“Only flying is better” 1 – Stefan Rohrer and the myth of speed
Stefan Rohrer’s brightly coloured sculptures are fascinating and unmistakeable. His working materials are car bodies, motor scooters and model cars. Whether elegantly curved or wildly swirling, his works stretch into space. They mesmerise us. In spite of ourselves, we follow the convoluted pathways carved out by Rohrer’s cars and two-wheelers, and in our imagination we are thrown around and shaken up as in a roller coaster, in such a way that our breath is almost taken away.
Arancio (2011), an orange-coloured Vespa scooter radiating 1970’s charm, is pinned to the ground by its rear wheel. Already out of balance, its front part with wheel and handlebar is caught up in a vortex, sucked up into the air. It is as if an unknown force were leading it in a ribbon dance. In the wall-mounted Commodore (2013), two tracks with cars speeding along them intertwine into an arabesque-like coil. The two models of white Opel Commodores, fitted with the vinyl roofs and black “rally stripes” which defined sporty cars in the 1970’s, go down these intertwined tracks in opposite directions and are stretched in length. While one of the cars tapers off at the front, the other appears to gain in mass. One is approaching the observer, while the other is moving away.
Stefan Rohrer’s objects make speed vivid. Our imagination calls up stories of thrilling car races, gripping chases, but also images of an ordinary escape from everyday life, of a holiday or weekend excursion. Suddenly we imagine we are at the wheel of these speeded-up vehicles, we lean into the curves, tear at the steering wheel. Motors scream, tyres squeal. Will we make the corner, or will we shoot off it? Our imagination is given free reign.
Extending a good 13 metres into space, Yellow Arrow (2011) grows out of a slightly curved tail which becomes ever wider. This highly polished object then curves itself around a tree, climbs up it and finally reveals itself as a glowing yellow car. The dynamics of this work are impressive. One can literally feel how the car oversteered and hurtled, unstoppably, into the tree. But the battle with physics and the machine is at that moment neither won nor lost. The car, in its rotational movement around the tree, didn’t get a scratch on it. Its shiny surface is unmarked. Did the driver indeed manage at the last moment to turn the steering wheel? Was it perhaps even Walter Röhrl, the most famous German rally driver, at the wheel? 2 He was famous for steering his racing cars more with the accelerator than with the steering wheel, and for going round corners mainly sideways. From 1975 to 1977 he made the rally routes of the world unsafe, in his yellow Opel Kadett GT / E. Yellow Arrow, also, is based on a sports coupé of this type, missing only the matt black “warpaint” on its yellow paintwork. And yet, the idea that this is a snapshot of a motor race is only one of many possible interpretations.
As with Yellow Arrow, Stefan Rohrer always chooses the basic raw material of his sculptures with great care. Often these are vehicles connected with personal memories, whether of his parents’ family car or of the first set of wheels of his own, a Vespa or a Simson Swallow.3 Who has never sat in a VW Beetle or Golf, or dreamed of a Porsche? These experiences project themselves onto Rohrer’s sculptures. In this way they become a mirror of our personal memories, wishes and dreams. Déesse (2010) consists of the model of a Citroën DS, precisely the car that inspired Roland Barthes to write, in his Mythologies in 1957, that the car is “today almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals [...]: a great, epochal creation, passionately designed by unknown artists, and whose image, if not its use, is drawn on by an entire population, which adopts it as an utterly magical object.”4 It is noticeable how often Stefan Rohrer uses Porsche models. This may be because of the geographical closeness of the Porsche production plant to his native home; and yet, it is above all its emotional charge that makes this car so interesting for Rohrer. The Porsche 911 is certainly the quintessential German sports car. Its basic shape is unchanged over 50 years and has lost none of its appeal.5 Its flowing form and muscular proportions have a hugely dynamic quality. This becomes particularly noticeable in what is for Rohrer an unusual work, Helios (2011), a work which both manifests and takes to an extreme the fetishistic character of this car. The bodywork of a first generation Porsche 911, gold-plated by hand on the inside and outside, has been robbed of its most important attributes. Motor, wheels and steering wheel are nowhere to be found. What remains is the empty shell, a jagged sheet metal landscape on the inside, with smooth surfaces broken by rust holes on the outside. Traces left by time over decades on the skin of this classic car. What once ruled the outside lane of the German autobahn now lies flat on the ground, inert and immobile, and yet without having lost any of its fascination. For its bare form alone promises speed. This energy is captured, then ramped up in Carrera 7 (2013), for example, so that the bright green coupé shoots off the track. Not all of Rohrer’s works, however, play with our personal memories. Some works have a relationship to the real. Thus Avus (2013), in which a “gull-wing” Mercedes shoots off the notorious tight corner of the old Berlin racetrack, recalls at the same time the legendary 1950’s Mercedes Silver Arrow. In Carrera II (2006), we recognise the very Porsche racing car driven by Steve McQueen in the famous 24-hour race, portrayed in the 1971 film Le Mans.
Stefan Rohrer understands the emotions cars can bring out. But where does this fascination come from? It has been with us for over 125 years of automobile history and still does not leave us alone. Certainly, no other technical object has been mythologised in this way. The motorcar was never only one among many useful objects. Looking at it purely dispassionately, its only practical value is to carry people and things from one place to another. But it is difficult to reduce a discovery that has so fundamentally changed the appearance of the world, as well as Man’s view of his surroundings, to its bare function. The enormous significance the motorcar has in Man’s thoughts and actions cannot be explained in this way.
The motorcar triggered a revolution in mobility which brought historical and social change. With the advent of the railways, in the early nineteenth century, Man was able to free himself from his dependence on animal power, at least for longer journeys. By the end of the century, as the first motorcars appeared and, starting from Germany and France, came to subject the unsurfaced roads of the western world to the wheel, the railways had already developed a substantial network of lines. Rail travel had spurred the industrial revolution and enabled a hitherto unachievable mobility. But what most fascinated contemporaries of the railway was its speed. If the first examples were barely faster than a stagecoach, locomotives soon started to travel at speeds never before experienced. What was impressive above all was the apparent ease with which, thanks to a hidden power within, this became possible. Alone the sight of a travelling train was enough to inspire a mix of fascination and awe, which on a first journey often turned into blank fear. However, after a period of familiarisation, this initial scepticism gave way to an enormous enthusiasm. The railways enabled passengers and observers to enjoy hitherto unknown visual experiences. As one looked out of the window, the landscape flashing by condensed itself into a single visual impression, while the perception of single objects became more difficult. This new experience also posed artists new challenges. A tradition of the representation of human and animal movement that had been studied and taught for centuries was now, in the railway age, no longer applicable. A train has no muscles, it doesn’t lift itself from the ground, has no swinging limbs. Thus solutions were sought, ways of pictorially translating these new visual experiences, which contradicted the dominant academic painting of the time, founded on exactitude. William Turner was arguably the first, in his work Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway of 1844 to represent a railway train in such a way as to make visual sense of its fast movement. But portrayals such as this are relatively rare.6 Pictorial themes from history, classical mythology and religion remained dominant until the late nineteenth century.
