On the Impossibility of Reality


Joachim Kaak



On the Impossibility of Reality – a Paradox in Place of a Foreword


To begin a treatment of the work of Roland Fischer with the claim that basically the artist is not a photographer at all can only appear non-sensical, if not false. For the preferred medium of this artist, indeed the medium exclusively used in his artistic work, is photography. Somewhat more than thirty exhibits at the Pinakothek der Moderne provide an overview of Roland Fischer‘s work of the past years. What is more, the examples on show from the series Nonnen und Mönche (Nuns and Monks), the so-called Los Angeles Portraits, the Kathedralen (Cathedrals) and the views of Hochhausfassaden (High-rise Façades) are undeniable representations of reality, whose authenticity is verifiable in the respective contexts of individual biography and geographical location.

In other words, the portraits of nuns and monks of the Cistercian Order are the fruits of laborious efforts undertaken at various monasteries in France, which in addition to research on the chosen subject, also involved the work of persuading the person to be portrayed, as well as the technical preparation and execution of the photographs.

The Pool Portraits taken in Los Angeles are the product of a mise-en-scène that was difficult, both conceptually and technically, and which, together with the discovery and use of suitable swimming pools, also presupposed the mastery of light conditions which in practice were unpredictable, due to reflections on the surface of the water.

The Hochhausfassaden are representations of buildings which, like the Bank of China in Hong Kong, are either familiar to us as architectural icons, or else escape direct appearance in our minds because of the anonymity of their modern architecture. Irrespective of this, however, each photograph is linked to a nameable place which one can travel to and visit, somewhere between New York and Beijing, Chicago and Singapore. At this point, therefore, it may be appropriate to repeat something the artist once related. The workers in the signal tower designed by the Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron in Basel spend an alarming amount of their time ushering off the railway tracks architecture devotees on their pilgrimage to this formally outstanding piece of work. Photographing reality requires the actual presence of something, so given the kind of artistic means Roland Fischer uses and the way in which he uses them, his works meet the essential criteria of photography. Yet if one takes into account the artist‘s statement that „the ‚representative‘, i.e. the documentary, the reportage aspect etc. is what least interests him about the medium of photography“,1 then the claim made at the outset can be repeated and developed.

What is obvious is that Roland Fischer consciously eliminates time and space from his photographs; the questions of when and where, so indispensable for documentary and reportage, seem obsolete here, or at least make no essential contribution to the composition of the image. Instead, an image is created, the rigor of whose form and content seems independent, as it were, of the medium of photography – indeed, sometimes even firmly resists its above mentioned criteria. And so the high-rise façades show no more than small extracts which, as Santiago B. Olmo pointed out, are transformed into paintings with colors and forms reminiscent of the abstract-geometric works of concrete art.2 Plunging perspective lines are corrected using parallax adjustments or later at a computer, while the anonymity of most of the motifs spare the photographs the fate of being mistaken for something readily identifiable. Even in those architectural forms whose appearance, like that of the Bank of China or the World Trade Center in New York, must be taken as belonging to the store of a general pictorial memory, the negation of objectivity in favor of the pictorial sign reaches an intensity that is vaguely reminiscent of Arnulf Rainer‘s overpaintings of crosses.

The framing of the High-rise Façades fades out the architectural and local context and in so doing purposely contrasts the autonomous pictorial form with the representational function of

photography. This is a contradiction that goes straight to the heart of Roland Fischer‘s work; it was already manifest in the series Nuns and Monks and the Los Angeles Portraits, although there it culminated, for the moment, in the intensification of the subject. Thus the habit of the Cistercian Order, especially the cowl, was particularly suited to the isolation, framing and re-formulation of the face of the sitter in relation to the overall image. In conversation with Norbert Bauer the artist even spoke about „pictorial masses that could be freely ‚shifted‘ about“.3

In this way Fischer also managed to separate the portraits from the reality which nevertheless remained the precondition of the work‘s success; a precondition which in his Los Angeles Portraits was no longer associated with the artist‘s choice of subject, but was due instead to his own arrangement. For while the religious habit with all its tonal and classificatory features still brought together, if obviously ambivalently, context and an isolating pictorial form, the Los Angeles Portraits placed the persons portrayed in a situation which itself already conformed to the objectives of an abstract, autonomous pictorial form. The blue, green and black swimming pools are therefore more than just the colored backgrounds chosen by a commercial portrait photographer; they in fact expose the sitters to the inherent laws of a visual art form.

The suggestive and sometimes disturbing impact of the works of Roland Fischer may also have its roots here, since the beauty of his photographs, which could almost be called classical, is not just inseparably bound up with the person not quite fitting into the staged setting, it also lacks any reproductive rendition of reality. In view of this, anyone whose approach to photography, documentation and reportage depends on their discursive character must feel irritaded here – must even regard with suspicion the claim that Roland Fischer is simply a photographer.

