It could perhaps be a fan photo, taken quickly with somebody’s cell phone. Eugene Hütz, the front man of the Folk/Punk band “Gogol Bordello”, in the bright, fiery glare of the floodlights. There was obviously not much time to transform this snapshot taken at a live recording into something really special. And the camera technology used to zoom right up and produce the largest possible section of the guitarist and singer cannot have been too sophisticated either. Not that the photos on which the pictures by Nina and Torsten Römer are based were casual snapshots. And yet they lack the pathos of something aesthetically forced. What they capture is not the fantastic motif, the spectacular scene. It is not the eminent figure, the face whose radiance transcends the average. The world never looks as if it had been specially designed for the camera. And people never look at directors of photography at work on their sets. What the artists photograph is no more and no less than what each of them sees for themselves and what they both see together.
Taking photographs is related to seeing. And painting? Painting is not simply executing. If it was only a question of translating the photographs that served as a model into pictures, it would be difficult to understand why Nina and Torsten Römer have taken the complicated and laborious route that is painting. An enlargement procedure would have achieved similar results more simply, more quickly and no less efficiently. The fact that the artists persist with their painting must have other, more deep-seated explanations.
The artists’ oeuvre has its roots in painting. Römer + Römer made their name with their series of motifs from cities and countries. But even before that they cooperated on painting work, creating pictures composed of elements that were gestural, ornamental and emblematic in an abstract way. And since their paths crossed at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, these two artists have always principally seen themselves as painters. And painting has remained their real medium of expression, even though their focus was on actions and performances for quite some time and later photography was to take on a constitutive role. At no point in their work did the jointly elaborated and, at the same time, jointly experienced picture lose its position as the main stage where the fragile dialog processes, in the course of which this oeuvre is created, are played out. Through painting, Nina and Torsten Römer realize their artistic visions, through painting they encounter the world, through painting they adjust their proximity to and distance from things, through painting they experience themselves in the subtle exchange of convictions and moods, of arguments and adjustments, of preferences and allowances. And if their early work has hardly been shown, it has nonetheless not been set apart or rejected. I would even go so far as to say that upon closer inspection of their current pictures, where bodies and shapes once again appear to disintegrate into non-representational clusters of daubs of paint, there is a link between these and the earlier pictures if we consider the constant coordination that is required between two different artistic styles.
Painting is fine tuning. And these pictures tell of this no less than they do of the colors of everyday life in the world of color. As insignificant as any of the chosen subjects may seem, at the same time, the images cannot completely be explained by the scenes on which they focus. No doubt we are happy enough with the young people on the centrifugal carousel at the funfair in Busan, South Korea; we can partake in the cheerful scene. In terms of content, indeed, there is nothing hidden in this picture. No messages to be discovered in this common form of amusement. There is obviously nothing in the way of a puzzle, nothing to be decoded. And yet, this is not completely everything that the picture has to say. After all, the days and weeks that the artists have spent in front of the picture and with the picture are inscribed in the web-like structure of the colors.
Days and weeks where the conditions differed, where the possibilities were not always equally distributed, days when there were perhaps high spirits before a more subdued mood once again set in, at times they will have been in harmony, at others, more argumentative. There will have been moments when listening to each other and seeing what the other saw was very easy, and others when this was suddenly more difficult. A time full of productive restlessness. All of this is a core component of these pictures. Here, nothing proceeds automatically. Quite different from an enlargement in a photo laboratory that can be influenced, corrected, but that, overall, is no more than a chemical and mechanical process. Painting is the complete opposite of automation. Painting admits imponderables, and, what is more, two people painting together actually rely on such imponderables. Viewed from this angle, one of the subjects always addressed by these pictures is that of painters’ complex responses to painting, of the impossibly tangled web of impulses and reflexes, of the adventure whereby emotions are balanced with deliberations.