If the railways threw the western world into a frenzy of speed, the advent of the motorcar now added a new and important element. With the railway, participating in progress and the new possibilities this offered, of overcoming great distances, meant having to subordinate oneself to a whole apparatus of timetables, departure times and prescribed routes. Whereas with a horse and carriage one could decide oneself where one wanted to go, now it was the railway track that determined the route and the destination. One became a passenger instead of a captain, the moved not the mover. And especially an affluent population did not want to be “transported”. The motorcar, which according to official histories first appeared on public roads in 1886, offered a way out of this dilemma. The Allgemeine Automobil-Zeitung wrote in 1906: “The motorcar seeks to make Man the master over space and time, and this by virtue of speed of movement. The whole gargantuan apparatus of the railways – the network of tracks, stations, signals, policing and administration – now falls away, and Man presides with relative freedom over space and time.”7 The motorcar made the experience of speed available at any time, and enabled it also in places not yet reached by the railways. Even if the first motorcars were slower and less reliable than locomotives, the man sitting at the wheel felt himself to be “the master over space and time”. He now decided the route and the speed. It is in this period, when hardly anyone owned a car, that the fascination with the motorcar has its roots. It is the freedom to escape everyday constraints and the narrow confines of one’s surroundings, spontaneously and at any time, just by turning the ignition key or pressing a starter button.
However, it is not just the alleged mastery over space and time that gives the motorcar such an important role in our thinking and actions. The motorcar offers us not only the possibility to live out an often suppressed longing for freedom, independence and adventure, it also at the same time satisfies our deep need for safety and reliability. We trust the car with our lives and transfer to it part of the responsibility for them. It mediates a feeling of security and offers a couple of square metres of privacy as we drive through the public space. Even though we are only separated from the outside world by a few centimetres of metal, glass and paint, we feel sealed off in the car from our surroundings. The car becomes a refuge, a retreat. Wherever one goes, one’s own car is always a piece of home. In this way, a close, even intimate, relationship often develops between Man and car. For many, the motorcar is a status symbol, through which one can publically display power and influence, for others it is a means to stand out from the mass and make a statement. In both cases the car becomes an object of identification.
For many years now any attempt to limit the freedom of car owners has been greeted with cries of outrage. “Free movement for free citizens”, a slogan that emerged in response to the regulations imposed on road traffic following the 1973 oil crisis, still resonates in the minds in our car-centred society, even if a fully motorised world has long since become its own worst enemy. Maintenance costs, accident figures, environmental damage, traffic jams – nothing seems to be able to dim the love of Man for cars. And yet there is virtually no other technical object that provokes such ambivalence in the minds and emotions of people. What started as a liberation became for many a constraint. The distances to be covered have become greater, time pressure and deadlines have increased. The instrument of leisure has become for many a simple necessity, a means of securing one’s livelihood. And yet the dreams of yesteryear have remained the same. They fluctuate between nostalgia and utopia, but we have for a long time no longer been masters over space and time.
It is these dreams and utopias Stefan Rohrer’s sculptures speak of, not reality. This is also the reason we enjoy them so much.
Formally, Rohrer borrows from the rich art history of the car.8 Since Impressionism, artists of almost all genres and styles have in multiple ways concerned themselves with the car, though at first the car was used principally as a prop to represent modern city life rather than as an actual pictorial motif. It first became a motif in the applied arts, in the work of caricaturists, book illustrators and poster artists. The lithograph The Motorist (1896) by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, probably the earliest example of a major artist using the car as a motif, is a case in point. Commissioned by car clubs and wealthy car enthusiasts, contract artists captured cars on canvas. Some artists, virtually forgotten today, such as the Frenchman Ernest Montaut, were able to take advantage of the growing fascination for motor racing at the turn of the century. Influenced by the nascent motor racing photography of the time, most notably that of Jacques-Henri Lartigue, these artists developed entirely new pictorial ways of representing speed. Through the use of dynamic perspectives as well as the emphasising and lengthening of car bonnets, their cars often convey the impression of phallic aggressivity. Thrown-up dust and so-called “speed lines” – thin streaks running parallel to the direction of travel, also used later in comic strips to represent speed – emphasised the direction of travel.
The motorcar first became the subject of avant-garde art in Italian Futurism. It formed a response to the dominant academic formalism and generally highly tradition-bound culture of the time, which closed its eyes to the present with all its greater and lesser revolutions. In their manifestos the Futurists demanded a radical break on all levels of social life. They recognised that the motorcar was in a position to change and decisively shape the twentieth century world. It represented innovative tendencies and the spirit of the technical revolution, it was a symbol of modernity itself, and presented itself accordingly as the emblem of a futuristic world view.
Giacomo Balla, Luigi Russolo, Mario Sironi and other representatives of this art movement succeeded in developing a new iconography of the car. Their artworks are distinguished by a highly uncritical approach to their pictorial themes. Anything that moved and made a loud noise was considered beautiful by the proponents of the Futurist movement: cars, trains, aeroplanes, even war machinery. The machine became the metaphor for the age. Power, movement and dynamics were the new bywords, speed and noise their expression. The motorcar was even exalted as an artwork in itself by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the leading player in the movement, in his Manifesto of Futurism of 1909: “We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath…a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.”9 For over two decades the Futurists portrayed the moving car in diverse ways on canvas. For them, its form and surface, however, were of no interest. It was not the object itself they found worthy of being represented, but its fast movement and the noise it gave off. For this reason the cars themselves can be made out, if at all, only schematically, in their outlines. Building on the artistic achievements of the Cubists, they succeeded in bringing together optical, acoustic and tactile impressions, and making movement, but also emotions and noise, visible on canvas. Giacomo Balla alone created over a hundred works of art in which a moving car, or rather its optical effect, was the main motif. In Luigi Russolo’s painting Dynamism of an Automobile of 1912 / 13, the surrounding world yields to the power of the car. Like a dagger, it cuts through space.
On a formal level Stefan Rohrer’s affinity to Italian Futurism is evident. This becomes very clear, for example, in the comparison between Rohrer’s work Manta (2006) and the late Futurist painting The Forces of the Curve by Tullio Crali, painted in 1930 [p. 116, fig. 10]. Both, Rohrer’s matt black sports car as well as Crali’s racing car, are developed from an arrow, arguably the oldest pictorial symbol for movement and speed. As if out of nowhere, they shoot into the here and now, as if they had broken through the dimensions of space and time.
Yet Stefan Rohrer’s works cannot be traced back only to Futurism. Their expressive colourfulness recalls both the works of American Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art,10 while the principle of construction and deconstruction points to French Nouveau Réalisme, particularly to Arman. Wall-mounted works such as 8. Schleudertrauma (2013) recall the informal gestures of a K.O. Götz in their contours. Also, his teacher at the Stuttgart State Academy of Art and Design, Werner Pokorny, who in his works has frequently portrayed abstracted houses seeming to turn somersaults, may well have served as an inspiration for Stefan Rohrer.
Stefan Rohrer himself sees the inspiration for his creations less in Futurism than in comics and their symbolic representation of movement. This connection becomes clear, for example, in the comics by the French-Belgian cartoonist Jean Graton, who describes the adventures of the racing driver Michel Vaillant, or also in Japanese animes. So in a sense, Rohrer’s sculptures are comic strips translated into three-dimensionality. For as in them, Rohrer manages, in the representation of a single instant, the “fruitful moment” in the Lessingian sense, to tell a whole story.11 This materialises itself as if in slow motion before the eyes of the observer: the future remains unknown, left to his imagination.
