The magazine of photography and ideas
Horst Ademeit: Secret Universe
Curator and art historian Lynne Cooke on Horst Ademeit's enigmatic photographs.
Secret Universe is the title of the exhibition series under which, in 2011, the late Horst Ademeit’s work was first presented to a museum audience. It was a fitting choice for an exceptional corpus of Polaroid (and later digital) photography that was neither conceived as an artistic project nor intended for public exposure. Compiled over some fifteen years, beginning around 1990, these images were made for strictly personal, utilitarian ends.
Trained as a textile designer, Ademeit entered Joseph Beuys’s class at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in the late 1960s. When his work was rejected as too conservative—too academic—he left not only Beuys’s class but the art world at large. Thereafter Ademeit supported himself primarily as a manual laborer in the building trade. He took up photography in order to contend with a mounting concern: his belief that he was increasingly subject to the deleterious effects of what he referred to as “cold rays” and invisible radiation, emanating from electrical sockets and fittings in his apartment. To contain and counter the harmful yet undetectable rays, Ademeit photographed their sources at home, and, by extension, in his neighborhood, notating his feelings and impressions— as well as detailed data from electricity meters, thermometers, clocks, and other devices—in the narrow margins of his Polaroid prints. While capitalizing on the ease and immediacy offered by this particular process, Ademeit may also have valued the fact that, exceptionally among photographic media, the Polaroid camera produces a unique and unrepeatable image. On the evidence of those few among his six-thousand-plus Polaroid shots made public to date, it seems, however, that the making of the image— the pointing, shooting, transfixing, and hence warding off of the feared effects— took priority over the character of what was produced. The more rudimentary his methods, and the more seemingly happenstance his compositions, the greater the charge generated by the resulting images—as if something had, indeed, been caught on the fly. In short, these works are compelling almost in inverse relation to the degree of attention lavished on their production. Ademeit’s oeuvre has been likened by critics to a Conceptual art project of the kind that fueled the practices of On Kawara and Hanne Darboven. It might equally well be compared with works by certain individuals who have felt themselves subject to the wiles of what Viktor Traub (an associate of Freud) termed “influencing machines”: that is, machines that appear, in the words of the psychoanalyst, “a s an outer enemy, a machine used to attack the patient.” Among the most haunting precursors to Ademeit’s murky testimonials, the annotated drawings of Hugo Rennert, Jakob Mohr, and Robert Gie sometimes depict their authors entangled in the immaterial coils emitted by unidentifiable contraptions, and sometimes simply record the pathways traversed by sinister impulses. Had Ademeit picked up pencil and paper, in place of a camera, while grappling with his infested environment, he too would likely be identified as an Outsider artist. Fortunately, photography has not been subject to the same disciplinary distinctions as the other visual arts: it largely eschews hierarchies between what is produced by the marginal and/ or self-taught for leisure and utilitarian ends and the panoply of artifacts produced by mainstream professionals of various ilks. In photography’s short history, conventions based on notions of center and periphery, of accredited and amateur, are less determinant than they are in the discourses attending painting, sculpture, and the graphic arts. Indeed, one measure of the strength of Ademeit’s singular endeavor is that it can be viewed through multiple lenses.
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