In the final analysis, this is also the reason why Nina and Torsten Römer take refuge in the old medium of painting and do not content themselves with simply monumentalizing their inventory of digital images. Indeed, what is crucial to the sensual power of these images is the complicated paths that lead to them. The trips, the impression that they have come away with, the unexpected encounters and unplanned experiences, the photographs they have collected without reaching expressed agreements or predefining things to any great extent, the act of looking through and weighting their full memory cards, the selection, the obligation to justify their choices in the process, the reciprocal persuasion work, then, having to opt for one motif, manipulating it on the computer, intervening in the graphics and the colors of the picture files, finally embarking on the translation into paintings, carefully building up the picture from countless color modules, concentrating on their own work and their curiosity about the other’s work, this oscillation between finding something out and finding out about oneself – all these are prerequisites for and the circumstances of the kind of pictures that can, in fact, only be achieved and preserved in the medium of painting.
Painting stores time, it soaks up history. And even if this snapshot of a funfair in Busan, South Korea, was taken in passing and may seem quite tame, at the same time, the picture that the snapshot grew into is, so to speak, corrugated with the traces that the artists’ scrupulous preoccupation with the motif have left behind. Not that the picture has only taken on significance as a painting. But its significance lies not least in the way that it distills the intellectual, emotional and artistic decisions that have gone into it and transforms these visual codes into something that is purely the stuff of the senses.
There exists for this kind of pictorial summary the apposite word “view”. After all, views are not only the scenes and prospects that we perceive. More than this, views are the perspectives that we adopt on what we have seen. This characterizes the work of Nina and Torsten Römer exactly. At first glance, their pictures appear to be nothing more than flat cutout sections of the world. Schoolchildren standing in the surf in their school uniforms. A fenced-off “kick-about area” in the middle of town. A chestnut-roaster on the side of the road. Punks who have fallen asleep on the steps of a fountain. Views, in other words. Views of here and there. The chestnut grill is in Palermo. The kick-about area has been set aside for the kids in Vladivostok. The uniforms are worn by children playing about on the beach at Busan. The punks are sleeping off their intoxication in Berlin. The various locations are recognizable. But it is impossible to say whether recognizability was a condition of the way that the pictures were organized. Nor is it possible to say that these photographic views follow any strict compositional principles, that they struggle to achieve fathomless spatial depth, an artificial distribution of the subjects they portray, or a harmonious distribution between the groups and the individuals who disassociate themselves from these groups. And if it is possible to make out changes in the photographic settings from one series of paintings to the next (sometimes the camera zooms in closer to the people and sometimes it keeps to a clear distance; in one case it is set to a panoramic view and in the next it hones in on a particular section), these are variations in design that do little to change the various motifs’ view-like quality. And the photographs never appear to be interested in deliberately applying the traditional rules of art.
The camera angle, and thus the perspective, is one from opposite the items in question; it does not attempt to get behind them. It is a thoroughly contemporary view of the world, one that runs past the viewer like a film. This is made particularly clear in the new series “50 Ansichten des Berges Fuji – vom Zug aus betrachtet” (50 views of Mount Fuji – viewed from a train), where the transitions from one image to the next are similar to those between images flicked through in a photo folder on a touchscreen.
In the case of these artists, the direct, full-on way that they meet and observe the world characterizes their “stance”, both literally and metaphorically. Römer + Römer’s photography consciously avoids all the metaphysics that the medium has always been prone to. At any rate, the artists have no interest in teasing their secrets out of things or in burdening the latter with secrets. Neither do they want to point out just how full of aesthetics a world short on aesthetics actually is. It has seldom in its history been the case that the medium has contented itself with its typical mimetic qualities. It has wanted both to archive and to supply proofs, it has made itself a prosecutor and a defense counsel and has been happy to make a display of its superiority to the world it portrays. These pictures and their photographic matrix make no such claims. The way that Nina and Torsten Römer operate is so straightforward that it immediately becomes clear that it cannot be their intention to show off the profession and their professionalism.
