f for food
Call them readymades: plastic food replicas (manufactured for food photographers?) out of which Volker Renner has assembled a visual ode to German cuisine that may well ruin your appetite. The eggs, now hardboiled, now sunny side up; the veal sausages with ketchup on cardboard plates; the meat loaf: they’re not just made of the same material, they’re also all fakes. Nothing about them is genuine, as Renner highlights in pairs of pictures showing them in the original packaging, then unwrapped. Picking up on two trends on social networks, “f for food” combines the urge to capture even the most trivial meal with the protagonists’ dressing and undressing for no discernible reason for an irresistible concoction: you are what you eat, or vice versa. The clean and cool shots in the book—sold, appropriately, in its own plastic wrapper—recall pictograms or fast-food joint menu boards. Their anonymous look also raises the question of the artist’s authorship, an issue Orson Welles probed in his last documentary film, whose title inspired Renner: “F for Fake.” It’s a dizzying prospect: Might Renner’s authorship be a forgery, too?
The blurriness that pervades this artist’s book by Volker Renner starts right with the title: the Dutch “aangeschoten” is colloquial for “tipsy” but, more literally, also means “wounded by a shot,” alcoholic or otherwise. It’s a fine line that separates those two states, and here Renner walks that fine line with his camera: “Who hasn’t been there—after a long night in a strange city, too tired to go to bed, too awake to keep going, you drag yourself past the scenes of the evening before or the morning. Sometimes the only thing that helps in this peculiar mood is a visit to one of the world’s most incredible museums.” Renner’s pictures blend the night’s drunken revelry with his tour of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam: as though hit by a projectile, teetering and about to pass out, he roams the galleries of the painting and bust collections and carries off the images. What he sees turns into a vision without beginning or end, coming to life, breaking the frame, overflowing the book’s pages until the viewer, too, feels pretty “aangeschoten.” Meanwhile, the photographer himself gets out of line, attracting the museum attendants’ attention. They shake their heads: not a single sharp picture! Are the Old Masters exacting revenge for the thousands of photographs their works are made to pose for day after day?
The brown and slightly greasy patent-leather cover brings back memories of family albums that were antiquated long before we got old. Nowadays such heirlooms end up in the trash, at a flea market, or on eBay—not unlike photobooks or vintage prints, they are coveted by collectors. Volker Renner’s “ALBUM” investigates the various ways in which anonymous private album photographs are presented on these sales platforms. It opens with empty black album pages; only the empty photo corners indicate that something has vanished. Such evanescence and the voids it leaves are a leitmotif throughout the book. Renner employs typical gimmicks people use to gussy up their wares for eBay only to point up their absurdity: spaghetti are stretched across pictures, tourist attractions are blacked out, and semitransparent cover sheets reveal themselves to be the true protagonists. The result is an achingly beautiful hymn to a formerly cherished family treasure stripped of its magic and intimacy by public exposure, demotion to a mere commodity, and—perhaps most grievously—digitization.
The King’s Beards or Hair. As a tribute to Elvis Presley on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of his death, Volker Renner stages the King as a collectible silhouette complete with the beard he never wore. The lips and famous hip swing are missing, but the hairline and above all the forelock are unmistakable. Elvis’s haircut is an early example of the pop icon trademark feature; many other heads would follow. Yet he, too, may have emulated earlier stars—the quiff bears a dangerous resemblance to that sported by Captain Marvel, Jr., an eternally youthful superhero, exactly what Elvis wanted to become and became. Conscious of the fact that Elvis was actually blond, making his hair just as fake as a fake beard, Renner’s game of mistaken identities plays out in color and black-and-white.
but pedro’s a pony
“You don’t truly know what your homeland is to you until you’ve traveled to faraway places,” a German saying has it. In his artist’s book But Pedro’s a pony, Volker Renner, who usually travels far and wide to take pictures, probes the idea of “Heimat,” homing in on what you might expect to be its purest distillation: the Heimatroman, a pulpy literary genre dedicated to the travails of Germany’s rural ingénues and their stalwart gallants. But the Heimatroman’s idyll is not as inviolate as the cheap paperback covers might seem to suggest: it is forever threatened by intruders—foreigners, poachers—whose encroachments must be fended off. And so the strapping lad’s hand is quick to seize the rifle, or else the lass’s hand, once all obstacles to romantic bliss have been swept out of the way. Misunderstandings are a programmatic part of their world. A putative lover, for example, may well turn out to be a pony. Yet it is only on the rarest of occasions that you will catch two lads or two lasses on a cover.
