progress toward perfection, but rather, as it is added to, includes strategies of repression and forgetting.

This process of discovery began for her at the photocopier, a fast and economical means of reproduction. In her photocopied self-portraits she became a stranger to herself; she forged ahead in that unfamiliar zone, investigating the unconscious. But what has been forgotten or repressed only becomes manifest through the act of remembering; that is the true spur of Rosy Beyelschmidt's work, not memory as the continuously growing sum of experience but memory as an immersion in unknown realms, with results that never cease to surprise.

Unlike the camera (or the person who uses it), the photocopying machine does not aim at illusionist effects; its task is to duplicate two-dimensional material. Unlike photography, it cannot cope with three-dimensionality. If it is hijacked to a threedimensional purpose, a border is crossed, by virtue of the deformed appearance of a face pressed up to the glass plate and also by virtue of the establishment of a new kind of depth, its starting point the enigmatic, mask-like grimace. What seemed fixed and circumscribed reveals a new wealth; this is no portrait in the sense of representation, but the expression of something quite new, something that touches upon the ancient and the timeless, upon fundamentals of human experience. Rosy Beyelschmidt makes up for the deficiencies of the medium by working graphically on the defamiliarized, anonymous sheet to emphasize the expression or tease out and intensify something wholly new.

In the transition to photography, the artist makes the process integral by her use of various overlapping projections to establish a room of light within which she moves. "I create scenarios by installing specific visual material in the projectors and then projecting it to suit my purposes in the action, moving about the space myself to a fixed plan. By moving and standing still and by the continuous repetition of actions, my body becomes an abstract, forgotten shape, and under the ceaseless projection of images in light it is perceived either entire or only in fragments, or it is absorbed into the light, no longer perceptible, only to be intuited."

If at one time she photocopied her face and subsequently reworked the image by hand, she now establishes action that involves her whole body and steeps it in a bewildering and richly associative game played with the medium itself. "Loss of face" can be accepted if what is gained is a body language that can at times resemble X-rays, to the point of penetrating beneath the surface of a one-off photograph. But behind that one-off unique product, and indeed at its heart, there is always the artist's own person; and in this way she satisfies the ancient notions of persona and personare, the mask and the impersonation, taking upon herself a new identity in order to establish a universal model.

Photocopiers and photographs together with video cameras, monitors and recorders, in combination with other materials, reappear in the installations. Hey, Pandora, shut the lid! matches up a frozen message with fragments of memory, placing a figure from antiquity in the force-field of good and evil even as it glances at our surfeit of information. Everyone entering the space is confronted with fragmented photos, printed products, and has to help stem the tide; it is the refrigerator principle on which the photocopier operates that stems it, insofar as visitors to the installation raise the humidity level, and this in turn enlarges the layer of ice. In this mythological metaphor, Rosy Beyelschmidt displays both her fascination with and critique of modern information technology; the subject is her final inability to choose between vain, doomful prophecies and the firm "hope that one day the tide will be stemmed by the insight of humankind".

Another installation, Paranormal Swing, likewise operates with the vehicle of human thought processes, and their autonomy. It features stacked newspapers in a saline solution, and an ever-changing display of vessel shapes on monitors: the shifting object of current interest becomes frozen, while what seemed firm dissolves; the timeless relatives the timebound.

Photography (and its adjunct media) always wavers between objectivity and illusion. Rosy Beyelschmidt illustrates the reverse of this, handling her medium in a subjective manner free of illusions, though not without perspective. Anything that has been wrested from our memory can be reactivated, in a process that makes no claim to be absolute but instead offers particles which surprise us and can vanish as abruptly as they appeared in the eternal flux of remembering and forgetting. This philosophical, sceptical approach explores the entire spectrum from failure to hope, and, if it offers no patent remedies, it does at all events afford opportunities to let oneself go and at the same time activate, without merely flailing about blindly or sinking into the swirl of events.

Peter Thurmann ©

Catalogue text, MEDIUM PHOTOGRAPHIE, ROSY BEYELSCHMIDT, Kunsthalle zu Kiel, Germany, 1993