by Matthias Harder
It all began when he was a student in Hamburg in the mid-nineteen-nineties: Thorsten Brinkmann started taking photographs of himself and yet, at the same time, he did not allow himself to be seen. Overexposure or chemicals erased or obscured his face and sometimes his body. During the last ten years he has systematized these self-referential, ironic metamorphoses of the self. Portraits of a Serialsammler (Portraits of a Serial Collector, begun in 2006) is a group of works in which unusual and witty transformations build up an inimitable tension between object and subject, between the ordinary household item and the human body, and this tension occasionally flares up in his sculptural installation work as well.
This sequence of photos unites imaginative and simple self-portraits. However, we do not see the artist himself in them; rather, we see an intriguing figure, disguised to the point of unrecognizability, whose gender it is not even possible to guess with any certainty. Based on either a bust- or full-length portrait, very traditional in form but practically anarchic and revolutionary in terms of content, these pictures contain figures wearing found objects-cardboard boxes, lampshades, or ladies' handbags-where a head ought to be. Accompanying the figure wearing them, ludicrous bits of second-hand clothes populate the theatrical settings. Fashion always represents a history of the times, too, so wild combinations of trends and decades blur the boundaries separating them. Dark headscarves not only cover the protagonist's hair, but his entire head, paraphrasing Brinkmann's typical method of artistic recycling as well as the continuous media discussion of the chador.
Brinkmann's protagonists (Brinkmann himself, that is) are also equipped with diverse second-hand objects whose previous functions cannot always be clearly determined: a piece of bent, red drainpipe is worn as a glove; under a pink sweater, a round, flat, plastic container becomes a pregnant belly; a white metal rod looks like an executioner's sword in the hands of a man standing with his legs spread wide apart. Expressions are transmitted through body language, since the face is concealed beneath the absurd head coverings. Brinkmann leaves nothing to chance-neither his position in the space nor the equipment for his provisional photo studios, such as carpeting, backdrops, and props. His combinations lead to something new. The stasis of the situation is fascinating, since it lends the pose meaning, yet at the same time, bitter irony oozes from all the seams of the image. Neutral backgrounds allow the viewer’s gaze to rest on the figures, which are often tightly squeezed into the frame, looking ridiculous in their Dadaist disguises. Among the historical predecessors or godparents of Brinkmann's work are photographers such as Claude Cahun, Diane Arbus, Marcel Duchamp, and Cindy Sherman, since they long ago rejected the notion of literally representing the artist and his or her contemporaries in their own work. The characters we see here are indeed divested of their individuality, yet they are highly stylized in a very individual way. At the same time, Brinkmann seems to be interested in the different material expressions of the objects.
Brinkmann is actor, director, and cameraman all in one. It takes about ten to twenty minutes to prepare for a photograph, but once he has his mask on, he has no more than ten seconds to position himself in front of the camera before the delayed-action shutter release goes off. Results can be seen right away on the digital camera display, so that the process can be repeated if necessary. The experiment can be readjusted until the artist is satisfied with a specific photograph. Brightness and contrast are digitally altered afterward, but backgrounds and objects are never copied into other self-portraits. Sometimes the artist spies an empty, provisional seat or an open pocket and turns them into photographs, some of which are incorporated into his publications, gradually forming their own photo series. The vacancy in these photos represents itself, yet at the same time, it reflects the supposed before and after of the pictures, and therefore the concepts of process and time, for the seat is also a pedestal on which the artist elevates himself.
Also of interest are the mantles under which no human contour is delineated; they gain their own sculptural value, as in Silvy Farmerly (2007). Skin is rarely seen: most of the time, the body is covered up to the neck in several wildly condensed layers of second-hand fashion coerced into piles. The performative act of disguising and concealing the self can be understood in filmic terms in Brinkmann's video work, Pose for a Portrait (2007). In this work, we hear offstage hammering and drilling, which relativizes the concentration of his sculptural arguments on both a material and performative level.
The photographs stand on their own within his oeuvre, but Brinkmann embeds them in installations again and again. Hence, the same pictures sometimes appear in different contexts, so that their effect and meaning are altered. When they are hung as part of an installation, he always reacts-as he does with his sculptures and installations-to the space in which he is working. Using certain variables and material modules, Brinkmann is continually responding in new and surprising ways to each space.