As in his concurrently published artists’ book Where were you, Mr. Renner? or A lack of information, Volker Renner experiments with the interaction between image and text. In But Pedro’s a pony, the artist works with found material he extracted from Heimatromane in a painstaking labor of love. To point up how simpleminded the genre is and how absurd and out of touch with reality the portrait it paints of its locales, the artist confronts selected covers with snippets of dialogue from the respective novels. The synergy between the visual and textual narrative registers unleashes previously unimagined grandeurs of gesture and intensities of feeling and reveals their ludicrousness. A panorama of pastures and paranoia unfolds before the reader’s eyes (an image that is regrettably relevant in light of recent political developments that have yet to leave their mark on the Heimatroman).
A book chock full of human-interest stories from the idyllic countryside.Pictures of guns and pastures.Full disclosure: the publisher wanted a different ending.
where were you, mr. renner? or a lack of information.
The first part of this title is taken from an irate review in an online forum: a reader was very unhappy with the series of photographs from my Wie war Las Vegas that ran in “Die Zeit.”The sequel or A lack of information folds Heiner Müller’s adage that ‘optimism is merely a lack of information’ into Voltaire’s Candide, or Optimism.This new book is a panopticon of memories(pan “everything” / optikon “of sight”).Around the world in 80 phrases and pictures.
In Where were you, Mr. Renner? or A lack of information, Volker Renner returns to the scenes of his numerous travels over the past years and takes a trip down memory lane. The artist’s book is his attempt to reveal the instability and vagueness of recollection (and seeing) that we usually cover up in our need to attribute meaning to everything. Renner’s pictures embrace these uncertainties and even play with them—if you identify the motif on the book’s cover as a mountain massif, you’ve already fallen for the first illusion. His work strategically upsets our (visual) habits, deliberately training the eye on the edges of our attention, on what we otherwise perceive only unconsciously or overlook altogether.
For his most recent photobook, he went on a voyage into the depths of his personal photographic archive and compiled pictures he found along the trajectories of his recollections into a new possible narrative. “To remember is to lie,” Harald Welzer writes in his theory of memory, but photographs are generally assumed to show what was. The artist toys with the different expectations we bring to various narrative genres by combining the pictures with whimsical “intertitles”—self-penned poetic, absurd, boastful, or ruminative aphorisms that play along the photographs in perpetual repetition, challenging the viewer to construct a connection between image and text. By weaving in a second narrative format, the artist emphasizes that photography, too, is only one strategy of storytelling among others, though one we like to believe we are good at figuring out. That is an illusion, as you will experience paging through this book.
The project “Sleep Tight” represents a very different kind of search for clues that challenges the viewer to do his own detective work. Everyone knows Columbo, the slightly quirky American police officer embodied by Peter Falk, who has maintained a steady late-night presence on German television screens since the 1970s. And we have all nodded off as the investigation dragged on and ended up missing the bad guy’s mistake that tripped him up. Volker Renner has certainly been there, and so he compiled this series: the crucial clues that helped Columbo identify the murderer from every single episode. The result not only relieves us of the obligation to stay awake to the end, as the title suggests. It also reflects an image of America subliminally broadcast, then as now, by cultural products such as television shows. Most importantly, Volker Renner’s series provides a key to his own work in photography and to photography in general: it can pick up leads, but the interpretation remains the task of the viewer—if he knows how to read the pictures and sticks to it until the case is solved.
long time no see
If it weren’t just a formula with which people greet each other who haven’t met in some time, we might take the title long time no sea at its word: crossing the United States by car, from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast, you really won’t see the sea for a long time. So the pictures show motifs from inland America instead, areas obscurely referred to as the “Bible” or “Rust belt” by the media and associated with unbridled conservatism and the ravaged infrastructure of yesteryear’s Fordism.
