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"I wanted that confrontation with a viewer"
Collier Schorr on Freeway Balconies, her show at the Deutsche Guggenheim

New York based artist Collier Schorr is primarily known for her photographs, in which she portrays German youth in U.S. Army, Bundeswehr, or even Third Reich uniforms. Although people may initially find such works shocking, they are actually sensitive studies of the emotional worlds of adolescents. Christopher Bedford recently talked to Schorr about her role as curator for the exhibition Freeway Balconies at the Deutsche Guggenheim. Christopher Bedford is art historian and curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Schorr’s photographs of high school wrestlers will appear in Bedford’s upcoming LACMA exhibition Hard Targets - Masculinity and American Sports in October 2008.

Collier Schorr, New York 2008
Photo: Joe Tomcho

Christopher Bedford: Given the commitment to appropriation, masquerade, and performance that cuts across your photographic practice, and the fact that you drew on similar ideas to select and organize the work you included in Freeway Balconies, I begin our conversation by recasting a statement by Matt Saunders, quoted in the catalogue, as a provocation directed back at you. Saunders notes: "Across the aisle, fandom strikes me as too fleet-footed, consuming the actor as a public figure, instead I am thinking of an intense interaction with the document, the way the performance itself becomes an actor in my life." This statement strikes me as an elegant summation of your objectives in images like Night Porter (Matthias) (2001), or An image and a likeness (2003), where you make the subject available to the viewer’s imagination. Does a similar idea inform your practice as a curator, too?

Collier Schorr, Night Porter (Matthias), 2001
Courtesy 303 Gallery, New York

Collier Schorr: When I made the portrait of Matti as the Night Porter, it was a conglomeration of identities. Charlotte Rampling was as much a presence as her character (the Jewish camp survivor), as well as the Dirk Bogarde character and who he was in various films I had seen. The power that Rampling has as a sexual being and the way she is ravished by the audience as she is tortured, the way we are brought in and engaged by this performance, is a thread I pull and then sew up with Matti. I remember reading something a long time ago about who one identifies with in a film, the male or female protagonist. I think I identify with the act more than the actor. Maybe that is what Matt is getting at, though I bet he has a higher resistance to traditional cinematic narrative structures than I do. I certainly don’t have a sense of myself as a curator, but I do have a good sense of who I’d like to share a stage with. In putting together Freeway Balconies I felt more like a director than a curator — Robert Altman comes to mind, if that isn’t too ’70s-centric.

Collier Schorr,
Another Jarhead (Peter Sarsgaard), 2006
Courtesy 303 Gallery, New York

A lot of your work relies on external referents for its critical currency and you trust that the viewer is able to conjure a range of associations to animate and enhance the work. Regarding Freeway Balconies, much the same thing can be said about your work as a curator. But how do you feel about the alternative model, namely the rise of what might be called "new formalism" in photography, wherein artists have again begun to bear down on the medium of photography itself, eschewing external referents and conventional indexicality?

I’m more interested in the ways photography has been used (i.e. documentary, pornography, reportage, portraiture), than I am in photography as medium. When I look at painting that is about paint, I get bored, regardless of any initial seduction. Photography is at its most viable when it bleeds in content rather than just plays with itself as a form based on light hitting emulsion. Perhaps this is because I think the medium itself is just too limited. I also find scale an overused trope used to wow the viewer. I’m aware that I may err at times on the side of subtlety, but there is no place to hide in such a smooth surface. I am thinking about Karen Kilimnik’s paintings that offer textures and shapes derived from previous attempts to make a painting. Perhaps, the "hidden meanings" can function as under painting, something one can sense but no longer read.

Collier Schorr, Joachim (Resister), 2001
Courtesy 303 Gallery, New York

The idea of a body of work that only fully reveals itself after some time is different than an index, which is an organization of concrete thoughts. The exciting thing for me about this show was being able to expound upon my ideas through juxtapositions. When I first started to make art, I used text to make my intentions clear. Later, I hid text within sculptures, dissatisfied with the didactic nature of image-and-text works. But, then again, the clarity found in Sharon Hayes’s I AM A MAN piece (part of the In the Near Future performances, 2005) is just earth-shattering to me. It is so open and out in its agenda, I felt myself gravitating toward it, and then came the idea that an Adrian Piper next to a Richard Prince could re-activate a kind a trauma in Prince’s early identity-probing works. I can’t fathom a situation in which the use of "untitled" as a title would be advantageous. If I could, I would probably put a bumper sticker on a frame, just to be sure people knew I was for or against something. The only reason I ever started making artworks was because I wanted a confrontation with a viewer. The thrill of curating is getting to have it with other artworks as well.

