Detail: Mediaspree versenken!, 2008, Oil on canvas, 165 x 220 cm
Places – Berlin and abroad
A sunny day in October 2010 and a visit to the studio of Römer + Römer: the artist couple works in a big studio in Berlin-Kreuzberg on the second floor of an old factory building, one of the many brick buildings dating from the Gründerzeit, the period of industrialisation at the end of the nineteenth century. Today the building houses artists’ studios, architecture and design offices; at the back is a trendy club. The building is surrounded by architecture from later periods: stark blocks of flats and sober corporate premises were built in what is known as South Friedrichstadt during the post-war period, after the entire old district had been eradicated by bombs. Until 1989, barely 200 metres away the ‘“Wall” cut the city into two halves, and with it the district. The Heinrich-Heine-Strasse border crossing was in the immediate vicinity. Also near the studio of Nina and Torsten Römer lies Moritzplatz, where artists like Helmut Middendorf, Rainer Fetting, Bernd Zimmer and Salomé – the Moritzboys – invented Heftige Malerei (“violent painting”) in the 1970s and exhibited it in a self-help gallery. Today this district of the former SO36 is changing rapidly. With a Kulturkaufhaus, publishing houses and urban agriculture, new perspectives are opening up in this not very prosperous but interesting part of Kreuzberg.
In the studio of Nina and Torsten Römer everything is neat and tidy. The artists keep their paints and pigments in hundreds of margarine tubs, precisely aligned on tables. Paintbrushes, painting equipment and tubes of colour lie neatly beside them. Behind stands a computer. It is an important working tool for the artists. In it are stored the reference photos which they have taken for their painting. A camera lies within easy reach. The sun shines through the broad front windows into the high-ceilinged room, along whose walls are stacked countless large and medium-format pictures. Two canvases on stretcher frames, on which Nina and Torsten Römer are currently working, stand near the windows where the light is good. Their studio is also a meeting point, and so there are a few armchairs, a sofa and a bar, and even a table-tennis table has its place in the room.
Römer + Römer are an artist couple based in Berlin. Römer + Römer also represent a painting concept, a way of seeing things and reality and of expressing them in a painterly manner. Painting, as practised by Nina and Torsten Römer, is a reflection of the social reality in the city in which they live and in the world through which they travel. In their art the Römers express on the one hand their attitude towards life; and on the other they show the social conditions which they perceive in Berlin or wherever they may find themselves. In recent years that included numerous countries on virtually all the continents. Their travels took them to South Korea, Russia and Morocco, to the United States, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, to Armenia, England, France and Poland, to Italy, China, Israel and Japan. Römer + Römer always travel on their own account, on behalf of their own art; rarely as tourists, and yet always with their camera at the ready, in order to record people, situations and things that they notice, that touch and move them, that they find new or strange, or that remind them of something. This way of travelling evokes expeditions and undertakings embarked on in former times by scientists and globetrotters hungry for knowledge: among them were Prince Pückler, Georg Forster, Lord Byron and Johann Gottfried Seume. They were artistic souls who travelled on their own account in search of experiences in new lands which they could then report home about. Nina and Torsten Römer may travel at higher speed and with more comforts en route than those travellers during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but they are driven by a similar mission, because they too make new discoveries and find things which no one has ever written about on their journeys through the globalised world, in which changes, fractures and possibilities are constantly turning up, in which the twentieth century is long passé and the start into the future is often accompanied by the unpredictable, the insecure and the short-lived. Römer + Römer record in photographs reality as they experience it subjectively in a rapidly changing world full of dynamism and complex new inventions, using it later for the paintings which they produce in their Berlin studio.
It is evident from their pictures that the two artists were filled with amazement on their travels, but that they nonetheless repeatedly came across familiar things – for example, billboards publicising a brown soft drink or advertising for internet cafés and communication, which nowadays have truly brought about the creation of something resembling a “global village”.
Typical of the painting of the two artists is that we can recognise in their pictures the everyday existence of a globalisation which envelops everyone and everything. Be it in Korea or Morocco, Bologna or Berlin – publicity and advertising are similar throughout the world; they form a sort of visual background noise in the big cities as well as in the provinces. At the same time, this world – the “electronic village” of which Marshall McLuhan spoke – appears in the pictures of the Römers in a very different way, as if we were seeing it for the first time. This – apart from the fact that continents and countries differ from each other – is the result of precise observation and the artistic necessity of comparing and contrasting. The works of Römer + Römer are in no way exotic in the sense of an idealisation; rather, they are realistic representations produced under the conditions resulting from subjective and technical painting processes. This can be seen when one examines their new series with demonstration scenes from Berlin showing a political gathering on Karl-Marx-Allee and a demonstration by gays and lesbians. They recognise again the brilliant colours and the radiant light that they noticed in Asia and North Africa at a rock festival in Poland or a parade against the Mediaspree project in Berlin. Colour differentiation and liveliness in composition should be seen primarily as the result of their painting based on photography, a realism arising from photographic technology and skilled painterly execution.