Volker Renner’s 220-page book presents a collection of interior and exterior shots whose shared feature is his interest in the striking close-up. See, for example, the bible on the housekeeping cart at a hotel, its edge adorned with the words “PRAISE ‘BOB’ ATHEISTS MAKE BETTER LOVERS” (which is presumably why it’s being removed from circulation). The book’s pages teem with repairs of questionable workmanship, frost-damaged floors, water spots and burn marks, tufts of grass caught in car doors—in short, it is not least importantly a meditation on design: how in the world will hotel bedspreads ever be made to harmonize with the matching wall-to-wall carpet, or conversely, how is one supposed to bear the aesthetic insult of such combinations?
long time no see speaks to a special cognitive ability of the brain: the fact that we haven’t even noticed the water spots on the ceiling of our own apartment in five years. And so we might exclaim “long time no see!” in amazement when we absent-mindedly gape at the ceiling and suddenly rediscover the spots caused by our upstairs neighbor’s spills, or find ourselves staring at the deep grooves in the TV set’s plastic housing that we cannot explain, or spot the scratches in the laminate flooring we made when we moved the wardrobe months ago. Eye-insulting combinations, too, are everywhere, but we don’t see them, the brain goes easy on us, it spares us the stress that would come with facing these vaguely dissolute, but also anarchically poetic, scenes that nothing short of a deep cleaning and renovation could remedy. We don’t need to travel to America: we are surrounded by such motifs, only we’re more apt to see them in Volker Renner’s photographs than in our own homes.
schwebende rahmung / floating frames
Bright frames before blue backgrounds. Rectilinear or, less frequently, curved. The view of the sky is unobstructed or crisscrossed by transverse struts; occasionally clouds gather. One, two, or three pillars provide support.
The seemingly endless repetition—Volker Renner presents altogether around seventy photographs of Floating Frames (2012)—highlights how these structures combine utter simplicity with infinite variation. The artist presents objects at the precarious instant between function and obsolescence. Like some works of minimal art, they bridge the antagonisms between “beginning and ending,” between “abundance and emptiness.” But the pictures are not photographs of Donald Judd’s and Dan Flavin’s works, their steel frames and neon tubes assembled for a collaborative piece. Renner found these lofty constructivist architectures towering above America’s roads: frameworks on which illuminated signs were once mounted that advertised businesses, broadcasting their radiant messages into the night to guide and allure motorists to places that no longer exist: as the venues folded, the signs disappeared as well. The ‘semaphores,’ however, remain, stripped of their semantic attire, pointing to their nature as pure signs; they are non-signs and signs of nothingness at once.
The Framing Floatings are a counterpart that complements Renner’s project A Road Trip Redone (2012), for which he revisited places, buildings, and peoples featured in Stephen Shore’s A Road Trip Journal (1973) and took their pictures. That book took note of what had vanished by leaving blanks where no photograph was available. Renner’s Floating Framings give the void its own photographic place.
This book—the title means The Others—presents eighty-seven found photographs, or more precisely speaking, slides. And yes, Volker Renner, who unearthed them, studied with Peter Piller, who works with found materials as well. The pictures are snapshots of a Germany so stuffy and cozy it makes you gag. The German shepherd is barking, the child is turning a cartwheel, the Christmas tree silently stands to attention. Yet the images Renner has picked for the book from the original trove of two thousand photographs highlight how the attempt to capture family life and domestic bliss on camera can go seriously awry or at least take strange turns. Weird selections of detail and oddities like the taxidermied hawk that seems to be lunging at the Easter bouquet invite us to examine the private idiocy that lets us perceive strange arrangements as perfectly normal and even idyllic.
der grosse preis
Large golden graphical letters embossed into a hardback jacket made of gray book linen advertise the Grand Prize.
