Zoologische GärtenApril 7, 2010
Candida Höfer is a seasoned and celebrated artist whose various monographs and international museum exhibitions have established her contributions to contemporary photography. Höfer is best known for her large-format photographs of opulent and vacant European libraries, theaters, museums, and estates. In such images, the artist examines institutional architecture as a repository of knowledge that functions epistemologically through the spatial arrangement, categorization, and cataloguing of objects and events. Höfer’s photographs create a parallel between the camera lens and the vantage points created by architecture; both function as frames through which we present and experience the world. In “Zoologische Gärten,” on view at Rena Bransten Gallery, she offers twelve small-scale photographs of European zoos taken between 1990 and 1997. Although they diverge from her signature aesthetic, these photos continue her investigation of institutional architecture and display.
The concrete forms and security fences that constitute the architectural language of the zoo impose a rather monochromatic palette on Höfer’s structured images. The painted backdrops, concrete pools, and geometric structures that dot her photographs exist as simulacra of seas, savannas, and ice sheets. In contrast, the stones, sand, and dirt that make the animals’ quarters hospitable are often the only real elements in the exhibition spaces; such features appear out of place in the otherwise synthetic environments. Photographed from a distance, the solitary and small groups of animals, with their natural coats of fur or feathers, don’t pop out from their gray backdrops as the primary punctum. Instead, they appear as almost secondary characters in a larger narrative.
As documentation, Höfer’s photographs, like all photographs, fail to tell a complete and objective narrative. Instead, the artist’s technical decisions construct a subjective history. And despite zoos’ stated intentions of animal stewardship and scientific research, they, like the artist, also rely upon fabricated narratives. Such institutions create careful
presentations of animals from distant parts of the world in manufactured exhibition spaces that are designed to deliver information and a mediated experience to the visitor.
The effectiveness of Höfer’s rich, complex photographs depends upon a delicate balance between clarity and overstatement of the obvious. Most of the images on view were photographed in the early ’90s; in 2010, I found some of these images rather predictable. In “Zoologischer Gärten Rotterdam III” (1992), a tiger rests its front paws on the metal fence as it peers into the adjacent exhibit. The arrangement feels too convenient and obvious as an exploration of display, captivity, and mise en scène. Similarly, in “Zoologischer Gärten Koln II” (1992), the cute anthropomorphism of a waddle of penguins overshadows the subtleties of Höfer’s sparse photographic process.
Höfer’s strongest images, such as “Zoologischer Gärten Berlin II” (1991) and “Zoologischer Gärten Paris V” (1997), acknowledge the zoo’s artifice, but don’t overstate the conceptual implications of its man-made pools and structures. In “Zoologischer Gärten Berlin II,” a cluster of alligators lies in a sandy recess. Although a rock-like wall appears in the upper right-hand corner of the frame, the artificiality of the animals’ enclosure doesn’t pronounce itself hyperbolically. In “Zoologischer Gärten Paris V,” three mountain goats rest at the base of a cliff face, blending in with the vastness of their enclosure; the composition simultaneously pulls the viewer into and pushes them out of the frame in the struggle to discern the image.
This exhibition provides the opportunity to assess the history of photography, as well as the current state of the medium. While issues of absence, simulacra, institutional paradigms, and the supposed objectivity of photography fueled much of the theoretical writing and photographic practice of the ’80s and ’90s, these issues have largely receded as the central preoccupation of artists and writers. Höfer’s "Zoologische Gärten" series acts as an important document of the narrative of contemporary photography, although in 2010 its novelty has largely run its course. Moreover, because the images are now thirteen to twenty years old, the relevant issues in the current exhibition are less about recent artistic production and more a matter of curatorial practice, art history, and the history and generative possibilities of the photographic image itself.