Nina and Torsten Römer work as modern chroniclers of a world in upheaval, in a phase of simultaneous asynchrony, in a hybrid state whose development and future are completely open. Berlin is also the right place for the production of their art because the city reveals, as a result of its complicated history, all the characteristics of asynchrony: it is a place of fractures, of abrupt transition, and yet it possesses the ability to change and the openness for what is yet to come.
Knowing and learning
The two artists first met in Düsseldorf at the Academy of Art, where Torsten Römer, a native of Aachen, initially studied under the painter Siegfried Anzinger. Nina Tangian, who had come to Germany from Moscow at the age of twelve and who had lived for some of the time in France, met Torsten on 15 February 1998 at the academy’s annual exhibition. When Nina asked him if he could explain to her how he worked and what he painted, Torsten Römer replied that she should just visit him in his studio and that he would explain his paintings to her there. However, he added, Nina should be sure to bring a dead hare with her. That was, of course, a reference to Joseph Beuys, the most famous professor at the academy, who had taught in Düsseldorf until his expulsion in 1972. Torsten Römer had thought of Beuys’s performance Wie man dem toten Hasen die Bilder erklärt (How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare) (Galerie Schmela, Düsseldorf, 1965). However, when she visited him Nina brought a deep-frozen chicken with her instead of the hare – a surrogate that she had bought from a fellow-student for DM 5. There is no record of what the two of them did with the chicken, but since that meeting Nina and Torsten Römer have been a couple both in real life and in their art. They soon started working together, and they both studied under A.R. Penck, who accepted them as an artist ‘double act’ and allowed them the freedom they needed. Their first joint attempts at painting were not always easy, as the couple relates today; they first had to get to know each other well and to become attuned to one another. Two universes encountered each other on the surface of the painting. In order to be able to paint together, the two individualists had to move closer together, to develop pictures and subjects and to find a common means of expression. It was at this time that their first joint compositions were created: each of the two added parts of it or painted over the sketches and elements of the other. The artists relate how, in those days, they were sometimes annoyed when a successful motif or picture element disappeared overnight, because the other had added something new in its place; but increasingly the co-operation worked, was fun and thus eventually permitted them to arrive at a joint artistic development.
Römer + Römer are not the only artist couple to have been formed by the modern age and its art. Famous examples of the joint creativity of artists include the British couple Gilbert & George; Marina Abramovi ´ c and her partner Ulay worked together intensively for several years; and then there are the artist couples Emilia and Ilya Kabakov and Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who always appeared together. In order to work productively together as artists it is essential that there should be not only harmony but also tension between the partners; that they should develop a workable plan or concept, so that the joint effort becomes part of a development; and that they should remain attentive to each other, but without defining or isolating themselves too much. It was the modern age that brought forth the type of the radical artist who acts as an individual; a couple, on the other hand, reflects itself in a double presence. Of course that does not occur in a total symbiosis or with the mutual dependence of Siamese twins; it is rather like an independent monad, but in the best case it is a well-attuned team with common goals, that gains its strength from mutual support.
The move to Berlin – performances and actions
Even in Düsseldorf Römer + Römer began to develop performances in addition to their painting. In 2000 they moved together from the Rhineland to Berlin. Since the fall of the Wall the German capital has been an irresistible magnet for young artists and creative people from all the corners of the globe, because it offers undreamt-of opportunities for aesthetic and social experiments. During the 1990s Berlin became a global art metropolis alongside New York and London, a melting pot for people from all nations who wanted to try out their own unique and unusual ideas. Berlin has drive and tempo, a hint of anarchy and the nonconformist approach which has almost become a tradition here since the student movement of 1968. The city possesses a mythology which has clung to it since the Roaring Twenties, but it is also permeated by harsh reality. And Berlin also claims a mature urbanity and countless historical and modern architectural complexes which bring to life in a tangible manner German history from the eighteenth century to the present day. Berlin’s attractiveness for young artists lies also in the fact that here, compared with other big cities, the rents for living and studio accommodation are still affordable. All this has led to the fact that Berlin, after almost three decades as a divided city, has been able to become once more an unconventional cultural metropolis, a town for new beginnings and change, ideally suited to young artists and their productions. Like no other city in Europe, Berlin has become a hub and interface between West and East, North and South. Berlin is a place of encounter, of confrontation and self-discovery – a city for the future which has unexpectedly risen from the ashes of the Cold War. Ernst Bloch once observed that Berlin is the city that can never be, but which is always becoming.