As the above comments suggest, the work of this artist could in fact be described by means of a paradoxical statement which, by definition, must be simultaneously both true and false, but which would therefore possibly best characterize his œuvre. The statement might go as follows: Roland Fischer is and is not a photographer. At the same time, one would have to focus once more on the relationship between photography and reality, because, as already mentioned, Fischer deliberately contrasts the autonomous pictorial idea initially developed by him with the representational function of photography; a contradiction, moreover, pursued even more decisively to the advantage of the image in the superimpositions of interior and exterior space in the Kathedralen.

So the artist does not just touch in a fundamental way on the issue of the autonomy of art, rather he reflects on the answers already provided. Here art, especially in the second half of the 20th Century, could free itself of any merely servile function of depicting reality. Yet it based an essential aspect of its autonomy on the claim, variously formulated but equally misleading, that it itself was reality. The discovery of the materiality of the artwork as a vehicle of meaning by Max Ernst or Kurt Schwitters, for example, and its critical deflection by Fontana and Burri, the reaching out into the space of the beholder by Rauschenberg, Flavin or Judd, and the concept of social sculpture put forward by Joseph Beuys did indeed establish art as an entity in itself communicating with different realities of life. However, the traditional and as yet unresolved difference between reality and image as a plane of reflection and/or projection receded ever further into the background. But Roland Fischer is not willing to forego this. For him, this very difference is the breaking point at which wonderment at the world, the Ego and the Other (or more precisely: at the image which we can only make of the Other) not only begins, but also finds expression. It is, therefore, both epistemological opportunity and limitation, in Jacques Derrida‘s sense, here referred to at the request of the artist, to the extent that the intellectual penetration of the world has its limits not in the infinity of the objective phenomena, but in our own perception, our own linguistic powers, or our capacity for formative expression.

It therefore no longer sounds paradoxical to claim that in the works of Roland Fischer reality is inconceivable without the autonomy of the image. For in the very awareness of the close link between object and image it can be assumed that seeing is already form, and that without form seeing must fail to impart insight. But more so than painting and sculpture, which can still even opt for the flight into the figurative, it is photography which provides the more rigorous and inexorable formulation of the difference between reality (which it reproduces) and the image (which it is); a feature on which Roland Fischer decisively and uncompromisingly bases his works.

What the artist achieves with this approach are works that astonish, impress, disturb or irritate. As already mentioned, his photographs give expression to a pre-conceived pictorial idea, while at the same time being inconceivable without a pre-existing reality. They thus open up, for the portrait for example, a dimension which, above and beyond the documentation of individual identity, allows man to be seen in the loneliness of his existence. So, even in the Kathedralen, a kind of material spirituality emerges due to the artist‘s interweaving of the powerful outward demonstration of the architecture with the inward dramaturgy of the mystery, forming a complex and effective scheme; interior and exterior, objective manifestation and subjective emotion, individual and context are linked in a creative tension which, apart from the phenomenon itself, forces one to raise questions about fundamental issues.

The most recent works here are the collective portraits, which are both the occasion and the core of the exhibition. During a trip to China in 1997 the artist was radically confronted anew with the question of the relationship between individual and context. Under the impression of a mass society that eschews each and every European yardstick, Roland Fischer for the first time did not pursue a pre-determined pictorial idea, but instead sought a precise formulation for this at once photographic and sociological-philosophical problem that was based on the experience of everyday life there.

In these large-format works, 450 individual photographs are mounted to form a large tableau and each person is given their respective name. The binding motif is the fact of belonging to a precisely determinable social group. In addition to the students of an elite university in Beijing, whose collective portrait was the first one to be taken, he produced works with steel workers, farmers, and soldiers of the People‘s Liberation Army. The individual portraits are thus embedded in a social construct that is as constitutive of Chinese society as it is determining for the individual. As these four groups are taken by the Chinese as the pillars of Communist society, membership in one of them places the individual under a binding obligation. In these tableaux the process of individuation on the one hand, and social determination on the other, freedom and constraint, clash head-on.

The collective portraits would appear to represent a provisional summary of the work of Roland Fischer. Yet the artist is far from resolving paradoxes and contradictions or rendering them in a more reconciled way. After all, these form the basis of his subjects and his pictorial ideas, and, ultimately, of his attitude to the world; the more obvious thing to do, therefore, is to simply present them. Perhaps just the serene beauty of his works could console us for the breaks between reality and image, individual and context, freedom and determination, were we not long since weaned off beauty – were we not so wary of it. Thus it is also irritating. But in relation to Roland Fischer‘s work, that is no contradiction.


Dr. Joachim Kaak is a german curator and Executive chair of the Neue Pinakothek in Munich


1 Roland Fischer in conversation with Norbert Bauer, in: exhib. cat. Roland Fischer, Kunstbunker Nürnberg. Forum für zeitgenössische Kunst 1995, p. 34.

2 Santiago B. Olmo, „Roland Fischer. The Portrait of Architecture“, in: Roland Fischer. Façades on Paper 2001. A portfolio of eight photographic screenprints, Durham/Pennsylvania: Durham Press 2001, no page number given.

3 Cf. note 1, p. 33.