Collier Schorr, A.F.R. (Jane Fonda), 2007
Courtesy 303 Gallery, New York

The word that occurs throughout your discussion of your photographic practice is archaeology. When I say archaeology, I am invoking the term to describe both a principle of conception (really digging into an image and/or idea) and the conditions of reception (the mandate to perform research, or dig, after having viewed an image). Does this idea resonate for you?

I really like the idea of borrowing terminology or precepts from other fields. In part I would say this comes from an ’80s education over-determined by deconstruction and psychoanalytic theory. What has remained is the intensity of a viewer’s desire to puncture the surface of a work, to demand of it an explanation or to suppose that the artist wants to be “read” or deciphered. For the longest time I liked to relate to work through the study of comparative literature, meaning, in the most simplistic terms, that I was taking two texts, two languages, and intertwining them. Within that field, I was excited by possibilities of mistranslations, dual meanings, and of trying to make one culture speak through another, be it a photograph speaking about a painting (like the project I did with Andrew Wyeth’s Helga pictures) or an American voice to a German body.

Collier Schorr,
She Loves You, She Loves Everybody (Brooke Shields), 2006
Courtesy 303 Gallery, New York

Skimming Mikhail Bakhtin, I referenced the idea of a secondary text, or a "discovered" text that might further define a character.But going back to your question, at some point in my study in Schwäbisch Gmünd, I grew less interested in carrying on a kind literary/biographical study, and more engaged by the idea of a meta-physical relationship with the landscape. The idea of being an archaeologist makes a lot of sense in a place that has so much buried, and it certainly is evoked in one of my favorite books — Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory (1996). This of course also leads back to psychoanalysis, where one is constantly digging, not necessarily for the truth, but for an understanding of one’s desire.

Although you have moved in different directions since, I first got to know you and your work through your photographs of high school wrestlers (1998–2005), which remain very important to me. Many of these photographs evoke a subjectivity "not yet" understood, which I think is a very powerful gesture when achieved in relation to a subjectivity conventionally understood as lacking depth and complexity, understood as already known. In closing, can you talk a little more intimately about how you achieved that effect in these images and, perhaps, in subsequent bodies of work?

Collier Schorr bei einer Fotosession im Mai 2008
Photo: Joe Tomcho

I don't think I even understood those pictures when I first met the subjects. These were not the kind of boys I knew when I was in high school. In a way they were just as foreign as Germans. When I was in college I hung out a bit at CBGB on the Bowery in New York and I remember loving mosh-pit dancing — those bacchanalian, violent kind of movements. The wrestlers were all shot in a big practice room. Perhaps 50 kids were present at any given time. I would bob and weave between some 22 pairs of wrestlers, always within inches of being knocked over. Moving around in that 100ºF room, I could almost feel like I was mirroring their activity, so the very act of photographing felt like dancing or fighting. In that body of work I was trying to position the viewer within the situation rather than outside it. But when I edited the work, I was also trying to remove the subjects from the reality of wrestling and place them in the realm of religious painting, because I saw that in order to survive such intense physical training, they had to undergo some kind of transcendence that would appear to be almost visionary. The performers in that project were wrestlers but they were aware of the camera’s ability to further activate the heightened sense of reality in the room and the abstract ways in which they experienced space and motion. I titled one of those pictures Lives of Performers, after an Yvonne Rainer piece. In it a kid named Romano is doing a stretch called a bridge, but the photograph for me is about a kind of ecstasy experienced by someone who is experiencing any kind of transformation. Rainer speaks eloquently about the way in which the spectacle of the dancer’s body was something she wanted to demystify. I think being mystified is something I would rather probe than banish. But I am drawn to the desire to humanize the performer and to erase the great divide between the stage and the audience.