And so everyone with plans for something new will turn up in Berlin at some time or other – including Nina und Torsten Römer. Apart from their painting, the couple continues to pursue their studies of performance and action art, as well as appearing in the underground as curators and organisers of exhibitions. As a result of their commitment as organisers and performers they soon made the acquaintance of many of the artists who make up the Berlin scene. They made a name for themselves. The fact that they sought publicity confirms their attitude, that they were interested in communication and participation. They wanted to create their own new formats and platforms, because for Römer + Römer art is more than a well-painted picture or a successful exhibition in a gallery. Art is rather an all-encompassing plan, a form of experiment with new fields of play, the opening of spaces for possibilities, communication and conversation. The two artists are concerned with development and mediation. For Römer + Römer this is an existential condition: it is their way of life through art. Performances in particular offer an opportunity for such an expansion of the definition of art, because through them questions regarding content and form, meaning and social and societal relevance can be asked directly. Furthermore, performances always take place live, in the concreteness of time and place, in the moment of realisation and in the presence of an audience. With a performance it is possible to present one’s ideas to the public in a more radical way than is normally the case in an exhibition. The artistic genre of performance, as it has manifested itself to us in recent years, can be confrontational, spontaneous or meditational – in any case it appears well suited as a communication option for direct artistic issues, since a performance takes place for the general public in a public space. The reactions of the viewers are often unpredictable, especially when one leaves the partial publicness of the art scene.
In 2002 Römer + Römer carried out a provocative performance in Turin during the
Big Torino biennale, when they appeared wearing burqas covering their faces and bodies. The action took place as a reaction to the military operations after the 9/11 catastrophe in New York. The famous Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto had invited the Römers to Turin; he assisted and supported them in the execution of their performance. A short time later they also appeared in burqas in Berlin, then at an exhibition in Vladivostok, at the Biennial in Liverpool, during the Miami Art Fair in Florida and at a performance congress in Paris. Each time the public was irritated by the artists in their disguise. In Berlin the Römers appeared dressed in burqas at the Haus am Lützowplatz on the opening night of the 2002 exhibition Kunst und Schock – Der 11. September und das Geheimnis des Anderen (Art and Shock – 11 September and the Mystery of the Other). Photos of the action record a curious encounter with Otto Schily, the Federal Minister of the Interior at the time. While he was making his opening speech, his bodyguards gazed spellbound and with gloomy expressions at the disguised artist couple standing beside the minister. The Römers named these performances Infinite Justice and Enduring Freedom, in reference to the NATO campaign under U.S. command against the Afghani Taliban. The actions underline the political interest of Römer + Römer, who also began at that time to combine the star-shaped NATO symbol with Arabic characters in their painting, in order to express within their art a critical commentary on the willingness to wage war on all sides. In fact, a preoccupation with political symbols could already be observed in their work two years previously, when they incorporated the EC logo – the sign for electronic cash – into their pictures and defamiliarised it in a decorative fashion.
During the following year Nina and Torsten Römer organised a major exhibition project in which some 200 artists were involved. They invited curators from France, Russia and Germany to their Paradiesprojekt (Paradise Project), at which they established an international network. The preparations and follow-up for the six-week festival lasted for two years. The Paradiesprojekt then moved on to Munich, where it was realised in a reduced format. On both occasions it was held in old bunkers; in Berlin in a three-storey underground bunker beneath Alexanderplatz dating from the Second World War, which was still in operation during the GDR and which was to provide protection for members of the Politburo and the leading government members of the GDR in case of war. Without financial support Römer + Römer succeeded in creating a show which crossed the boundaries between all artistic genres and demonstrated a borderless definition of art which was not commercially oriented. Römer + Römer participated in the Paradiesprojekt with their so-called Deutsch-Russische Knutschperformance (German-Russian Kissing Performance). During this happening various German-Russian couples participated in a public kissing and necking competition. As Nina Römer said, in this “hedonistic action” it is possible to recognise a socio-political approach in the sense of “Make Love not War”, which challenges people to react to political contradictions with physical proximity, lust and love. It is by no means a question of abandoning the playing surfaces of life and war to politicians or the military, but of acting individually and actively, of occupying and re-evaluating political contexts. Perhaps herein lies the artist couple’s predilection for representations of demonstrations in their painting, since, without taking sides, Römer + Römer demonstrate a continued interest in non-parliamentary activities, for fringe groups and their struggle for recognition, for spontaneous, nonconformist forms of demonstration.