If Rohrer’s formal inventions in his large-scale sculptures such as Manta and Yellow Arrow are confronted with certain limits, if only by technical factors, he can give free reign to his creativity in his wall-mounted works made of car and motorcycle models. At times elegantly curved, at times wildly swirling around themselves, Rohrer’s motifs, mainly racing cars and Vespa scooters, perform breathtaking feats. Rich in colour, playfully light and without a care, they come in on their roller coaster ride, racing through serpentine bends and banked curves. Finally they can’t hold the road anymore, and take off. Stretched, at first, ad infinitum, the forms finally come apart and fly off on their own tracks. The observer delights in the wheels and other bits of cars flying around – in some works not even the driver is spared. Everything becomes weightless.
That there is a serious background concealed behind the playful façade of Stefan Rohrer’s objects remains at first hidden beneath their highly polished surfaces. But accidents and their consequences are always themes in Rohrer’s works. A powerful example of this is his work Vespa II (2013), on display in Heidenheim, in which a Vespa scooter is curled around a bent lamppost with which it had obviously collided. Speedster (2007) wakes memories of James Dean’s tragic crash, in which the actor lost his life in just such a Porsche.12 Avus calls up images of the horrific crash at the Le Mans 24-hour race in 1955, in which a Mercedes Silver Arrow flew into the crowd, killing 80 people, or even the spectacular take-off of a Mercedes racing car at the same spot 44 years later.13 It was only after Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster series that death on the road became a central theme in the artistic representation of the car, in counterpoint to society’s almost libidinous obsession with it. Alongside air disasters and the electric chair, he depicted above all car crashes. These tragic events were, so to speak, frozen before the eyes of the public, blown up to monumental proportions and continually repeated, as in Green Disaster #2 (Green Disaster Ten Times) of 1963. Warhol thus boldly presents violence and death to the general public as the horrifying dark side of society, forcing a questioning of perception, that has been blunted by the mass media.
Crashes are the shadow side of the intoxication with speed. Abrupt and unpredictable, they are events that descend upon the car and its occupants, bringing them to a sudden stop. From one second to another, all the positive associations one connects with the car – freedom, independence, security – lose their meaning. The myth suddenly becomes demythologised. Instead of being an object one connects with happy moments, whether memories or dreams of the future, the car becomes, after an accident, a memorial to the dark side of mobility, one that in everyday life is continually denied. A symbol of affluence and happiness turns into a symbol of pain and death. Wolf Vostell, who thematised the car crash in numerous happenings, wrote: “Whoever buys a car, also buys a car crash.”14 Stefan Rohrer formulates the same thought thus: “Driving a car means freedom to move from place to place. One pays for this with the danger of a catastrophe.”15 But the crash is an auto-mobile non-moment. Though it is part of our everyday life, it doesn’t enter our heads. This is how it also is with Stefan Rohrer’s objects. The crash is always present, but we are not aware of it.
Stefan Rohrer does not wag an admonishing finger. His message is delivered subliminally and with humour. His works are shot through with a positive attitude, which carries over onto the observer, and rarely leaves a negative aftertaste. In the end Stefan Rohrer can’t hide the fact that he also has succumbed to the myth of the car.
Taken from the advertising slogan for the Opel GT, produced from 1968-1973.
Walter Röhrl was a professional rally driver from 1973-1987. Twice world champion (in 1980 and 1982), he won the famous Monte Carlo Rally, for example, four times between 1980 and 1984.
Whereas the Vespa, made by Piaggio, spread mobility from Italy to the whole of Western Europe in the post-war years, the Simson KR51, known as the “Swallow”, did the same for the citizens of the GDR.
Roland Barthes, “Der neue Citroën”, in: idem: Mythen des Alltags. Vollständige Ausgabe, Berlin, 2012, (original edition Paris, 1957), p. 196.
The design for the Porsche 911 was created by Ferdinand Alexander Porsche, the son of the company’s founder Ferry Porsche. The car was premiered at the International Motor Show in Frankfurt in 1963 and was in production from 1964.
In connection with this, mention must be made of Adolph von Menzel’s Berlin-Potsdamer Bahn of 1847 (Berlin, Alte Nationalgalerie).
Quoted from: Wolfgang Sachs, Die Liebe zum Automobil. Ein Rückblick in die Geschichte unserer Wünsche, Reinbek bei Hamburg 1984, p. 19.
The following section is partly based on: Sebastian Steinhäußer, Das Automobil in Kunst und Design der 1960er und 1970er Jahre (unpubl. Master’s thesis, Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt/Main), Frankfurt/Main 2008.
English translation quoted from: James Joll, Three intellectuals in politics, New York, 1961.
Pop Art artists often dealt with the car in its function as an advertising icon. The theme was taken up in multiple ways particularly by Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton in British Pop, and by Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann and others in American Pop Art.
In his work, Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry, written in 1766, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing describes, with reference to the ancient Laocoon group in the Vatican Museums, how the artist found the “fruitful moment” in which a complete story, in this case the story of the priest Laocoon and his sons, is condensed in a single instant.
On 30 September 1955 the actor, in his Porsche 550 Spyder, crashed into a Ford at a crossing in California and died of the injuries he sustained.
In the 24-hour race at Le Mans in 1999 a Mercedes-Benz CLR racing car flew off the piste, turned over spectacularly many times in the air, and was completely destroyed as it crashed at the trackside. Fortunately the driver escaped with minor injuries.
Quoted from: Pablo J. Rico, Vostell Automobile, Tübingen/Berlin, 2000, p. 15.
Quoted from: Kunststiftung Erich Hauser: Werkstattpreis 2002/2003: Richard Lempart, Kerstin Mayer, Tino Panse, Stefan Rohrer, Rosa Rücker, Rottweil, 2003, p. 62.
Me Mercedes, You Saab
Auto-biographical comments on art of Stefan Rohrer
In a jury session on art in public space the works of Stefan Rohrer are presented to the president. At the sight of the grotesquely distorted Vespas and automobiles, the seasoned district administrator bursts out laughing, whereupon the atmosphere among those present feels palpably relaxed at a stroke.
This scene is no isolated case. Even at vernissages and in exhibitions of Stefan Rohrer, time and again I could observe visitors of every age breaking out into spontaneous laughter on viewing his work. But what or who were they laughing about, and why? I decided on an auto-biographical approach to track down the secret behind the automobile sculptures.
A look in the rear-view mirror
Automobiles have been a lifelong passion both for the artist and for the author from an early age. Whereas Stefan Rohrer was interested in gender-specific Carrera tracks and toy cars as is proper, my early childhood experience, whether I wanted it or not, also included fast cars with trees, houses and people flashing by. As the daughter of an automobile designer in a big German car company, I already had the pleasure of sitting at the wheel of a Mercedes at the age of five; and at ten I had tried driving not only box cars, but also on steep banks and off-road. Father’s fascination with speed was especially obvious on Sundays when motor racing was being broadcast on television. Hour after hour the racing cars went round, uselessly in my view, but I regarded them with disinterested pleasure, and often wondered how anyone could fall into a rapt trance from the droning sound of racing car engines that made one oblivious to everything and everyone around.
