Rosa Olivares 2003

Mystical Surfaces
Rosa Olivares


Ce qu’il y a de plus profond dans l’homme c’est la peau
(Man is only man at the surface) Paul Valéry

The direct action of photography on the surfaces of things seems
to confine it within descriptive and documentary parameters.
This typical relationship with reality and with the appearance of
things is no doubt one of the theses that have underscored the grow-
ing importance of photography as an artistic genre in recent decades.
The return to representation, to the presence of the body, to narrative
and in particular to the portrait and landscape genres as historicist
loops that reposition man and his surroundings in the heart of creation
while boosting the importance of the photographic language as an
increasingly autonomous tool in the sphere of contemporary art.

Fischer‘ oeuvre deals with people and the world around them;
trom a seemingly indirect perspective, an oblique line connects
appearances – what we see – to the places – real or fictitious – that
accommodate his spirituality, his hidden ego. We could say that all Fis-
cher’s oeuvre is related to the spirituality of faces and shapes.

Ever since the portraits of monks produced between 1984 and
1987, the artistic trajectory covered by Roland Fischer has been one
ongoing journey from the body to architecture, from figure to place and
back again. However, what Fischer generally takes from the individual
and the building is a personal portrait that is half real and half uncon-
scious, lying between what can be seen and what remains concealed.

Photography has become a good method for the search and per-
fecting of our knowledge of our surroundings and of ourselves. Por-
traits and landscapes work as parts of the collage constructing an
indistinct and above all a dispersed reality. Who we are and what
we’re like, where we live and pray, the myths and symbols of a culture
inexorably marked by the world of beliefs, of religion and a spirituality
we can only appreciate in minimal signs, in our own traces are trails
that the artist follows around the world and embodies in temples and
cathedrals, but also in the depth of a gaze, in the gesture of a face.
Who we are and what we’re like, where we are, why we come and go.…
questions that seldom have an answer and have to be posed time and
again in the knowledge that not only is there no answer, but also that
no answer could ever be of any use.
Nuns and Monks
The series of portraits of cloistered monks and nuns made by Roland
Fischer in the eighties marked the beginning of a phase in his work that
already comprised several of the issues that will appear in present
works. One of them is his taste for portraits composed of close-up views
that do away with all external elements and atmospheric details,
thereby avoiding any information susceptible of competing with the fea-
tures of the faces… faces in which the gaze acts as a door opening on to
an abstract and complex inner world. Through the gaze we enter a place
where nothing is preconceived, where absolute silence reigns and feel-
ings and ideas become visual abstractions, vague perceptions of the
enigma of ach individual. Fischer visited several monasteries in France
and Germany to make this series on a journey that could occasionally
seem guided by coincidences or by chance, yet which has still not been
completed and has taken him virtually over the whole world, beholding
faces, photographing regards, caressing surfaces with his gaze.

In the monasteries and convents inhabited by monks and nuns in iso-
lation Fischer was the exception, and received permission to photograph
men and women who had not seen anyone unfamiliar for years. There
are probably no other photographs of these people, people of whom we
know nothing apart from the fact that they wear habits, live cut from the
outside world, are old and possibly wise. We know neither their names
nor their precise ages, nor the reasons why they once decided, presum-
ably a long time ago, to renounce the world in all senses and shut them-
selves away in solitude and silence for the rest of their days. Their faces
-sometimes smiling and beatific, sometimes sad and bitter- tell us of
lives that came to a sudden stop like broken watches, of inner changes
leading to greater understanding and self-absorption. The blinding mys-
tical ray does not appear in all cases, although the search for it is cer-
tainly a constant one. The discovery therefore is not the procedure but
the unexpected result. As when a mistake leads to a discovery after
years of laboratory experiments the camera works systematically, yet,
very once in a while, surprise and mystery suddenly arise.