The two artists are not afraid of the “big shots” of politics: for the international art festival Der freie Wille, which they staged in Berlin in 2005 to mark the twentieth anniversary of Glasnost, they succeeded in persuading Mikhail Gorbachev, the initiator of glasnost and perestroika, as a speaker. Some sixty fine artists and performance artists, as well as numerous writers, performers and musicians, took part in the exhibition, which was held on the former occupied land on the border between Kreuzberg and Treptow.
For the exhibition Römer + Römer created the installation Unterirdischer Birkenwald (Subterranean Birch Forest) in an underground bunker in the immediate vicinity of the Spree.
They initially intended to carry out a Land Art project: a dyke was to be constructed to divert the Spree eastwards on a level with the bunker. One thousand Russian birch trees were to be planted in the dried-out river bed. The outer wall would have been replaced by a glass front along a total length of 150 metres, so that there would be a “free and idyllic view” from the inner room of the rapidly growing birch forest. All the approval processes had already been completed when soil samples indicated that because of the high pollution levels no trees would be able to grow on the bed of the diverted river Spree. So they would have had to clean the river bed, which would have been very time-consuming. As a preview of the project which they never actually realised, Römer + Römer produced a virtual version of their project for the exhibition Der freie Wille. On the long wall inside the bunker they mounted a wallcovering in the form of a picture of a birch forest. The wallcovering was created as a painting after a photo which had been taken in a Russian birch forest. Then the painted section of birch forest was reproduced photographically, so that the birch trees on the wallcovering resembled each other and were repeated. The interior room of the bunker had little windows surrounded by golden picture frames. Through the window-pictures thus created it was possible to look out directly at the river, which reached almost to the window reveals. Sounds and noises gave the birch forest inside the bunker a fairy-tale ambience, as did the figures dressed in “birch fashions” who hovered through the room. Unterirdischer Birkenwald was a utopian Land Art project which in its concrete realisation with the endlessly repeated, closely growing trees on the wallcovering also assumed an ironic aspect, since despite the transparency and permeability indicated by the expression “Glasnost”, something impenetrable and unpredictable was being shown.
During the past decade Nina and Torsten Römer have staged further performances and happenings. What is important for them (e.g. in the interactive installation Blind Date in Paradise, 2005), apart from the presentation of different artistic positions, is an intensive communication between all those involved, the establishment of networks – in other words, interaction and participation. In future Nina and Torsten Römer aim to continue to produce performance and action art, both aspects of their creative work. Their concept of art is not restricted only to painting. Although the production of painted pictures forms the central element in their work today, the aesthetic horizon of the pair extends considerably further – it includes various forms of representation and mediation which locate the presence and space of art almost everywhere. The artists treat social and political subjects just as seriously as they do, for example, the content and form-related questions of picture production.
However, there are lines of contact and connections between the performances and actions within the public space and the painting of Römer + Römer. These are not based only on the fact that it is the same artists who prepare a festival for weeks on end, take the stage with performances, and then soon afterwards set off to travel through foreign countries where they take photographs or paint impressive pictures. The connections lie deeper; they are based primarily in the targeted interest which Römer + Römer have in people – in society and politics, in communications and art – as a possibility for intervention and expression. We can conclude that the people whom they record by painting them in their pictures are also protagonists in performances and happenings. As participants in communal events – whether political demonstrations or theatrical presentations – we are all actors in a slice-of-life drama which we either write to suit ourselves or allow others to write for us. And we also perform in the plays and performances of others, in which we then mostly take a supporting role or appear as important principal actors and participate actively.