However, one advantage of my socialisation with automobiles was that I was given my own car on passing my Abitur high school exam, as was the norm at the time, so that I could be mobile and flexible. One day, on my way to university, I underestimated the winter road conditions, with the result that I came in contact with the drawbacks of motoring early on. I overturned on an icy country road worthy of a stunt film, but by a wonder I climbed out unscathed from the vehicle, which was still new. What was previously a proud shiny black Ford Fiesta (1989 model) had been transformed from one second to the next, although that seemed like hours to me at the time of the rollover, into a sorrowful, battered total wreck on four wheels. Fully incapable of moving on its own, my first car, after just a short life, was towed by a recovery truck back in the direction it had come from shortly before. From then on I regarded the automobile as cult object with even greater mistrust, and increasingly devoted myself as an art and cultural historian to the symbolic significance of things in consumer culture from a discreet distance.
Stefan Rohrer, born in 1968, and like me a member of the Generation Golf, also corresponded in no way to the stereotype of a juvenile representative of the egoistic society, striving for success and consumption, in the way Florian Illies characterised teenagers of the 1980s in his bestseller Generation Golf 1. Completely untypical of his generation, he also distanced himself from the automobile as a status symbol early on. “As a child I wanted to be a car designer. As an adult that was no longer acceptable for me politically. For me the subject was very ambivalent; later the fascination of the car was for me also somehow painful, and I questioned the car as a prestige object”. Instead of single-mindedly pursuing a streamlined career as a car designer, Stefan Rohrer therefore began down-to-earth training as a stonemason, only afterwards deciding to trace his inner creative instincts, first as an art student at the Burg Giebichenstein University of Art and Design in Halle, and later at the Academy of Art and Design in Stuttgart.
Possibly because he was spared the experience of a motor accident, and the real whiplash that not uncommonly accompanies it, Stefan Rohrer was able to keep his childhood fascination for the car into adulthood. With great momentum this then takes an affective course in the early artistic works.
Already during his studies the artist gave free rein to his childhood desire to find creative forms. Carried and attracted by the desire for movement, he developed his own individual DIY fantasy vehicle, using the ideas of toy cars and Vespas that he found discarded, as well as real car bodies.
An example is Strudel from 2004. In this case Rohrer single-handedly extended the roof and hood parts of a blue VW Golf 2 (in production 1983 – 1992) skyward in expressionist forms. By contrast, the work Schleudertrauma Nr. 11 documented in this artist book shows a collision between two differently colored model cars, a Pontiac GTO (in production 1964 – 1965) and a Ford Mustang (in production 1964 – 1973), typical representatives of American Muscle Cars 2, at the moment when their wheels, rear ends, and miniature drivers are flung through the air by the impact, like a gloriole or halo. Similar to an instantaneous photograph, the climax of the centrifugal forces is frozen in a sculpture. Even though the artist lets the movement of the cars run on and does not show the collision, the catastrophe nevertheless ultimately resonates in the thoughts, and like a religious Memento Mori, continues inescapably in the minds of the viewers – with or without the whiplash experience.
Rohrer’s graceful, strongly-colored Memento Mori out of sheet metal are on the one hand in the tradition of Pop Art, since real everyday objects are transformed into art. However, the elegant painterly lines of Schleudertrauma Nr. 11 and his other wall reliefs are in addition also reminiscent of the futurists, who glorified the automobile and the associated exhilaration of speed at the beginning of the last century. To this fascination for the movement and surface aesthetics of goods, the artist has now added with this artist book a further facet: he has scanned photographic images of the work Schleudertrauma Nr. 11, and reproduced them distorted and alienated, like the real work.
By grotesquely exaggerating the dynamic movement patterns of automobiles in his works, Rohrer overshoots in the truest sense of the word the positivistic faith in technology of the modern age directed toward the future. From a postmodern stance, he takes a sceptical and ironic view of the forward looking positivistic optimization paradigm of the performance society: faster, higher, further in the here and now. One possible explanation for the laughter of the district administrator?
The postmodern distance of the artist from the sham of the affluent society with its standardized facade identities is also clear in the work Lothar 2007 in a humorous way. In an allusion to hurricane Lothar, Rohrer subverts the uniformity of lower-middle class suburban estates by formally really sorting out the miniature model terraced cottages, to use a colloquial expression.
While Stefan Rohrer, still relatively almost unnoticed by the public, step by step continued to develop for himself and refine his constructive language of form using scrap parts, and invented forms of his own design, I was at the University of Tübingen as an intellectual. To the chagrin of my father, at an advanced stage I came in contact with culture critical ideas that in the 1980s were increasingly dealing with the ambivalence of a construction of reality centered around the automobile.
Particularly formative for me were the French sociologists, with books like Distinction 3 by Pierre Bourdieu, and The System of Objects 4 by Jean Baudrillard, that show how people in the modern consumer society look to the culture of things for identity construction and self-expression. Along the lines of Me Prada, You Armani 5 the functional and utility value of things falls increasingly into the background in lifestyle capitalism. More important than the function of things is what the goods signify, and the emotions they arouse among consumers. “We are what we buy” 6, according to the latest feuilleton-style edition of the writer Robert Misik on this insight. “I am what I am because I wear Prada and not Armani”. With products we buy lifestyles that fit to us, and model our own identity. “People”, writes the cultural theorist Hartmut Böhme “expand their ego boundaries to ever more object realms. Never before was the world of things so dense, diverse, seductive, artificial, fascinating…” 7.
It is obvious that the automobile in particular possesses great potential for ego tuning, and is exactly predestined for an outwardly oriented interpretation in such a way. Along the lines Me Mercedes, You Porsche, the automobile industry offers a whole collection of automobile identities, off the shelf so to speak: from tough SUV driver to the intellectual with a Swedish car. While writing, I am reminded of my fellow student Dirk Stork. At the time I was studying he made an impression on me because he passionately came out against the automobile as a substitute identity, and prothesis for the soul under the title The ritualised dealing with individual mobility as a way of forging identity? An automobile cultour 8. “These pseudo identities offered by the car”, wrote Stork at the beginning of the 1990s in his mid-term examination in the department of Historical and Cultural Anthropology, “do have the advantage that they can be continually adapted to demands: however as a bearer of real identity they are exchangeable, and socially washable in an easy-care way, so to say” 9. Like a pamphleteer, he therefore called for the development of an inner identity and not consumption to be placed at the centre of life: one that the individual generates from within during a reflective process. Stork concludes that people should be enabled through increased social opportunities to find and express their personality in a creative process in the same way as an artist or scientist. This brings us to the present.
Reading these lines again from earlier it becomes clear to me what fascinated me so much about Rohrer’s individualised automobiles from the start. As counter models to the glossy aesthetics of automobile product ranges, his four and two wheel art creations are an authentic expression of individual freedom that have taken on a form; they are inspired and, as an expression of a life guided from within, they embody less the sham but rather the authenticity, and not least the freedom of art. Coming across a quotation from Roland Barthes that the truth can best be read from the wastebasket, my respect for Rohrer’s position soars skywards into infinity like a sheet metal gladiolus.
Then it suddenly struck me: Rohrer is a modern Shaman who, in hours of manual work, devotedly breathes new life into already devalued, industrially mass-produced products – exchangeable off-the-shelf goods – thereby giving them a new aura as an art fetish. On our behalf, he stoically searches for the truth in scrap so that we can hardly but recognize our pursuit and desire as mirrored by a Ford Mustang, Opel Kadett, or VW Beetle given a new life by the artist’s hand, and laugh about ourselves.