There are two series of portraits from this period. In one of them
cloistered monks and nuns appear half-length, their habits forming a
very important part of the images. Like modern versions of works by
Zurbarán, the quality of the fabrics, the black and white of the apparel,
the shapes and movements of the material all contribute to the sobriety
of the compositions. More important however are the portraits marking
the following stages in the artist’s work, the close-ups. These faces
looking intently at the camera, immersed in spaces of white delimited
by the wimples and by the fabric of the hoods, are lined with wrinkles
marking much more than the passing of time as the eyes provide us
with the key to totally unknown worlds we never quite reach. They look
at us and speak to us from a distance we find impossible to clear. And
in this silence filled with the intimations established by the portraits we
begin to understand that perhaps the face is not as important after all
as the twinkle in the eyes, that evokes a certain magic and leads us to
intuit a lifestyle so different to our own we can barely imagine it.
Los Angeles Portraits
Without a shadow of doubt, portraiture is the most important genre
when it comes to learning about people and the ages in which they have
lived. Throughout the history of painting portraits tell us of the culture
of each specific period, describing social status, political and historical
factors. In the history of photography all these references also exist,
and we could easily come up with many examples, yet recent photog-
raphy is characterised by the coldness of its portraits. Sometimes they
are parodies, substitutes or representations, such as the portraits by
Cindy Sherman or Laurie Simmons, yet for the first time in history we
come across the representation of concrete individuals totally alienated
from their social identities. In the portraits by Thomas Ruff, for
instance, or to be more specific in those by Roland Fischer, we know
nothing about these individuals. There are no details apart from physi-
cal features. Only in the series devoted to monks is the setting obvious,
but is who they actually are as obvious? Do we really know anything
about them, aside from the fact that they are cloistered monks?

The series of works that made Roland Fischer one of the most out-
standing artists of the nineties were the photographs under the generic
title L. A. Portraits. Most of these were pictures of middle-aged women
in swimming pools, up to their necks in the water, their faces isolated
from all but the blue background of the pool. Fischer subsequently
extended the series to include younger women and occasionally even a
young man, yet the essence is still the faces of mature women observ-
ing us from the coldness surrounding them. The swimming pool, the
water, serves a double purpose, referential and visually strategic. On
the one hand it frames the nakedness of the women, presenting
enlarged close-ups of their faces in a pure blue that bestows an unusual
beauty upon them, while on the other it tells us that these are women
from the high society of Los Angeles, the owners of huge mansions with
swimming pools, photographed alongside their friends and daughters.

Yet these faces tell us much more than we would expect. While we
arte still unaware of names, precise ages and specific personal circum-
stances, it is quite clear that Fischer’s portraits are virtually analyses of
their intimacy. As we behold them we cannot help being assailed by sad-
ness and loneliness, by a strange sensation of amounting to very little,
of being suspended in a neutral space. Perhaps the idea of their being
submerged in the pool water, rooted to the bottom for however long
each photographic session may take, furthers this notion of being sus-
pended in time and space, although the physical sensation is paralleled
by a more psychological idea. These are women who have seen and
lived, the marks of time are clear to see on their skin, yet once again it
is their eyes that tell us more of their mood, their feelings and emotions.

Faces are truly façades; more so than bodies, they represent the
edifice of each individual. What Fischer attempts to render in these
oversized portraits is detail, by means of the same procedure he will
later resort to in his images of buildings -the enlargement of frag-
ments, taking the part for the whole- in order to make us face some-
thing more than just an interesting or beautiful surface. He is seeking
the trace of sadness, anxiety or curiosity in the eyes of the women pho-
tographed in Los Angeles, just as he is seeking more than just stone or
glass in his buildings. His is an elliptical inquiry into the inner worlds of
people and cultures, of religions and modern societies.
The Intermediate Series
Before approaching the subject of cathedrals, Fischer worked on
two barely known series, which have been exhibited only a few times.
These two projects stand apart from the rest of his oeuvre, for they are
much more narrative and quite detached from the constant study of
surfaces we have seen so far. The first series is composed of frag-
ments of images captured directly from the television screen, images
full of movement and much smaller in format than those he usually cre-
ates. Although he produced a number of works of these characteris-
tics, some of which were even published in catalogues, Fischer soon
stopped making them, for something about the project did not quite
suit his systematic line of work.