At the same time, the uncomplicated quality of their photographic approach should not be confused with that reflex action to be observed in the kind of tourists who cannot resist snapping postcard motifs. But it surely must be a stance when the artists spend weeks traveling through Korea and have to admit, with a degree of frustration, that they have not really seen anything that they could make a picture of, before finally, at the very end, on a beach on the Yellow Sea, coming across those schoolchildren and observing how they waded into the water without taking off their uniforms. In this oeuvre it is easy to overlook just how consciously and carefully the subjects have been chosen, often contrary to expectations. Accordingly, these are not travel features, the pictures are not aimed at completely satisfying people’s curiosity about the faraway, the foreign, the different. They always play out in the day-to-day, they never tell of the unusual, the unseen, of the overwhelming or sublime. And if Mount Fuji does come into view, it is not staged as a landmark, nor as a “luxury brand” landscape. Instead, it is seen from a train, where it suddenly appears in the window and then disappears again. The fact that the famous snowcapped mountain then appears in the picture, dissolved into flickering pixel components, no more than outlined in a pattern of colored dots, demonstrates entirely how its fame is swallowed up by the painting process.
To the same extent that the pictures are views of something, they are also views on something. It is nothing less than viewpoints, matters of opinion, that the painters are not interested in wonders of nature, in grandiose landscapes, outstanding buildings, exemplary people, spectacular actions, nor in the glittering world of celebrities. And it has to do with “stance” that the artists are always to be found approaching things cautiously, maintaining a marveling distance. In this oeuvre, there is no point in looking for headlines, great, exemplary actions, important personalities. Taken together with streets, squares and communal façades, the figures produce a kind of laid-back urban folklore. It is life as it is lived that interests Nina and Torsten Römer. “Ordinary” people, not the heroes, not the leaders, the stars. Young people, passers-by, strutting on the urban stage. Retailers dragging their carts heaped with boxes of fruit and vegetables across the street. Palestinian children playing in Jerusalem’s old town whilst the Israeli “Big Brother” watches them with his video camera. It would be misinterpreting these pictures if we were only to be reminded of Impressionist painting and failed to see the “stance” that buoys them up and conditions their inner substance. The veiled woman by the Metro station in Paris who quickly checks her wallet has not found her way into the collection by chance. The fact that these two artists have photographed the scene, chosen and manipulated it before deciding to spend weeks painting it is nothing less than a statement by politically observant characters living in the present, who take part in this present, rub up and knock against it, who have become fascinated by it and have chosen painting as their medium because there is enough space between the individual dots of paint to consider everyday life with all its strange and bizarre, tempting and irritating aspects.
And this explains the protracted trips undertaken by these two artists every year from one continent to the next. And perhaps, after all, it is not the case, as has been suggested before, that in the age of globalization traveling is one of the musts on an artist’s agenda, “just as it is on that of a conscientious businessman” (Bettina Krogemann). Traveling has put food in the mouth of artists and possibly businessmen, too, since time immemorial. In fact, there would have been no need to invent a buzz word like globalization in order to mobilize the artists of this world.
Nina and Torsten Römer do not simply follow an ostensible trend, either. On the contrary, for them, traveling offers an opportunity to come face-to-face with some of the phenomena of globalization, to observe those worldwide strategies of conformism and of gentle resistance, the shrill signals of youth culture, the sensations of breaking the rules, the space that people create for themselves in the middle of lives that seem so hard to manage, the backdrops, be they architecture or landscape, that in their own quiet ways appear to offer resistance to our globalized hustle-bustle.
These phenomena also include the actionist part of their oeuvre, something in no way inferior to their large pictorial cycles. From their first joint experiences at the Düsseldorf Akademie onwards, performances and thematic exhibition projects have formed part of these two artists’ open practice. And anyone who, like Nina and Torsten Römer, has made their way through European cities hidden behind and looking through the off-putting grille of a burka and has had this experiment that they performed on themselves documented, will not be painting the veiled woman by the Metro station in Paris who quickly checks her wallet just for the enjoyment of portraying her. The fact that this painting does not tell what it has to tell in anything more than sections, the fact that the only layout it is familiar with is one of assembled and joined splashes of paint, does not immediately mean that the dots, the parts triumph over the whole nor that these views of the world triumph over the world view that motivates them.
Translation: Jeremy Gaines