Journal

The journal on portikus.de operates as an extension of the exhibitions at Portikus themselves. A wide spectrum of contributions including essays, interviews, fictional writing or photo- and video-contributions provide a closer look on artistic interests and reflect on topics that concern our society, politics and culture.

Mutant Creature Making Books

Manuel Cirauqui, María Mur Deán
2022-10-20

Jochen Lempert, Johannisbeeren, 2019, © Jochen Lempert/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022. Courtesy: BQ, Berlin, and ProjecteSD, Barcelona

No one is more thoughtless than a lemming, more deceitful than a cat, more slobbering than a dog in August, more smelly than a piglet, more hysterical than a horse, more idiotic than a moth, more slimy than a snail, more poisonous than a viper, less imaginative than an ant, and less musically creative than a nightingale. Simply put, we must love—or, if that is downright impossible, at least respect—these and other animals for what they are. 1
— Umberto Eco

Jochen Lempert’s photographs begin with an encounter, the occurence of his meeting with plants and animals, real or artificial representations in urban or rural settings, museum displays, scientific books or on the clothes of a passerby. Flora and fauna in his images appear to interact, tilting to address his camera, or behave completely indifferent to his presence. These images have earned Lempert recognition as an artist interested in the way the natural world becomes present to us. Once photographed, these seemingly unexceptional encounters of the everyday become magnificent bearers of revelations that range from portraying the mischievous nature of animals to the majestic shadows cast by sun-kissed foliage. There is an ease to Lempert’s images, a proximity that speaks to his comfort around the smallest of insects or frazzled of birds whom, in turn reward us with access to their existence. In his work, similarities between organisms, and celestial or terrestrial phenomena are looked upon with emotional intelligence and become the starting point for images that reveal the interconnectedness of nature. His interest in scientific disciplines, especially biology and animal behavior, translates into depictions of metaphorical, associative, and political acumen that allow us to look, almost intimately, at other species with whom we share life on this planet.

Jochen Lempert, installation view, Portikus, 2022, © Jochen Lempert/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022. Courtesy: BQ, Berlin, and ProjecteSD, Barcelona; photograph: Diana Pfammatter

For three decades now, Lempert has pursued with remarkable consistency and inventiveness the basic idea of only making images according to a principle of necessity. Although he is known for constantly carrying a camera in his coat pocket, for him the act of making an image only happens long after the initial click of the shutter. The bulk of his work does not originate from contact sheets, but rather he selects directly from negatives, often only using a third or less of the images in a roll. Through working prints, which he makes in A5 format or smaller, he shuffles and studies different variations before committing to a specific size, crop, or light. One consequence of this meticulous process of editing is how the act of seeing itself becomes the subject of the work and his method of display. Each of Lempert’s works is the sum of gradual decisions that lead to the appearance of an image. His photographs, primarily gelatin silver prints, are developed in analogous color schemes of gray on bright white matte Baryta paper that he handprints in his studio and when exhibited are left unframed and taped directly onto the wall or placed inside vitrines. Whether making an exhibition or a publication, Lempert prefers to seamlessly integrate older and newer pieces thus creating a body of work of close interdependence and one that is deliberately anachronistic and where decisions on pairings and grouping are interposed and reformulated by a relational drive. This associative approach to the work of art is similarly evoked in the titles of his works, favoring single nouns or descriptive sentences that aim to spare the viewer of unnecessary distractions and ground the image experience, in the artist’s own words, to what one “strongly feels in the moment of seeing.”2

Jochen Lempert, Schmetterlingshafte, 2019, © Jochen Lempert/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022. Courtesy: BQ, Berlin and ProjecteSD, Barcelona

In the playing field of contemporary art, Lempert is a blessed outsider. He began exhibiting his work in Cologne and Hamburg in the early 1990s, and except for the occasional thematic group exhibition, it has circulated primarily in the quartier of photography although regarded at times with suspicion given his unconventional use of the medium. Lempert´s simultaneous embrace of different photographic procedures from instantaneousness to mise en scène, which he reconciles through the recurrent use of multiples in sequential order, allowing the work to withdraw from usual categorizations. Another curiosity surrounding the public reception of Lempert’s practice, and particularly his use of the 35mm camera, has been a recurring reference to the artist’s scientific credentials. His name is typically accompanied by titles bestowing him an additional level of exceptionalism: biologist, odonatologist, entomologist, or ornithologist. Although it is no secret that from time to time he has authored scientific reports, how remote these studies are from his work is confirmed by their total absence in his displays and monographs. That such classifications should be of concern for the artist is rather unlikely. Lempert is not much interested in demonstratable facts, nor is his working process ruled by fixed structures or theories, but rather an open system where, as he observed, “searching is a big part of the whole project” and where unlimited outcomes are plausible every step of the way. 3 In his photographic work, Lempert is actively silent regarding the natural sciences. Rather than applying his scientific knowledge to what he photographs, he visually invites meaning through the act of seeing−the act of seeing what is depicted and what awaits to become visible.