“Hang on a second …,” many readers, at least in Germany, will think to themselves: “Wasn’t that some kind of quiz show in the 70s and 80s?”
And indeed, there was a quiz show called “Der Große Preis,” and it was actually quite popular. Moderated by Wim Thoelke, it ran from 1974 until 1992: every month, self-educated experts faced the host’s questions in their chosen specialty. Before the advent of the Internet and Wikipedia, the show, which had record ratings of up to 60%, offered total nerds an opportunity to shine and garner enthusiastic applause.
So the book’s title transports us back to our childhood, and we are tempted to think that its pages will plunge us into a faded pastel-colored world of jovially patriarchal talk-show hosts, blow-dried hairdos, horn-rimmed glasses, mullets, shoulder pads, and walrus moustaches.
But we’re in for a surprise. As in many of his previous photography projects, Volker Renner challenges us to cast our expectations of the familiar aside.
Instead of the quiz-show shots we might have anticipated, we see hands stretching into the pictures before sometimes colorful, sometimes somber backdrops. Many seem delicate, fragile, gentle, timid, uptight, restrained; others are sturdy, coarse, defiant, strong-willed, blustering, undeniably there. The pictures included in the book are animated by the interplay of light, color, posture, and pictorial composition. The hands seem to convey rhythm and movement, emotion and song. They clamor for our attention and tell us stories of love, pain, joy, grief, and other strong feelings.
So Der Große Preis, in this instance, clearly doesn’t refer to the abovementioned quiz show: the event at the heart of the book is of a different kind.
Volker Renner snapped these pictures during the 56th Eurovision Song Contest, which took place in Düsseldorf in May 2011. Instead of framing grand moments from the show, his photographs direct our attention to small gestures on the periphery of the event, throwing a spotlight on an ostensibly negligible detail. What is essential—the protagonists to whom these hands belong—is edited out, literally cut off, and we catch ourselves trying to complement what we see, to complete the picture.
And that is where Renner’s choice of title suddenly seems to make perfect sense: this is a picture puzzle, and we’ve already begun to try and undo the fragmentation of these pictures by placing them back in the larger context in which they originated. Consciously and unconsciously, we associate the photographs with sounds, melodies, choreographies, motion sequences, stage acrobatics, costumes, characters, and performers. And so we, too, turn into nerds: ideal candidates for Der Große Preis.
A crack in a wall marked with black masking tape, four slices of restructured ham rolled up and laid side by side on a piece of paper towel, several knit sweaters, each emblazoned with a green dot, stacked atop each other, a concrete-slab floor with traces of tire wear: these are only some of the motifs included in the book Die Fuge, whose title may be read as “the gap” or “the fugue.”
At first blush one might think that the title refers solely to the depiction of physical gaps of varied composition, without any relation to the musical signification of the term: interstices between objects, joints where different materials abut, cracks, crevices, expansion joints, masonry seams, shadow gaps, false joints. Views of details we would otherwise probably overlook.
But the book’s title also alludes to the creative process. All pictures were taken during production for the film project L’art de la fugue (French for The Art of Fugue) in Paris. Volker Renner, who was the set photographer, escaped (fugere, in Latin, is to flee) the endless empty time between takes for the film by setting out on a chase (fugare, in Latin, is to hunt) for his own motifs, taking photographs in the intervals between the sequences to be shot. The coupé became Renner’s action. He left the space of the film to make pictures off the set that conformed to no specification.
This evasion of the work he was hired to do, and of the loss of creative self-control it entailed, translated into a new series of pictures set in the scene changes. In a sense, he framed an image of the stoppage of film, of its hiatus.