The interaction with the public and urban space, their changeability through advertising, the permanent availability of the media, the opportunities they open up to the individual, the forms of communication and the public debates of our time also make the thought seem plausible that people today often find themselves in strange interstitial areas, in an ambiguous situation, in the “in-between” situation which scarcely differentiates between identity and simulation. The definiteness of the roles which we take on is thus lost and we increasingly become performers of ourselves in media spaces, communication constructs and bogus architecture whose characteristics no longer lie in the stable, the long-lasting or the reliability of traditions, but in the moment and in multifunctions in a world of projections and hybrid phenomena. We live, as the situationist Guy Debord established at an early stage, in a “society of the spectacle”. It is developments of this kind that the art of the Römers seeks to encounter in their actions and by experimenting and researching in their painting.
The photograph and the computer – painting in progress
Nina and Torsten Römer belong to a generation of artists for whom technological visual media with their processing and documentary possibilities were available for the production of art as a matter of course, thereby creating new aesthetic conditions. The consequence for the art of the Römers was that they have developed their painting in a clear and concrete relationship to photography and the possibilities offered by the computer. Their painting has thus become a process of portrayal and representation which is very little influenced by direct inspiration, for example in the composition. Virtually everything is planned and calculated in advance. Before they start work on the canvas, they determine the composition of a picture on the basis of the photo stored in their computer. Photography is therefore used with a view to its translation into painting. The artists’ intention is to make use of the most meaningful photos as references, which they will later transfer into the medium of oil painting. In this respect the art of Römer + Römer does not merely develop as a painting process, but starts with the photography and the picture processing. In their picture production, therefore, the process is a complex one, whose goal and result is the painted picture, but which requires during the production process various preparatory steps of a technical nature. Furthermore, it is through communication that the decision is made as to which motif and which section will later appear in which colour language on the canvas. The artist couple’s painting does not conceal the preliminary technical photographic work; it is expressed in the transferral into the painting and can be observed on the picture surface in the form of a painterly divisionism; in other words, in the accumulation of painted pixels, clearly outlined points of colour and surfaces, which in their complexity permit the impression of the painting to be formed and determined.
The process of picture production begins with the use of photographic and computer technology; it should certainly not be understood in terms of a traditional painting process, as an idea of ingenious invention or as the result of subjective introspection. Here, too, lie the modern and contemporary aspects of the art of Römer + Römer. Their art is subjective and individual above all in the choice of subject, and objective and rational in the realisation of the painting. Thus picture production is a form of processing of the canvas under the conditions of photographic technology together with their interpretation through painting technique. Even the photography is taken with a view to the potential painting which is to be created. Their journeys take place with the aim of acquiring usable photographic material. The Römers seek in a targeted manner the places and events which are of significance to them; for example, when they flew to Paris during the autumn of 2010 in order to take part in a demonstration by transsexuals; or when, shortly afterwards, they set off for Israel. Of course they are open to surprises and unexpected events while they are travelling. Above all they are interested in encounters with people and groups who design their lives in a non-conformist and unconventional way, and in the cross-over of cultures.
If we examine the series of pictures produced during recent years, we might come to the conclusion that the artists have recorded their travel impressions by examining the following question: “How does everything fit together and what is the place occupied by the story of our lives in this vast, changing world?” The question is indeed an important one and the artists’ answer is complex, polymorphous, by no means unequivocal. Their self-imposed task deals simultaneously with the known and the unknown which they encounter along their route: they were as amazed by the Koreans’ joie-de-vivre on a fairground not far from the tragic, clearly defined border with the northern part of the country as they were by the brightly coloured decorations at an Indian festival in a district of Paris, or a theatrically acted murder threat on the stage at a so-called Cosplay event, which they photographed in Beijing. In Morocco Römer + Römer were struck by the bright colours of everyday life amid the melancholy of the decayed architecture as well as by the way people did all sorts of things outside which in Germany are primarily carried out indoors – such as eating or playing table soccer. The artist couple’s gaze was drawn in all directions; it was open to everyday sights and apparent trivialities. What seems to be important for them is the fact that they were moved by a situation or a scene. Above all, however, the artists were interested in different forms of the public sphere. There are always large numbers of people in the picture, there are countless details, and in their pictures there is always a great deal happening. Their photography, which possesses a spontaneous, snapshot quality, thus provides the precondition, the backbone for a painting whose aim it is to touch the senses, to capture the emotions, and not merely to inform.
The art of Römer + Römer teaches us how it is possible to approach different cultures and their people respectfully, ultimately even with the result that we understand our own culture and its changes better. A perspective of this kind then differentiates less between our own culture and the foreign one, but recognises the dynamics and movement in the change – as a clue to and indicator of a developing world culture whose forms until now have only been recognisable in outline. Vitality and diversity, as well as synchronisation and uniformity, are the most obvious signs of this new global culture. Paradigms also arise for it because of the technical revolution, which not only produces it but also changes it, as also happens through the economic situation on our planet, about which much will no doubt be said in future.
