Annette Kelm is a photographer whose work is both strangely compelling and elusive in its meaning. A show currently on display at the large and luxuriously quiet, white space Berlin’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art, provides a fascinating opportunity to attempt to tease out some of the complex ideas that have gone into the production of these deceptively simple images.
Moving around the gallery space you are confronted with large-format prints of bold objects, expertly lit and often photographed against completely neutral backgrounds. The forms of a car, a musical instrument, a clock or a hat, are lucidly reproduced to display their formal qualities.
Kelm’s work has much in common with sculpture, which exists in the same three-dimensional plane as us and which of any art from is most easily regarded on the level of an object with a physical existence which we can somehow interact with on both an aesthetic and intellectual level.
Kelm appropriates real objects and sets them up as sculpture, giving them a kind of freestanding independence. The camera is employed to enhance their formal qualities, and rather than reducing them to two dimensions, the process of photography somehow adds a further dimension, turning them into something else again, a distinct image we can read and consider in new ways.
In a series of four prints (Untitled, 2007), the fruit-laden branches of an orange tree are photographed against a solid green background that perfectly matches the delicate shade of the underside of its glossy leaves. There are no shadows and no blemishes; the image provides a meticulous description of the curled leaves and glowing orbs of fruit, while simultaneously creating an image so perfected as to suggest a decorative design that might adorn a piece of fine porcelain or silk.
In Big Print #4 a piece of fabric is photographed to precisely reproduce its flowered pattern and the woven texture beneath, almost as if the object itself had somehow been enlarged and framed. Stars Look Back is a triptych of photographs of an ordinary wooden stool shot against a semi-transparent fabric with a busy pattern, this time billowing out to create an even more bewildering tension between two and three dimensions.
A cloth with a complex pattern reminiscent of both Op Art and African print design, appears in Frying Pan as the backdrop for an obscure stringed instrument constructed from a tin-like metal. The instrument is in fact an early electric guitar made in the US, but combined with the cloth, its unfamiliar shape and handmade appearance could easily be taken for some unknown instrument of African origin. The assemblage creates a pleasingly unified whole, but the mysterious designs of the individual elements create a tension which makes you question what mistaken preconceptions you might be bringing to the work.
Caps is a series of twenty images of a baseball cap, or rather several near-identical baseball caps, made from a coarsely-woven natural material shot against a white background, from slightly varying angels. The hats are odd objects, hard to place culturally yet vividly assured in the regularity of their surfaces. They were in fact bought in Manhattan’s Chinatown, where different cultures co-exist and come into their own in hybrid forms, but like the true origin of the Frying Pan, this information is not provided with the image, allowing interpretations to remain on an aesthetic level.
Art Car is a pair of prints of a wrecked car with brand insignia and number plate removed. The car is photographed in front of a plain white background, but the edge of the white-painted board that provides that background is visible. As you look closer, leaves become visible on the tarmac surface beneath the wheels, bringing it back into the real environment of the street, where a backdrop now appears to have been hastily erected to deliberately remove the object from its surrounding world and create an impromptu gallery space. Then again, the car is not the artwork, the photograph is, and from the gallery in which it’s hung we seem to have been positioned in a layered world of changing contexts.
Trying to decipher some kind of coherent meaning behind the images, you walk around the gallery looking for the related aspects of the objects on which Kelm has focused such controlled and unflinching attention. The subtle games she plays with what is real and unreal, with two and three dimensions, do not seem quite to be the point of her enquiries, but rather an echo of some more elusive intention. In each of these apparently bold and straightforward images there is some off-key detail, some hidden clue that threatens to disrupt its sense of rightness.
For me the most affecting work in the show is Friendly Tournament, a series of four images photographs of black and white targets. In each frame the target is punctured to a varying degree, while the background is marked with dense constellations of holes resulting from thousands of near misses. There is something hypnotic about this enlarged view of tiny impacts, the condensed representation of a game taking place over a prolonged time span and the disjunction between the suggested rhythm of the punctures and punctuation of the series of prints, which, rather than showing the progression of the game are displayed out of chronological order.
To discover later that the targets pictured are from a Zen archery game was a wonderful surprise. Something about the spirit and method of the game seems to have been almost magically conveyed in the photographs, which had the effect of making me stop trying to think too much and just engage with the strange feeling they invoke. But then again, thinking I’ve really ‘understood’ Friendly Tournament gives me that uneasy feeling again; in the context of her other work, surely there is something more going on that what seems so accessibly rewarding…
Annette Kelm is on at KW Institute for Contemporary Art until 12 July.