And so the pictures included in the book should be read not only as depictions of physical fissures, but also as illustrations of gaps in time. Taken together, they limn a strange portrait of Paris from which the characteristic sights of the metropolis are absent. Narrowly framed close-ups of door handles, button tapes, predetermined breaking points, and tears seem to present glimpses of what is going on behind the city’s scenes.
a road trip redone
The book project “a road trip redone” is based on Stephen Shore’s legendary “a road trip journal,” which served as the matrix for the route, motifs, and layouts. Shore’s book opens with a diary-like assemblage and concludes with a photography section. “a road trip redone” begins with the route; the photo section starts on page 201. It is the attempt to rediscover each view Shore saw on his road trip and capture it on film. A fundamentally documentary reenactment/remake, a pilgrimage in search of familiar images. As the tourist travels from sight to sight, Renner retraces Shore’s route and his movements in the places he visited.
Where Renner was unable to track down a motif, the corresponding space in the catalogue is left blank.
wie war las vegas
WIE WAR LAS VEGAS (WHAT WAS LAS VEGAS LIKE) is not the portrait of a city. Volker Renner doesn’t waste a single picture on the familiar motifs, and even avoids showing the skyline. The famous Circus Circus Hotel makes an appearance, but only as a reddish reflection of light; it is so glaringly lit up that its image looms even on the pavement, reminiscent of a faded bloodstain. The artist trains his lens on these marginal phenomena, on vestiges and cracks in the façade of the desert city that reveal its artificiality and constructed quality. In his second artist’s book, WIE WAR LAS VEGAS, Volker Renner, who studied with Peter Piller at University of Fine Arts of Hamburg and then continued his training as Piller’s master student at the Academy of Visual Arts Leipzig, pursues his ongoing project of a photographic compilation of reality organized in pairs, arrays, and series. It takes a close and careful look to discern the categories that underlie his photographs; the highly subtle links between the individual pictures imply a nod to the iconic masters who surveyed Las Vegas in photographs: Venturi and Scott Brown, Ed Ruscha. Renner’s rigorously documentary approach and the absurdity of his subject notwithstanding, his photographs exude a delicate poetic quality and pastel-colored melancholy and coalesce into a haunting study.
eben war noch
Volker Renner’s images play with our expectations of what a photograph does. The center of his pictures is often veiled or blank, the angles are unusual, a grand hotel’s back door is more interesting to him than its luxurious façade. As the objects have shifted to the margins of the pictures, so, it seems, has their true subject—but what is that subject? What are his photographs about? Renner works in pairs, arrays, series. His photographic collection assembles surface phenomena and architectonic constellations that attest to the faith that social community can be designed and yet stand as evidence of the disintegration of the public sphere. The categories that guide the artist’s survey of German urban settings and peripheries are diverse, their manifestations overlap. Some pictures trace chronological series, based on a before-and-after effect that emerges when the artist revisits scenes he has captured in earlier photographs. Spatial and sculptural structures are one area of interest: see, for example, the clusters of benches that mark different kinds of squares. They reflect variations in building codes and the regimentation of human behavior by structures that present a ruinous aspect even when they are first installed. In another instance, a yellow hose leads from one picture to the next. Yet other pictures defy the shared pattern at the moment we think we have unriddled them. What the individual photographs have in common is not readily apparent: it is as elusive as the moments the artist singles out, and undefined like the places where it manifests itself.
Volker Renner’s photographs blur different states of affairs—before and after, unfinished and abandoned, occupied and deserted—in a simultaneity that lends them an almost timeless and universal quality. They offer intimations of the human condition, and yet he is not trying to catalogue the phenomena in question or draw up typologies. In fact, his work humorously calls photography’s very ability to record what is there in question, pointing out that “reality is fundamentally unclassifiable,” as Susan Sontag writes in Objects of Melancholy. Photography, Sontag argues, is the attempt to “sum reality up in an array of casual fragments” in order to get a handle on it. This drive to collect and sort casual fragments of reality is what propels Renner’s photography. By placing them side by side, he uncovers the systems of order that define the environments in which we live and reveals the visual habits that inform our attempt to make sense of reality and imbue it with meaning.