My job is finished. After the interview with Stefan Rohrer we drive off together to a Stuttgart studio. In keeping with the spirit of the age, it is no accident that it is situated in a scrapyard. The gaze of the artist falls on a battered 911 Porsche body. His eyes begin to light up, and I feel certain that, possibly unlike the casualties that were in it, a second life in art awaits this wreck; perhaps even an everlasting eternal existence in a museum.
Florian Illies: Generation Golf. Eine Inspektion. 1st edition, Frankfurt 2000.
I am indebted to Gerhard Fritz for this reference.
Pierre Bourdieu: Die feinen Unterschiede. Kritik der gesellschaftlichen Urteilskraft. 1st edition, Frankfurt 1982.
Jean Baudrillard: Das System der Dinge. German edition, Frankfurt 1968.
Thomas Assheuer: Ich Prada, Du Armani. In: Die Zeit March 16, 2000, No. 12, p. 43.
Robert Misik: Das Kult-Buch: Glanz und Elend der Kommerzkultur. Berlin 2007.
Hartmut Böhme: Das Strahlen fetischistischer Dinge im Konsum: Autos und Mode. In: Christine Blättler, Falko Schmieder (Ed.): In Gegenwart des Fetischs. Dingkonjunktur und Fetischbegriff in der Diskussion. Vienna 2014, p. 31 – 52.
Dirk Stork: Der ritualisierte Umgang mit der individuellen Mobilität als Weg der Identitätsfindung? Eine Automobile Kultour. Zwischenprüfungsarbeit im Fach Empirische Kulturwissenschaft an der Universität Tübingen, Tübingen 1993.
Time dilation, time delirium and back again
On the sculptures of Stefan Rohrer
Azzurro chiaro (Light Blue Vespa, 2014) – Everyone who took part has disappeared from the scene, but the evidence of disaster remains. With a little bit of sentimentality and poetry, one could picture a young, modern Lili Marleen. She had been waiting under the streetlamp for her knight to appear. The eagerly awaited moment of reunion, its time pre-arranged, would turn into tragedy. The unknown driver of the Vespa couldn’t get there fast enough, and he lost control of his vehicle. Perhaps he was too late; in any case, too fast. With the full force of disproportionate speed, the scooter wrapped itself around the lamppost. And in this deformation, the dynamics of movement, the loss of control and the abruptness of the wreck become image. The elongation of the floorboard between the rear of the Vespa and the unstoppable forward extension of its front end, and the shooting forth of the steering rod and front wheel – time and the centrifugal forces of speed become sculpture and image. In this image, there are no human figures. This fact makes it possible for viewers to experience this installation – from the perspective of curious onlookers, interested by expressive images and visual sensations – as inexpressibly grotesque and comical, as the absurd meeting and embrace of a Vespa and a streetlight. Through the absence of people, the two objects allow themselves to be perceived as one independent being brought into an unhappy union.1
On a traffic island in Göppingen stands the sculpture Blauer Strudel (Blue Vortex, 2004), consisting of the sky-blue bodywork of a VW Golf dissolving into the centrifugal forces of its rotating motion. The visualization of movement, the interior element of torsion of this car revolving around its own centre, suddenly meet the opposing force of stasis. In this moment, which we see and experience as a violent accident, energy and power are released in a vortex of upward movement as the right side of the car’s body disengages from the rest of the vehicle. The bands of metal materialize as visual, plastic traces of this spinning movement. Speed derails; order, the wholeness of form, dissolves into chaos, allowing for the free aesthetic play of the parts and their trajectories. The Golf – the best-selling car, built for functionality and the consumer masses, integral component of society, and essential means of mobility in its users’ world – develops an autonomy that explodes any security of order. With horror and wonder we watch as this most ordinary of cars gathers up its play of movement into a pirouette, a catastrophe condensed into a motif of classical dance.
In the exhibition at the Kunsthalle Göppingen, the automobiles dance a roundelay. The sculptural work Turbo (2014) consists of a Porsche 924, sometimes referred to as the ‘housewife’s Porsche.’ As with nearly of all the works by Stefan Rohrer, we experience the shock of a sudden stop on one side and, on the other, the image of the extreme velocity of centrifugal forces that catapult the front wheels, steering wheel, and headlights out of the car’s upward curving hood. The classical rally-style red and silver paintjob on the bodywork makes its form and design aesthetically striking and enticing, conjuring even with this model the dream of driving fast and free. The crux of the work is formed by a hard-to-miss irony in relation to the image of what has here transpired.
Fast and Furious (2016) deals with the body of a souped-up, super-charged Honda Civic CRS, a small, high-horsepower car painted in a stylish blue finish. The vehicle’s stance brings to mind road-racing and whiplash, both of which have been used by Rohrer as titles for his sculptures. Here again, the shock leads to the stretching and dissolution of one side of the sports car as a wheel, a red-painted seat and the steering wheel are forcefully ejected, embodying with their metallic trajectories the energy-charged element of movement as it meets motionlessness and the whirling, spin-cycle action of the car. The title of the work references the action film series The Fast and the Furious, produced in Hollywood since 2001 by Universal Studios, which deals mostly with the street racing and car tuning scenes. In the action-packed plot, the protagonist, undercover cop Brian O’Connor, gains access to the world of illegal street racing where he takes part in the races, falls in love with the gang leader’s sister and, amid the clash between performance-tuned cars, a taste for risk, and his own real mission, attempts to expose the criminal activities. The sculpture by Stefan Rohrer assumes this narrative which is referenced in its title.
Though the work is not a cinematic critique of this series of blockbuster films, there is an echo in this piece, as in many others by the artist, which perhaps suggests how he came to the theme of automobiles and what is made of it in his artworks. Every text about his work refers to his fascination with the automobile, with sports cars and roadsters, which began with a childhood dream to become a car designer. Social and ecological concerns, and the scepticism which accompanies them, as well as academic training as an artist couldn’t entirely undo the spell cast by cars and the adventure of speed. But this conflict gave things a meaningful twist in the form of his analytical perspective on the culminating element of catastrophe, the critical moment when control is lost, and the forces which result. These are embodied in Rohrer’s sculptural interest in movement, in the experience and representation of time, and in the artistic method of deconstruction, all of which bring forth other dimensions of signification in motifs and in the grounding theme of movement in art and sculpture.
Each of Stefan Rohrer’s sculptures has a narrative background, with some that open up via connections with certain films. Each car model is deliberately chosen and possesses a story, a myth, or a fetishistic aspect which plays a role in the aesthetic of the work. Especially in the sports car, whose very shape and paint promise speed, a hedonist attitude towards mobility, and social status for the owner, a connection is manifested between a fascination with form and technology, power and violence. This is charged with the potential for racing in its form as one of the most clearly articulated cults of manliness, which is rife with sexual projections. There is, moreover, a rich history of speed and the automobile in cultural and visual art studies.2 In the aesthetic of his sculptural works, Rohrer gives free play to all of these implications and claims his right to a freedom unfettered by moral quandaries or ethical considerations. Nowhere do we find injured or harmed persons, nor explicitly moral fingers being pointed. This allows for a far more sophisticated perception that takes into account not only immediate visual sensations, but also the reflection of this very act of perception and the self-assertion of the observing viewer contained in it. In the sculptures of Stefan Rohrer, the front of each automobile is like a face set in a ferocious grimace, into which can be read, according to the concerns and feelings of the viewer, emotion, pain, and desire. We grimace in order to frighten or to make someone laugh. What is fascinating are the aesthetics of screaming speed and the pleasure of pushing boundaries, while the provocative and obscene take form in the accident, the catastrophe, where the loss of control becomes manifest and the physiognomy of the car and its design are blown apart and brought into the realm of the grotesque. Here, the lurid grimace reveals the calamity which fascinates and simultaneously makes us shudder, exciting our curiosity and, perhaps, even making us laugh.