With their unprejudiced view the artists develop an openness of presentation which is non-ideological, which has the quality of describing the complex concurrence of phenomena of reality but does not pass judgment on them too quickly – for, as always: things are in progress. Römer + Römer therefore show the phenomena of a new world from the point of view of outsiders who present and report. Another characteristic of their pictures is the density and complexity which they record in cities and at mass events. The representation of complexity in the picture later gives them the direct possibility of demonstrating their skill in the medium of painting. What is scarcely recognisable in the seething mass of colours on small-format photos becomes strangely tangible in the large-format painting, blatantly obvious and only comprehensible in the painterly compactness: this world – especially within the major metropolises – is full, packed full of people and things, making it appear as extremely concentrated and highly complex. All the many details which Römer + Römer depict in their pictures appear to be layered, condensed and constructed. In their painting style the artists follow this phenomenon which they have likewise recognised in the modern world in order to create an adequate image of it. But the painting evokes no stasis in this way – always, one has the impression, it is the present moment and the incipient movement which permanently engulf our life and its locations, that are reflected on and painted.
The details of such paintings can be recognised pin-sharp at a distance – but as one comes closer they reveal that they are made up of an incredible number of layers of paint, of thousands of dots and small patches of colour. Sometimes it seems as if the prevailing mood in these pictures is impressionist, but this impression arises above all as a result of a precisely calculated process. The impressive result is based on an analytical-objective painting style which works with the possibilities of the serial and the informal – precise dots of colour or strips – but also with a planar distribution of colours, sometimes in sharp contrast. The artists always work with rational pictorial means, even when optical impressions arise which appear psychedelic, so to speak, almost reminiscent of an LSD trip. This invariably occurs with the aspiration of achieving the utmost intensity in the representation, and with the intention of exercising a suggestive effect on the viewer. Römer + Römer’s painting does indeed become comprehensible for the viewer; it appears to come to life directly and to convince.
A picture archive of painting
The artistic process of painting as practised by Römer + Römer can be described as a close combination of technical possibilities of picture production and traditional orthodox painting methods. Both are equally important, but in the end it is only the painted picture that the viewer sees. To this day the two artists continue to employ the methods they
have created and developed over the past years. What has hitherto been the main distinguishing feature of their work has acquired the continuity of staying power – a way
of painting in the light of and under the conditions of technological media, and a form of art which reflects and documents social reality in a subjective way.
Nina and Torsten Römer are extremely productive as painters. The production of a picture which consists of thousands of dots and tiny patches of colour takes time, but the highly concentrated work which shows progress on a daily basis also has a meditational aspect. Thus, over the years a wide-ranging and multifaceted oeuvre has been created in the artists’ studio – a remarkable picture archive of the world in our time. In this respect the couple’s work can be seen as an activity of reportage which documents the realistic depiction of reality as they experience it subjectively – a reality which is contradictory, full of fractures and sometimes even chaotic. The Römers’ painting represents a contribution to the pictorial culture of the early twenty-first century, the expression of a hybrid art form with regard to technology and subject, in which modern media create the preconditions so that contemporary painterly images can be created.
New historical pictures and crises
In recent years it has been possible to characterise the social and cultural situation in the prosperous countries of Europe with the catch phrase “electronic Biedermeier”, and thus to label a state in which revolutionary utopias, extreme political and aesthetic changes and radical avant-garde achievements were scarcely imaginable outside the technological sphere. Today there is a greater awareness that social deterioration and political radicalisation are increasingly occurring in a globalised world. Until 8 September 2008, the start of the financial and economic crisis, this affected primarily poor countries and emerging economies, but now the distribution battles are also becoming more acute in the Western democracies and the political climate is becoming harsher. Here we should think not only of the great changes occurring in the Arab world, but also of the unsolved problems and conflicts in the French suburbs, the mass unemployment in the United States, the massive dispute over nuclear and energy policies, the streams of refugees heading for Europe, the crisis in education, lobbyism and the completely unresolved future of the free markets. These are all conflicts which in the short or long term will drive people onto the streets and which will also be decided on the streets.