Through his almost manic, quasi-messianic collecting, storing, and recycling of the refuse of our affluent society, Brinkmann's collages lead to a radical reevaluation of the objects. Everything is real, yet at the same time theatrical. Each object represents itself and at the same time, is turned into a kind of synecdoche in an absurd chamber piece. Simultaneously, we are looking for nothing less than meaning.
Brinkmann undertakes a declination of all kinds of different poses typical of representational portraits. His use of nothing but natural light is unusual. And the rough wooden frames he makes for each of the mostly large-format photos are also unconventional.
Primarily, Brinkmann considers himself a painter, not a photographer. In his photographs-and sometimes in his sculptures, such as Wenn Wäschekörbe lieber eine Stehlampe sind (When Laundry Baskets Would Rather Be Floor Lamps, 2007)-he turns himself into a three-dimensional object. The titles of his photos are always his: they are verbal correspondences to the visual, and a flash of Dadaism can be perceived on this level, too. For instance, he called his most recent exhibition at the gallery Kunstagenten in Berlin Tisch zi bäng; here, we saw the phonetic flash of comics or heard Schwitters's sound poems "in the inner ear." Brinkmann's self-portraits, portraits, which combine enigmatic visuals with a knowledge of art history, should hang in the picture galleries of this world as interventions that would put a kink in our visual perception.
Photography is also used in other sequences and individual pictures, such as an action titled 93 in Eins (Alles was in einen Bus passt) (93 in One [Everything That Fits into a Bus], 2003). Here, we encounter ninetythree ordinary items rescued from the trash, all of which fit into Brinkmann's VW bus at the same time; after being removed from the bus, each item was placed in front of a neutral background and documented in a photograph. This is also something of a paraphrase-this time of Duchamp's concept of the objet trouvé, which Brinkmann uses to lend a meaning to the objects that they never had during their functional existence. Electric stoves, plastic bowls, and wooden frames are all depicted in front of a white wall. Compared to the enormous piles and layers of garbage, these photographs seem almost minimalist. An almost life-size photograph with the descriptive title Soviel wie möglich auf einmal tragen (Carrying as Much as Possible All at Once, 2003) can be regarded as a predecessor of the later series of self-portraits. In this picture, Brinkmann is carrying a large number of mostly white objects-coffee machines, pillows, blankets, window shades, drying racks-under his arm or between his legs, while at the same time wearing a plastic trash can on his head. In this way, he turns himself into a sort of imaginary creature. Even in this earlier work, exaggeration has already become an instrument of stylization. The metamorphosis of form is both subtle and radical-but only if we affirm Brinkmann's reevaluation of what has been discarded. As far as contemporary sculpture is concerned, Brinkmann is not unique in combining appropriation, recombination, and reinterpretation, but as far as photography goes, he does indeed stand alone.
Brinkmann's three art professors in Kassel and Hamburg-Floris Neusüss, Bernhard Blume, and Franz Erhard Walther-have each left very different marks on Brinkmann's thinking. Specifically, Blume's concept of transforming everyday life into theater and his performative visual strategy have probably been most influential. The result is a body of work that, although still young: is confident and unconventional. The artist constantly slips into new roles and costumes. Wearing old clothes, his metamorphoses are amusing and cryptic-his is a personalized transformation lying somewhere between Hugo Ball's Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich and the work of Cindy Sherman or Erwin Wurm. Thus, Brinkmann's Portraits of a Serialsammler remains a self-assured, ironic way of dealing with recent art history. Yet he does not choose to quote directly; instead, he tends to take various approaches to motifs or atmospheres-for example, the light or minimalist composition of a seventeenth-century interior. However, owing to these kinds of appropriations, as well as the pretended emotion and exaggerated theatricality of his settings, Thorsten Brinkmann's work immediately turns to the curious and meditative. Odd head coverings made of pink fleece or hidden metal buckets take the topics of sensitivity and identity-endlessly debated in contemporary art-and continue them ad absurdum. By contrast, Brinkmann's simple, impressive body of work goes beyond body or performance art to create its own category.