In Super Sprint (2019), a motorcycle – a little Kawasaki- green, performance-tuned racing machine – winds itself up into an extremely over-stretched forward movement. The movement swings left and right and stretches along a sweeping S-shaped racing line, reminiscent of a last-ditch, oversteered cornering manoeuvre. As with all sculptural works by Stefan Rohrer, movement is the focus here. The S-shaped, serpentine line expresses this in form. In art and, especially, sculpture since antiquity, the representation and visualization of movement has been an essential aesthetic aspect in the inherently rigid stasis of the work of art. It is part of the rhetoric of the image that sets our imagination in motion and turns the instant of perception into a narrative moment. The arching movement is a part of this, representing a special charm, beauty and elegance within the work of art.
In his work The Analysis of Beauty,3 the English artist William Hogarth (1697–1764) refers, by way of Lamazzo, to a rule imparted by Michelangelo to his pupil, the painter Marco de Sciena, that “he should alwaies make a figure Pyramidall, Serpentlike, and multiplied by one, two and three. In which precept (in mine opinion) the whole mysterie of the arte consisteth. For the greatest grace and life that a picture can have, is, that it expresse Motion: which the Painters call the spirite of a picture.”4 Elsewhere, Hogarth outlines his own principles: “… The particular force of each, in those compositions in nature and art, which seem most to please and entertain the eye, and give that grace and beauty… are FITNESS, VARIETY, UNIFORMITY, SIMPLICITY, INTRICACY, AND QUANTITY; ― all which co-operate in the production of beauty, mutually correcting and restraining each other occasionally.” 5 One can apply these principles to the design of automobiles and the artworks of Stefan Rohrer, even if he didn’t have Hogarth’s treatise in mind. As a consequent of William Hogarth, a scepticism and irony become evident, as does a distancing from art theory, which resonates in the works of Rohrer. Both artists, in the realistic rendering of their motifs and in their use of distortion and critical alienation, move into a proximity to satire, the macabre, and the grotesque face which reality holds out to us.
In the wall works with model cars, Rohrer has a significantly expanded scope for his sculptural images of movement, space, and time. In this model dimension, perceptions and the realizations of ideas can be implemented in relatively more expansive, excessive ways. One such piece, entitled Bullitt (2019), makes narrative allusion to the dramatic crime film Bullitt (1968, dir. Peter Yates) starring Steve McQueen. The film contains a legendary highspeed chase scene through the streets of San Francisco between Bullitt (McQueen), in a dark green Ford Mustang, and the killers set on catching him with their black Dodge Charger. In this life-or-death race, the cars accelerate to the extreme and handle wildly, chasing each other at full speed, ramming into each other. In the end, Bullitt uses his Mustang to shove the killers’ Charger off the road. The driver loses control of his vehicle and crashes into a gas station, at which point everything is consumed by a spectacular explosion. Bullitt, with great difficulty, brings his heavily damaged Ford Mustang to a halt. In the wall work by Stefan Rohrer, the drama of racing is made into image: the extreme acceleration, the overdriven speed moving in loops, the physical meeting of the vehicles, the bifurcating movement of, in one direction, the engines and, in the other, the rest of the car and the drivers, one with arms crossed in the sovereign gesture of the victor and the other with arms outstretched as he is catapulted out of his car. The devastating crash, the catastrophe, the disintegration of the cars – all these are contained as elements, as are the dramatic chase, the period of the drama, and its abrupt end. These elements are abstracted in Rohrer’s formal language of the figure of movement. The movements of the black car become one with the asphalt of the street; the contact between the vehicles and the free play of the centrifugal forces are made vivid… Here again, however, Stefan Rohrer’s work does not deal merely with the film’s plot. It’s all about the speed, the power, the energy and violence, the movement, and the dynamism of the two cars engaged in the race. Beauty and elegance are as much in play here as the shuddering fear before deadly violence that is also part of the scene and which is emphasized through the use of colours. From a distance, the work as a whole seems engaged in one great, dynamic sweeping movement. On closer viewing and with knowledge of the film scene, the aesthetic of a beautiful, sweeping, arabesque movement reaches a tipping point, and the details reveal yet another interpretation to the proceedings.
In Capri gegen Manta (Capri vs. Manta, 2018), Rohrer enters into a race two favourites of the tuning scene, popular and rival 1970s mid-range sports cars. Both vehicles have mythic status. The Ford Capri (produced 1968-1986) was the European-style ‘Pony Car’ at the side of the American legend, the Ford Mustang, a representative example of the ‘small man’s sports car’ with its elongated hood and shortened rear. The Opel Manta, produced in Germany (1970-1988), had a similar design and was General Motors answer for the European market. Both cars were featured in the 2016 Classic German Automobile postage stamp series: 70 cents for the Ford Capri and 90 cents for the Opel Manta. In this wall work by Stefan Rohrer, the Manta is green and the Capri is yellow – the classic colours as seen on the postage stamps, only switched. Both cars promised much in the way of technical features and were the very image of tuned, road-worthy racers – typical men’s cars. Even more so than the Ford Capri, the Opel Manta is not only a myth but also a highly stereotypical cult car. The reputation, supported by movies and popular songs, of Manta drivers as stunted tuning obsessives with limited education and a rather ridiculous machismo did nothing to slow sales of more than a million vehicles from the A and B Model series. As the yellow Ford Capri, adorned with dark Rally stripes, drifts into the race with a powerslide manoeuvre, the green Opel Manta with white racing stripes is just entering the competition and, after one circuit, the encounter is over. Things go much smoother here than in Bullitt – and without the expression of violence or the catastrophic explosion moving in opposite directions set off by the vehicles’ contact. In this race, one can smirk with appreciative awareness at the irony and friendly humour of it all.
