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Cold, Clear Pictures
Annette Kelm’s Conceptual Photo Works

Annette Kelm’s photo works are as precise as they are hermetic. The Berlin-based artist, who is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection with a five-part series, is considered one of Germany’s most promising young photographers. On the occasion of her solo exhibition at Witte de With, Tim Ackermann met Annette Kelm in Rotterdam.

Caps, 2008, 20-teilige Serie
Courtesy of the artist and Johann Koenig Gallery, Berlin

A cap is a cap is a cap. At least that’s the way Annette Kelm sees it. The Berlin photographer did an entire series of photographs of a baseball cap, plain without a logo, that she found in Chinatown in New York. The baseball cap isn’t made of fabric but is woven out of bast fiber. With the series, she evokes both the hillbilly fustiness of small towns in middle America and the traditional straw hats of Chinese rice farmers. It is a hybrid object that ultimately cannot be assigned to any place in the world. The baseball cap is foldable, a marvel of fashion with only one defect: It is designed so poorly that it falls off the head of the wearer. "The cap is completely thought-out but it still doesn’t work," says Annette Kelm. "I like it when things fail like that."

Caps, 2008, 20-teilige Serie
Courtesy of the artist and Johann Koenig Gallery, Berlin

Strictly speaking, her photo series Caps is itself a failure. Kelm photographed the baseball cap in five different color variations and from four vantage points in front of a neutral background. So there are a total of 20 photos. Apart from the fact that the artist imitates the principle of sculptural three-dimensionality in "flat" photography, the series does not seem to have any further meaning; it does not meet any of the normal requirements for this kind of presentation. The series does not illustrate a temporal progression, does not reveal any further information about the motif, and does not present a "cap typology" with different variations of caps. Not even the genesis of the motif as a multicultural consumer product or the interest of its creator can be discerned from the series. The reproduced cap is simply a cap. It stubbornly persists in its capness, so to speak.

Ferienhaus, Heringsdorf, Maxim Gorkistraße,
Wolgaster Holzindustrie Aktiengesellschaft, 1900, 2008
Courtesy of the artist and Johann Koenig Gallery, Berlin

At first glance, Annette Kelm’s photographs seem cool and somewhat closed off. Thus, it comes as no surprise that while the artist (who was born in Stuttgart in 1975) is very friendly, she is also very serious and above all very careful about the answers she gives. She shows up at the interview at the Witte de With art center in Rotterdam, where her first solo exhibition at an institution is being set up, wearing existential black: a sweater, T-shirt, jeans. And the questions that her works ask about the medium of photography are also rather existential. In the last five years, she has shirked the usual approach in photography. She has made portraits on which the person photographed is not recognizable; documentary photos that don’t document anything; pictures taken in advertising photography style, with old musical instruments no longer on the market. It seems as though she has done everything wrong. But it was not by chance that Kelm in 2005 received the Förderpreis of the Art Cologne promoting young artists. The 32-year-old is the big hope among up-and-coming German photographers; she is paving the way for the future of conceptual photo art. And of course her works, which run so contrary to the mainstream, are not bad but in fact very exciting.

Annette Kelm, To a snail, I / III, 2003
Deutsche Bank Collection

With Kelm, complex worlds have to be deciphered: in her cap series, in the photo of a water glass with a eucalyptus branch, or in the five photos that capture the movement of a wave on the beach. The artist took the photographs in Majorca in 2003, and today they are included in the Deutsche Bank Collection. "The wave pictures have something filmic about them," she says. "At that time I occupied myself with the portrayal of time." Despite her diverse interests and her very heterogeneous choice of motifs, in the meantime a typical Annette Kelm pictorial language has become apparent: Her photos are cold and clear, as cold and clear as the light above the autopsy table of a medical examiner. The artist often photographs the motifs frontally and with immense sharpness of detail. The photos look meticulously arranged and perfectly illuminated, so that the shadow they cast is minimized and the subject matter becomes relevant.

Annette Kelm, Frying Pan, 2007
Courtesy Johann König Gallery, Berlin

An emblematic work is Frying Pan (2007), a photo of a Rickenbacker, the very first electric guitar dating back to 1934. Kelm placed it in front of the background of turquoise fabric whose staircase pattern is a kind of a mixture between M.C. Escher and African folk art. Due to the unusual surroundings, the guitar looks like an unknown instrument from some exotic culture. "I think it is important that a picture contains many different references," says Kelm. "The Rickenbacker appealed to me as a motif because it signifies the transition from acoustic to electric music." The artist is interested in transitions, in cultural divides.

Big Print #1 (Lahala Tweet - cotton chevron,
fall 1949 design Dorothy Draper,
courtesy Schumacher & Co), 2007
Courtesy of the artist and Johann Koenig Gallery, Berlin

Ultimately, Kelm’s interests are the decisive criterion for her choice of motif. She frequently discovers her subjects through chance observations and instinctively feels drawn to them. For example, two large-format C-prints included in the Rotterdam exhibition show photos of cloth patterns by the American interior designer Dorothy Draper, the queen of high taste in furnishings and good housekeeping. Kelm photographs her patterns from the front and in their original size, so on superficial viewing they could be mistaken for the real lengths of material. "Draper’s neo-baroque style reminds me of the sets of silent films in which everything is totally exaggerated: giant clocks, giant doors, giant cabinets,” she says. "I’m a fan of Kenneth Anger and the American avant-garde cinema of the fifties and sixties."

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