For this reason alone the subject of demonstration, as staged artistically by Römer + Römer, seems utterly topical and really runs counter to the predicted “electronic Biedermeier” of the media age. And yet it is not quite as simple as that. Although politics today takes place on the street, we live in an age in which especially the media shape the notion of the public domain – more comprehensively and more effectively than was the case, for example, during the 1980s and 1990s. The influence of the media can be seen in intensive, short-lived waves of information, but also in a flattening understanding of democracy and political participation – in other words, areas which directly affect the concept of freedom. According to Hannah Arendt, the purpose of politics lies in the creation of freedom. To the extent that politics, the civic polis, increasingly fails to represent the public at large but becomes above all something brokered by the media, it acquires the character of a simulation, even when it argues increasingly pragmatically in the light of pressing problems in the burgeoning crises. Freedom, however, cannot be simulated. The art of Römer + Römer seems to take both this situation and this development into account. It shows demonstration marches in Berlin and elsewhere; it reports on them, but the artists do not always share the points of view, opinions and demands they represent.
Römer + Römer do have their own opinions and they also voice criticism unequivocally of the status quo, for example when they talk about the Mediaspree project in Berlin: “The picture Mediaspree versenken (Sink Mediaspree) reflects a typical demonstration scene in Berlin; it recalls a Carnival procession. A vast mass of people, lightly clothed, strolls along beside the float, an old green Mercedes with spotlights and balloons on the roof. Some of the people have partly stripped off because of the heat. The procession bursts through the quiet green avenue. Mediaspree is a large-scale investment building project on the Spree between Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, against which a protest movement has formed called “Mediaspree” versenken. This initiative forced a referendum about the changes to the development proposal. So far only a large concert venue with the commercial name O2 World has been completed. The design of the area aroused negative attitudes towards Mediaspree on the part of many citizens; various groups are involved in the demonstrations. In order to implement the proposed project along the Spree in the lively Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district, clubs are being demolished one by one. In some cases this even applies to protected buildings; large areas are being built on in such a way that they will never again be accessible to the general public. A demonstration of this kind has taken place on several occasions in Berlin – our pictures O tu mir das nicht an (Oh Don’t Do That to Me), Staat & Ehe Nein Danke (State and Marriage No Thanks). Bleiberecht für alle (Right to Stay for All!) and Spaßfraktion (Fun Party) show various groupings which attracted attention with their numerous actions until the city finally took some of the points into consideration.”
The Römers speak knowledgeably about their painting and its content, but also about other contexts and associations which are addressed in their pictures. It is by no means their intention to present simple, predetermined truths in their painting. They do not always identify themselves with the radical words and slogans on the demonstrators’ banners, but they express an opinion; they speak up on behalf of an open and multicultural society. However, with the view through the camera viewfinder presented in their painting they are above all adopting a documentary viewpoint. This distance corresponds in the painterly execution to a use of colour which is both analytical and incremental, in which colour values are placed side by side. Execution of this kind represents a tried and tested method of picture production, in order to provide information about reality through the picture.
At the latest since the 1960s many painters have made use of photos as references; prominent examples are Chuck Close, Gerhard Richter and Peter Doig. But even Vermeer worked with a camera obscura, as did both Canalettos for their paintings of city views. During the late nineteenth century, Manet and some of the other Impressionists used photos as references. Since then photography has seldom been an independent artistic medium, but it has nonetheless inspired painters. If the technique of painting after photo references is used consistently, the result is – as one can observe by looking backwards and right up to the present day – ever-new possibilities for gaining an original perspective.
This is the path the Römers adopt for their painting. In so doing they have recourse to the characteristics and potential of digital photography, through which special results are produced with regard to the colour contrasts and with which film-like sequences are made possible. At the same time Römer + Römer have studied the realistic and psychologically analytical painting of Edward Hopper, in whom they recognise one of the precursors of their art.
With their representation of demonstrations in large-format paintings Nina and Torsten Römer have also recast and reformulated the idea of the historical picture. This genre occupied a prominent position above all in the age before photography. In the painting of the last decade the historical painting seems to be experiencing a renaissance in the work of, for example, Daniel Richter, Neo Rauch and also the painting of the Römers. However, the auspices and in general the function is different than before the invention of photography. In this context Adolph Menzel, a modern painter during the nineteenth century, plays a special role for Römer + Römer, because he also shows in works such as Aufbahrung der Märzgefallenen (The Laying-Out of the Fallen March Revolutionaries, 1848) or Das Eisenwalzwerk (Iron Rolling Mill, 1875) not only crowd scenes, but above all “history from below” and adopts with his type of documentary painting a socio-political position. Thus the use of a historical genre that in feudal times served above all for the representation of and the claim to power is not a backward step, but is for Nina and Torsten Römer a possibility for producing a way of understanding current problems through a realistic and sympathetic description. Furthermore, the purpose of studying subjects such as crisis, conflict and the public sphere lies in a particular sort of self-orientation, examination and assurance, for when they are painting the two artists enter into an exchange about their perceptions of the present and the changing of reality.