Stefan Rohrer takes as a theme his passion for unique automobiles and motorcycles in order to grapple with essential topics and questions of contemporary art. Movement acquires a sculptural form and is understood as an aesthetic dialectic interplay between motion and stasis. Acceleration and deceleration assume their true meaning when seen in the conceptual framework of time. ‘Gravitational time dilation’ describes a phenomenon of the theory of general relativity, namely, the effect that all processes are slower in a stronger gravitational field than in a weaker one, and that all internal processes within a physical system move slower in relation to the observer when the system itself is moving in relation to the viewer. In literary theory, time dilation is an aspect of narrative temporal design in which the duration of telling differs from than that of which is told, where the story is greatly stretched, as in slow-motion, and the inner clock of events ticks differently, sped up as in a time-lapse effect or slowed down to feel like real, experienced time. In biology, dilation refers to the regeneration of tissue and, in medicine, to the expansion of organs and blood vessels as a pathological phenomenon. In the sculptural events of Stefan Rohrer’s works, all this is expressed in movement, into which dynamism and deconstructive action are inscribed. The perception and experience of time can no longer be objectively oriented on the uniform measurements of a clock; rather, the experience and concept of time take form as images in Rohrer’s sculptures, in order that these complex phenomena may ultimately withdraw their ability to be explained along with their influence over the mental and physical. And here the fascination with speed can be understood as its own theme, along with the shock of the extreme transformation from motion to stasis, the stretching effects of slow-motion, and the condensing effects of time-lapse. In these works, the dynamics of the element that contains all of this become frozen. The question of “Where does it start and where does it end?”6 remains for our perception an open one. “Thinking means venturing beyond,”7 as Ernst Bloch formulated it, and Stefan Rohrer, via the dynamics and perspectives of the elements of movement contained in his sculptures, ventures beyond the familiar mathematical, geometrically constructed conceptions of time and space. By means of distortion and alienation his sculptures acquire their emotional, subjective effect. Chaos and bewilderment can be understood as a kind of delirium; the disorientation, to which the artist’s interest in the loss of control and the accompanying destruction and uncertainty of form correspond.
This can be interpreted as the eerily beautiful horror felt in the face of destructive energies and the inordinate violence of force. Yet the artist’s humour plays at least as great a role as these elements in the perception of his sculptures. In the lines of movement, Rohrer borrows from comic book drawings, which do not restrict themselves to static images to tell their story. ‘Comic,’ as an adjective, means droll, funny… and the lines of movement, the exaggerations and extreme distortions, the anthropomorphic view of animal or inanimate protagonists – these substantiate the interpretation of these representations as comic. Even the deconstructive aspect of Rohrer’s sculptures has a comic side, which goes hand in hand with improvisation in how he expresses dynamic relationships; the exaggeration and constitutive irony of the sculptures, and how he plays with the uncertainty and indeterminacy of reality in them; the ways in which he interacts with both the possible and the impossible; the scepticism, the constant doubting of truth; and the grotesque, how movement becomes arabesque and ornament becomes movement. To this comic element belongs also the incongruence between pathos and the affects which allow his sculptures to appear as cynical objections to the fetishizing of automobiles, speed, dynamism, power, violence, and the manliness manifested therein.
... – and back again: Even as the fascination with the design of legendary cars and motorcycles keeps its raison d’être – the fascination with the rush of speed, acceleration, oversteering, even with the delirious grimace made as control is lost, the catastrophe – touched and concerned, we sense: We are only observers, we have escaped once again, with the terror and laughter that bring catharsis in this tragicomedy intact.
Compare with the accident scene photographs of Arnold Odermatt, which become, above and beyond their documentary function as police photography, works of art for uninvolved observers whose perspective reveals an unintentional comicalness. They assume a tragic dimension via the absence of persons involved in the catastrophes, showing the destruction of normal, functioning traffic, the sculptural quality of the deformed vehicles, as well as, to the eyes of a detached observer, their comic, grotesque side.
alzgalerie Kaiserslautern u.a. (ed.): Stefan Rohrer. Drehmomente. Schleudertrauma. Wienand Verlag: Cologne 2014, pp. 107-119.
William Hogarth (1753). The Analysis of Beauty. Printed by John Reeves for the Author: London.
Ibid., p. 9. See: http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/artdok/volltexte/2010/1217 [July 17, 2019].
Ibid., p. 38. See: http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/artdok/volltexte/2010/1217 [July 17, 2019].
Comp. Sebastian Steinhäusser: Entfesselte Bewegung, in: Kuenstler. Kritisches Lexikon der Gegenwartskunst. Stefan Rohrer, Vol. 107, No. 21, 3, 2014, p. 2 [transl. by the author].
Ernst Bloch (1996). The Principle of Hope, Volume 1, translated by Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice and Paul Knight, Cambridge,Mass: MIT Press. p. 4.
The passage of time in the cinematic works of Stefan Rohrer
In the videos of Stefan Rohrer, time, or, more precisely, the parallelism of different levels of time, plays an essential role. While his large-scale sculptures and sculptural wall works capture in a single image the individual elements caught within a sequence of movements, recounting the complete strand of a plot, in his videos, Stefan Rohrer plays with time itself – he slows things down or speeds them up in order to ask, What is experienced time? and What is real time?
In the video work Klavierstunde (Piano Lesson, 2006), the viewer experiences a level of time. It is the first piano lesson after 25 years that the artist receives from his father, Hellmuth Rohrer. Stefan Rohrer grew up in a musical household. For a period during his childhood he took piano lessons. His father was an enthusiastic pianist and, on Sundays, the organist at the church. His sister trained as a soprano. Stefan Rohrer recalls that there was great expectation that he too would discover music for himself, “but after a little while of taking piano lessons, we all realized that this would not be the path of great happiness.”1
The artist’s videos make reference to autobiographical elements, touching on stories of desire, expectation, behavioural roles, clichés, and failure, with irony and subtle humour. The idea of mastering an instrument and performing as a musician on a large stage before an audience is and remains a dream, one which points to the fundamental human need for recognition and approbation that underlies all action. To show one’s skill and abilities to the world, to reveal one’s innermost worth and be rewarded with wonder, has an exceptional quality.
Stefan Rohrer’s video Klavierstunde offers spectators a view of a keyboard, an overhead shot of the artist’s hands as they search for individual keys and, from them, chords. Stefan Rohrer plays a piece from a beginner’s book of études. The father is present in the background. Little by little his voice becomes audible, his hands encroaching to guide those of his son. At the same time, a conversation can be heard. These events happen in real time – the piano lesson lasts about half an hour.
In a time and society in which self-optimization is of great importance, whether in questions of ability or of outward appearances, and the striving for online recognition can be measured in ‘Likes’ and ‘Followers,’ Rohrer follows with his videos the path of musical self-optimization. He performs pieces of music by means of digital processing, optimizing his own skills until his piano playing is ready for the concert hall or his voice able to hit the high F from the Queen of the Night aria. It is in this manner that the artist is able to play Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18. Stefan Rohrer played each chord individually, recording video and sound, then assembled the chords on the computer. Thus, multiple lines of time appear in the work Stefan Rohrer spielt Rachmaninov (Stefan Rohrer plays Rachmaninoff, 2008/2009): the time of shooting, which took several weeks; the time of cutting the footage, which took over two months; and the time of Rachmaninoff’s piece of music. The video has a length of 12:58 minutes.
Viewers see and hear the resulting side shot of Stefan Rohrer at the piano accompanied by a large, invisible orchestra. To his own piano playing, the artist has added the orchestration from Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto. Minimal changes occur in the image – the time of day changes, the light shifts, the posture of the artist seems to alter. A subtle irony can be sensed as this pianist – at his home piano, sometimes with a coffee mug atop it and a table lamp casting its light, in his everyday clothes, in his living room – seems to be performing for a great concert hall. Pathos is introduced as a stylistic device and immediately counteracted by the given conditions.