Another striking aspect of Lempert’s practice is his studio or rather the walls in it, which exhibit a vast number of tiny cavities from the thumbtacks he uses to pinup working prints. Trailing on various directions, the marks show decades of his looking en route to finding an image. The placement of the prints on the wall alternates between single photographs, symmetrical groupings where prints of the same size are paired into duets, quartets or two-tier grids spaced only a few centimeters apart, or they are arranged as asymmetrical pairings where different scale prints are placed in dialogue but kept at arm’s length distance from one another. The various combinations and configurations enacted in the studio influence the improvisations played out on the walls of the exhibition space. But this is only one aspect of his quest, another crucial part of the process happens inside the darkroom prior to the arrival of a print to the wall. The artist has explained it this way: “It is actually always about seeing something from the photo or seeing something in the photo. Sometimes you need several pictures to make something come together. And sometimes only one is enough.” 4

Jochen Lempert, installation view, Portikus, 2022, © Jochen Lempert/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022. Courtesy: BQ, Berlin, and ProjecteSD, Barcelona; photograph: Diana Pfammatter

If the wall is a stage where Lempert conducts rehearsals, the small cardboard boxes overflowing with test prints sitting on the shelves are the casting auditions. Hundreds of prints the size of index cards are grouped into collections, classified by single words in German handwritten hastily on sheets of paper that read, for example: H2O, horses, only bees, pigeons, plants, skies, wind. Others have more metaphorical categories alluding to specific constructs such as: picture logic, symmetry, senses, and Gestalt. Lempert’s working print collection functions as more than a simple repository; it has become a lexicon that he employs, borrows from, and modifies to generate what he calls “constellations”−a mode of display where the sequence of works establishes a dialogue on a wall or through an entire room. If the preliminary working prints provide him with answers on which image should be kept, the resulting groupings expand on his construction of meaning through juxtapositions and comparisons. Lempert proceeds intuitively through hypothetical placements and differentiates images according to no preconceived plan. Hence, all scenarios are provisional, out of chronology and subject to the fast surprise of an appearance. Although there are pairings that emerge through his use of improvisations, every installation he makes of his work is site-specific, that is, staged on-the-spot and poised to generate understanding precisely in the fleeting and interchangeable meanings that reside permanently in the present.

At the heart of Lempert’s work is a radical ecology that is characterized by a practice of mind, hands, and eyes. Through the use of images, where the world is not a place to be captured but a terrain of correspondence, he makes visible encounters with nature and nonhuman beings where transmission and coexistence occurs. Lempert’s approach to the natural world while fearlessly up close to it is cordial and respectful, but above all, empathic. His images deliver lessons not on what to look at but on how to see and consider the species with whom we coexist with on this planet. Likewise, his interaction with the surroundings is replicated by his search for relationships. For Lempert, photography does not necessarily replace the experience of the natural world as nature in absentia but visualizes it as presence. Our perception converges with Lempert’s intimate proximity to his subjects when we join him in the affirmation of the dignity of all living beings. His overlapping interests in art and science converge in his work not as depictions separated from the world that we inhabit but rather belonging to it, thus rendering photography as foliage of the human experience.

1 Umberto Eco, “How to Speak of Animals” in How to Travel with a Salmon and Other Essays. Translated from the Italian by William Weaver (New York: A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book: 1994): 215.
2 Jochen Lempert in Daniel Völzke’s „Künstler Jochen Lempert im Porträt: Versöhnte Welt“ in Monopol Online (November 27, 2017): www.monopol-magazin.de/jochen-lempert-portrait-sprengel-museum.
3 Jochen Lempert, interviewed by Lighting the Archive, 2021, an initiative by Heinz Peter Knes, Kristin Loschert, Maren Lübbke-Tidow, Heidi Specker und Rebecca Wilton. www.lightingthearchive.org.
4 Ibid.

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