Something similar would take place shortly afterwards with a
series of works that included the figures of women represented along-
side very interesting examples of virtual architecture. While I cannot
be sure whether any single images were actually produced (I am famil-
iar with the series through the reproductions the artist sent me in the
nineties) I always felt they pointed to new and engaging elements. In
architectonic scenarios created by means of planes and colours, van-
ishing points and angles taken from computer-generated construction,
Fischer placed naked figures of women in extreme positions, either
foreshortening them or making them adopt other easily recognisable
symbolical postures. The combination of these cold architectural forms
and the warm bodies of the women created unique and attractive com-
positions that revealed the inescapable feelings of loneliness, aban-
donment, loss and exhibition conveyed by the women. Once again,
these anonymous portraits insist on expression as the most outstand-
ing element within compositions, where representational themes gives
rise to conceptual stances, unifying the grounds with the central motifs
in order to create profoundly abstract realities.

Nonetheless, Fischer’s ongoing search would only truly materialise
in his images of cathedrals.


In the nineties Fischer began his series of works based on façades.
When we mention dates we should bear in mind that works from dif-
ferent series are often produced during the same period, and develop
simultaneously over decades, while photographs made the same year
are sometimes edited and published several years later.

The façades pose a series of issues previously insinuated in other
works and which have now become the core of his production. It is
through these surfaces of buildings that Fischer directly evokes paint-
ing. The natural and artificial resemblances between the fragments of
façades chosen by the artist and abstract, constructivist, rationalist or
kinetic pictures is not only obvious, but gives rise to a whole series of
relations between architecture, painting and photography. The forces
of colour and of abstraction prove essential in this series, which, as
mentioned previously, should be considered and analysed as psycho-
logical portraits. Indeed, the working procedure employed by Fischer
here and in his portraits is quite similar, and is based on the search for
the effects of transparency and fragmentation of the complete body in
order to emphasise those features the artist feels contain the most
interesting and defining traits of the ensemble in one single fragment.
What are sought are essences, minimal fragments that may somehow
encapsulate the reality of the entire concept.

Such an extreme approach to motifs, decontextualising the chosen
fragments, together with the use of colour and of geometry isolate the
image in an abstract world, removing all references to buildings as
complete entities, constructed spaces, or inhabitable places. Only the
picture remains; we cannot even speak of photography but of spaces
for painting. Photography thereby reconstructs two concepts initially
foreign to the genre: painting and abstraction. We are not referring to
linguistic re-adaptations but to a clear continuity of premises, defini-
tions and objectives transferred from one language to another, with-
out losing their intrinsic features yet altering their possible definitions
and concepts.
Roland Fischer‘ Cathedrals attained the same success previously
enjoyed by the Los Angeles Portraits, in fact the two series would mark
his highest popular and critical acclaim. He began work on the cathe-
drals in 1996, taking pictures of his motifs from varying points of view
that he would subsequently manipulate on his desktop computer (com-
puters are now almost indispensable tools for photographers). As
usual, Fischer travels around to produce his works, this time through
France and Germany, photographing the most symbolic European
cathedrals. His sphere of activity would gradually extend to comprise
temples devoted to other faiths, such as Cao Dai in Vietnam, before
proceeding to photograph in greater detail the Catholic cathedrals of
the Road to Santiago (Jaca, Pamplona, Burgos, León, Lugo, Santiago de

The way in which he photographs these sacred spaces is com-
pletely new. Superimposing different planes, combining exterior and
interior views, Fischer creates single images that he conceptually uni-
fies in a way verging on sculpture – capturing the façade and the heart
of each building, combining powerful external images and delicate
inner layouts. Again he resorts to his method of fragmentation and uni-
fication, characterised by the superimpositions that enable him to
delve deeper into his motifs, endeavouring to transcend seemingly
banal surfaces and thereby reach more psychological regions where
images and people are treated in similarly.