A physiology of seeing and enlightenment
We can see that through their photography Römer + Römer introduce pictures of the outside world into their studio and transform them by means of a media and craft-based process into painting, producing works which bear a concrete relationship to the reference photo. But what sort of relationship is it, what determines it, and what meaning is created during the artistic transformation?
Through their painting they create pictures which precisely reproduce the content of the reference photos. However, this is carried out in large format and with the character of oil paint, which not only colours the surface of the canvas but also structures it by adding texture. In the painting of Römer + Römer this imitation does not take the form of hyperrealism like that practised by artists such as Franz Gertsch and Donald Eddy, who portrayed every detail with great precision; instead, they work by analogy or by creating an approximation of physiological seeing. As far as their painting technique is concerned this occurs through the juxtaposition of individual, sometimes contrasting colour values, which when taken together precisely describe a particular picture element with regard to what is being represented. With this form of representation Römer + Römer seem to be reacting to the physiological aspects of seeing; in other words, an activity which takes place within a very small area at a time, point by point. The act of seeing and perceiving consists of a highly complicated interaction of neural, cerebral and psychic activity and behaviour. In Römer + Römer’s painting it is therefore a form of presenting and making visible the qualities and skills of physiological seeing, perceiving and recognising that require a particular position on the part of the viewer, a defined proximity to or distance from the subject of the picture, in order for the visual and conceptual recognition of the content to function. At this point, in contrast to the hyperrealists, the reference photo is no longer the binding model but is used only in the sense of a tool made fertile through interventions and changes on the computer.
With this form of representation the artists give to the viewer a specific position which more or less corresponds to that where the photographer stood. Of course the viewer does not have to comply with these instructions about where to stand, but only from a position which is some distance away can one gain an overview of the entire proceedings and see a sharply focused picture with all its details. Other viewing positions, especially closer ones, show the picture dissolved into its component elements, in the extreme case as a non-representative field of colour full of abstract signs and patches of colour. That leads to a divergent manner of seeing, but not to a perception of the picture content. In the light of this idea, the Römers’ paintings become objects as well as places of analysis for the processes of physiological perception and visual recognition. Correspondingly, by seeing and looking at their painting a particular form of enlightenment takes place – the enlightenment of seeing and understanding.
Compared with the photo reference, the painted large-format picture possesses sensuous qualities which point as a whole in the direction of an emotionalisation and the associated increase in significance. This emotionalisation occurs in the art of Nina and Torsten Römer, then, also as a result of the colour and surface structure and their tactile qualities. For Römer + Römer this process of emotionalisation proceeds, however, in measured steps, since it also encounters its counterpart: the analytical rationality in the application of the paint and the offer to the viewer to become involved with the more physiological aspects and qualities of their painting. By means of the analytical application of paint the viewer is confronted with the rationality of such painting, parallel to the emotionality of the picture content. The emotional elements in the representation thus gain an immanent control, even a criticism. Thus there arises in the picture a counterpart and contradiction between content, in other words the subject, and its rational execution through a conscious presentation in the composition, through colour and format – that is to say possibilities which have an emotional effect but can also be analysed rationally. The art
of the Römers arises in the production process, in the rationality of a concept, on the basis of which it forms one of the artists’ consciously developed forms of “staging”. The apparent contradiction between emotion and rationality in this painting is thus passed on by Römer + Römer to the viewers like an offer, like a question awaiting an answer. But in this hybrid constellation in the border zone between emotion and reason we are hardly in a position to decide finally where one area begins and the other ends. This contradiction, the dilemma described here, occurs, however, in the pictures, and disintegrates when one regards the apparently separate areas as two sides of the same coin, as necessary and essential complements, without which this type of painting would not be possible. Only in cooperation and in seeing together can the full reality of the painting and the art of Nina and Torsten Römer take place.
Herein lie, then, the real basis and quality of their artistic activities, which possess a socio-medial character, but argue at the same time with emotionality, sensuality and rationality.
Text by Peter Funken in the monography “Meer der Freundschaft”, published by Prestel, 2011
Translation: Jane Michael