The stylistic device of the grotesque appears in many of the Stefan Rohrer’s video works, as when the artist performs piano pieces or arias of great difficulty, or when, although he has no mastery of an instrument nor a professional singing ability, he performs both roles of a duo in an evening music recital. Rohrer alters reality, distorts and exaggerates it. He lays bare the characters of ‘made’ and ‘pieced together.’ It is obvious that his abilities are acquired only via technological means. From the first moment of watching his videos, it is clear: there’s something funny going on. His piano playing sounds choppy, his performance as the Queen of the Night is oddly high and shrill. At the same time, his videos lack the high-resolution technical polish that is expected today. The eye has become accustomed to saturated colours and perfectly sharp images that reproduce every nuance, every subtlety of each surface, substance, and material. Stefan Rohrer’s videos show a grainy image. In the exhibition at the Kunsthalle Göppingen, three of these works are presented on monitors while the videos Liederabend (Song Recital, 2010) and Air (2018) are projected on the wall. Here also, the characters of the ‘built’ and the ‘put together’ are not covered up; rather, they are revealed.
In the video Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen (Hell’s Vengeance Boils in My Heart, 2006), Stefan Rohrer sings the Queen of the Night’s aria from W.A. Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. It is a piece known for its great degree of difficulty. The artist has winkingly pointed out that he chose this aria because his sister was unable to master it, just as his choice of Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto was due to his father’s being unable to play it.2 In this work, Rohrer stands erect at the centre of the image in front of a sickle moon, or, to be more precise, in front of Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s legendary 1816 stage set, with the stars arranged in orderly rows in the night sky. Mozart’s three-hour long work is among the most famous and often staged operas worldwide. In The Magic Flute, the Queen of the Night embodies the dark adversary of Sarastro. The Queen of the Night aria is often referred to as a rage aria. It comes in the second act of the opera. Driven by vengefulness, the Queen of the Night gives her daughter Pamina a dagger with the order to murder her rival Sarastro. If Pamina refuses, she will be cast out and disowned by her mother. Stefan Rohrer performs the aria with strained facial expressions accompanied by conventional opera gestures.
In order to hit the highest note, Rohrer sang the aria slowly then fast-forwarded the video until the high F was reached. The first image of the work shows the artist in front profile. Serious and solemn, Rohrer does justice to the aria’s content. He chooses a clear, memorable shot, as in all his video works. As in the video Air, where Rohrer, attired in black, positioned himself in front of the Kunsthalle Göppingen’s entrance doors and parts of its white façade. The video was developed at the Kunsthalle Göppingen and takes as its theme the current happenings there. Rohrer plays the ‘Air’ from J. S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major on the violin in front of the museum building. Curators come and go. The artist chose the piece for its slightly melancholic mood of parting and farewells. For the length of the shoot, which lasted one day, the artist played only one note on the violin. By speeding up and slowing down the footage on the computer, it could be made to play the melody. There are four videos: first violin, second violin, viola, and cello. The artist superimposed these four videos one over the other on the computer producing a four-voice performance of Bach’s Air. In the exhibition at the Kunsthalle Göppingen, the music expands in the space and connects in extraordinary ways with the artist’s sculptures and creates an almost wistful, sacral atmosphere.
The exhibition features the video work Liederabend, shown in the C1 room as a projection. With a room to itself, the work is able to create the mood of an evening song recital that one attends as a listener. Three pieces are performed by a pianist at a grand piano and a singer – Stefan Rohrer features in two roles and, thus, in two videos, which a vertical cut through the frame shows.
Evening song recitals originated during the 19th century. In1816, for example, Franz Schubert performed music among his circle of friends, which consisted mainly of young, bourgeois people. At these musical evenings, known as ‘Schubertiades,’ Schubert’s latest compositions would be presented. 3 For his own Liederabend, Stefan Rohrer selected pieces by Franz Schubert including Der Tod und das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden) from 1817, which is thematically similar to his Erlkönig. In the piece, Death invites the Maiden to fall asleep in his arms. Stefan Rohrer joined the individual piano chords to each other digitally, allowing him to fluidly play the song in the video. His singing voice in the role of the Maiden is high, his voice in the role of Death sombre and low.
For each of the three songs, the venue is a room in which stand a black concert piano with a stool as well as two windows allowing daylight in. Stefan Rohrer chose to use constantly changing perspectives – at times a wide shot showing both protagonists, at others a close-up showing only the piano and its keys.
As time passes over the course of the songs, the light in the room changes. The light of dawn enters in until dusk then darkness come. An extended period of time is implied.
Pianist and singer perform together. They seem to be synchronized, though their eyes never meet. Each is aware of the other and seems to attempt contact. The moment in which, as the song ends, the pianist gazes out the window and the singer seems to try to catch his eye is, in a quiet way, ironic and humorous. Both performers are embedded in their act and have internalized their playing, their song. The singer performs earnestly in the high, delicate voice of a girl, which does not fit with his appearance, accompanied by classic gestures, as when he holds himself on the piano. The pianist is engrossed in his playing, the gathering darkness in no way hinders him. Towards the end of Der Tod und das Mädchen his playing becomes heavier and slower and his head hangs low. Stefan Rohrer takes a parodic approach to the bourgeois evening song recital. He exaggerates the seriousness of the event, its theatricality and pathos. He does so, however, with great care and understanding for the music and the circumstances of the recital.
Time can progress faster in Stefan Rohrer’s videos, while time-lapse gives the impression of long time periods in order to emphasize the length of a song recital or the feeling of dragging on which listeners perhaps feel. Depicting the passing of time has long been an important topic in the history of art. Motifs such as extinguished candles, hourglasses, mirrors or skulls were in Baroque painting so many references to vanity and transience. The concept of the memento mori appeared beginning in the 15th century and especially in the vanitas still-lifes of 17th century Dutch painting. In the 19th and 20th centuries the vanitas motif emerged as a device to emphasize the artist’s personal situation or place in time, as with, for example, James Ensor’s Skeleton Studying Chinese Objects (1885).4
In contemporary and, particularly, video art, timelapse becomes a means of representing the passage of time. In her video Still Life (2001), Sam Taylor-Wood lets a magnificent arrangement of fruit decay. The fruits, which are reminiscent of Caravaggio, transform through time-lapse into a rotten pile. In an endless loop, the viewer watches as the fresh fruit, the origin of all, is exposed to the passage of time.5
Stefan Rohrer binds multiple levels of time together in his works – the sculptures as well as the videos – and relativizes it. In the video works, diverging conceptions of time are brought together: the time of shooting, real time, and the time the video takes to play. Time can run slower in his videos, as when the artist sings with a deep voice the role of Death, or it can run faster, as in Mignon’s Song in Liederabend, for which the artist adopts a high, girlish voice. In Air, the curators go sometimes faster and sometimes slower, forwards or backwards into the museum or out of it. Sometimes there is a pause at the door, sometimes a figure moves quickly, hazily, almost unnoticed by the eye. The passage of time seems to be somehow in limbo. In the videos of Stefan Rohrer, the subtleties of the movement of time become observable. He elucidates how different one perception of time can be from another, how subjective the sensation and flow of time are.
The author in conversation with the artist, May 21 2019, [trans. maison intertext]
Stanley Sadie and Alison Latham (eds.): Das Zeitalter der Romantik. In: Das Cambridge Buch der Musik, Frankfurt 1994, pp. 322-338.
Wolf Stadler (ed.): Lexikon der Kunst, Vol. 12, Erlangen 1994, p. 90.
T.J. Demos: A Matter of Time. In: Tate, Etc., Blog entry: January 1, 2007, see: https://www.tate.org.uk/tate-etc/issue-9-spring-2007/matter-time [July 24, 2019]