China and Collective Portraits

Fischer’s continual journeys to the East, to areas (mainly China)
where religiosity is essentially different to its Western counterpart,
have broadened his visual experiences and, to a certain extent, have
enhanced his visual strategies, as exemplified by his group portraits.
Students, soldiers, personnel in Chinese companies… joined now by
pilgrims on the Road to Santiago. His formula consists of photograph
ing each person separately, for instance each of the members of a spe-
cific company, or each of the soldiers in a regiment. These portraits
are then assembled into one huge portrait, as the artist moves from
the individual to the collective, from the fragment to the whole.
The Road to Santiago
As another Jacobean Year approaches the Centro Galego de Arte
Contemporánea commissioned Fischer to photograph the cathedrals
and churches along the Road to Santiago, revisiting the spaces dedi-
cated to the cult and to those who have covered the route over the cen-
turies, paying special attention to the undisputed protagonists of the
Road – the pilgrims. Hundreds of thousands on people walk and hike
in search of leniency, travelling to Santiago each holy year, when the
road -which is always open- fills with people of all ages, origins and
social classes.

In this project Fischer combines his now traditional technique
applied to the spaces of cathedrals with the new procedure he first
employed on one of his trips to China, the group portrait, photographing
a thousand and fifty pilgrims, one by one, and then joining the portraits
together to form one huge photograph in which each face is accompa-
nied by a name. Yet the photograph has proven that the particulars do
not always provide us with useful information, just as we do not always
learn anything specific from the faces. All we know about these thousand
and fifty pilgrims is that they are somehow connected – they are linked
by their need to reach a certain place, by their search for a share of mys-
ticism, by their effort to unite on a communal journey… crowds of peo-
ple united by a single belief and purpose. Little more can be learned from
either their names or their origins, although this doesn’t really matter,
for what is essential is implicit in their very presence in the portrait.

Roland Fischer‘ detachment from German schools of photography
does not prevent us from clearly detecting the presence of some of
themost defining traits of contemporary German photography in his
oeuure, traits that have laid the foundations for a sort of international
academy of the image, acting as genuine paradigms in the development of
the photographic gaze. The production of series, the use of large for-
mats, the isolation of motifs, the coldness of the approach, the resource
to representation, the almost typological classification of the subiect
portrayed blur all distinctions between art and document. These are
some of the obvious features to be taken into consideration when
analysing Roland Fischer‘ oeuvre, inescapable details and comments.

Yet there are other concepts, other ideas that could prove more
interesting and through which we may perhaps broaden our knowl-
edge of the artist’s works and of his intentions. Fischer‘ investigation
beyond surfaces for instance, or his need to delve deeper into the
notion of abstraction and into the conceptual legacy of painting, and
above all his search for the soul of his figures and other subjects. This
need to pierce through a psychological shell is clearer to see in the
portraits, while his architectural images must be approached from an
unbiased angle in order to be appreciated as another kind of psycho-
logical portrait – not only of their actual emplacements but also of the
individuals charging these with emotivity and depth. Each place pre-
serves the aura of all those who have breathed its air, and what Fis-
cher seeks in these images of cathedrals is precisely such absences
charged with mysticism.

Beyond the mystique of specific places we should think of mysti-
cism as a sort of dew covering surfaces, a human essence transferred
on to the outer shell of sacred dwellings traditionally used for praying
by thousands of individuals. All these prayers, pleas, chants and ritu-
als survive in these areas, as in an infinite space where one and the
same transcendental act is forever repeated.

It is often said that photographers steal the souls of those they
photograph. In this case however, we could say that it is the soul of the
photographer that has been captured by the photographs.
Rosa Olivares
published in: Roland Fischer „CAMINO“, CGAC Centro Galego de Arte Contemporanea 2003
Rosa Olivares is a Spanish writer, critic and curator and Editor of the Art Magazine EXIT