Obama’s People Visit Hamburg

Gallery Hengevoss-Dürkop shows works by Martin Schneider

Even if you entered the gallery Hengevoss-Dürkop in the last two months on your own you didn´t feel alone. Instead you seemed to be watched by persons emerging from the walls, among them a famous politician from Chicago: Barack Obama.

But that´s not the only reason why this exhibition next to Hamburg´s main station might be of great interest for Chicago and the US. The President came along with his staff. For example, from one wall a majestically looking lady observed the visitors who might have quickly identified her as Hillary Clinton, former First Lady and now Foreign Secretary of the United States.

Her boss monitored the audience from a different wall. Surrounded by various law makers of his administration, Obama appeared like the center of gravity. Resting his head on one hand he posed as a keen thinker observing the audience like a director his actors. Suddenly not the President and his staff but the visitors thought they were on stage.

Obama´s glance and his gestures were anything but musing. His eyes seemed rather seriously focused, his facial expression conveyed the impression of decisiveness and a sense of responsibility.

The artist Martin Schneider has portrayed “Obama´s People“ – as the exhibition was entitled – as reliefs. These were produced in MDF material using press photographs as the image source. This procedure promotes a focus on the essential in three ways. On the one hand through the sources. Press photographs are usually intended to emphasize a certain image of a person. They should show characteristic poses as the media need catchy pictures. Given the political challenges Obama has to deal with, his thoughtful as well as decisive attitude do not really appear to be coincidental.

Even a picture of Obama rushing away with his dog Bo through a hall hasn´t found it´s way accidentally into the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The AP photograph which Schneider used for a further portrayal of Obama suggests that the President is always in a hurry as he has to settle important matters. Nevertheless he comes across as being quite unconventional and easy going – at least for a US President – and seems to bring a fresh breeze to the White House. Schneider has made this impression even more enduring by coloring almost the entire relief in black. This piece of work is also an exception as it shows the back of Obama, whereas Schneider has mostly chosen photographs showing a lot of the front and particularly the face of a person.

Eugene Kang´s portrayal is perhaps the most striking. Obama´s Confidential Assistant, who also plays golf with the President, was only 24 years old when he got this position. Sharp tongues may say that is why he needed to make a memorable impression in public. The humanities graduate seems to devour a book like an ascetic monk. It´s actually his telephone notebook. As this isn´t obvious either on the photograph or in the relief, Kang appears like an intellectual, suggesting that Obama is also giving more attention to this often defamed minority.

Kang´s parents emigrated from Korea to the United States. A further ethnic group has come closer to the ears of the world’s most powerful person. This may – perhaps involuntarily – address the self-conception of the modern USA I sometimes heard when talking to Americans. Particularly younger and educated US citizens say “we are all“ regarding ethnic issues. In their eyes their country is featured by the fact that almost every ethnic group can be found in the US population.

Accordingly they don´t think of black Americans, Italo-Americans or German-Americans but only of Americans. Nobody can stand better for this self-conception than Barack Obama. In this light the exhibition´s title “Obama´s People“ gets a second meaning, referring not only to the President’s staff but also to the citizens of the United States who might see themselves represented by their government.

This ethnic diversity is also subliminally seen as a reason why the USA are predestined and especially skilled to deal as a leading power with the world’s problems of which we have more than enough at the moment.

One of Schneider´s works shows a rather grim-looking politician who has to resolve the most serious challenge beside climate change. It´s Timothy Franz Geithner whose ancestors emigrated around hundred years ago from the town of Zeilenroda in Thüringen to Philadelphia. Before becoming the 75th United States Secretary of the Treasury, Geithner was head of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and involved in historic negotiations over the weekend on September 13 and 14, 2008. In these discussions Geithner´s predecessor, Hank Paulson, succeeded in imposing his view that the tax payer shouldn´t compensate mistakes at Wall Street. This meant that Lehman Brothers wasn´t saved. Today we know the impacts of this decision.

The photographs of Geithner and Kang were both taken more than a year ago by Nadav Kander for a series in the New York Times magazine. Kander asked the 52 people belonging to Obama´s administration or working as advisors and aides for the President to bring “an item that would tell something more about themselves“ to the shoot as he says on the New York Times website. Kang followed this request as well as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a rancher from Colorado who sported a Stetson in front of Kander’s camera.

Both Geithner and Hillary Clinton came without a special personal item. Obviously they didn´t need to as their looks tell enough. When Schneider produced the reliefs based on such photographs he literally carved out outstanding qualities of the portrayed persons and thus further enhances the focus on the essential.

The MDF material, which is mainly used in the furniture industry, is a third factor helping to achieve this effect. Schneider chose this medium as it appears “neutral like potter´s clay“ as he said. In his view wood would have been “simply too beautiful“. The grain of the wood would have diverted the gaze of the beholder. In contrast, MDF encourages a closer look. Thus the visitor who sees “Obama´s People“ turns again into a spectator and the inverted roles the visitor could experience when entering the exhibition are eventually corrected. The members of Obama´s administration might feel in a comparable ambiguous situation: they are being observed by the general public and at the same time they have to carefully observe the world as politicians.

With these reliefs Schneider, who is also represented with works in the Sammlung Falckenberg (Falckenberg Collection) and the Hamburger Kunsthalle (Fine Arts Museum in Hamburg), picks up a current political event again. For example, in 2003 he transposed a famous photograph of an Iraqi prisoner being tortured by US soldiers in the infamous prison, Abu Ghuraib in the same manner. This photograph became an icon because of its shocking nature which distinguished the picture from the huge amount of images with which we are bombarded every day. Such pictures capture a kind of eternity just at a glance, even if eternity only means the validity of a certain historical moment. The images of this exhibition will at least help to recall how Obama and his staff presented themselves shortly before the take over of government affairs. One could say, history being carved in MDF.

However, Schneider doesn´t see himself as a “historical sculptor“ like Daniel Richter regards himself as a “historical painter“. Richter consistently picks up current political events. In contrast, Schneider says he´s “not a particularly political person“. But of course he lives and thinks in the present. Thus the election of Barack Obama was a “moving experience“ which “touched and inspired“ Schneider. He was probably not the only person who felt like that.

This might be a sign for turbulent and precarious times. Indeed, there hasn´t been a US president before who had to deal with so many serious troubles and with so many high hopes like Obama and who therefore runs a great risk to disappoint. A further reason to have a close look.

(Based on a speech by Dr Matthias Schatz, Journalist und art critic, London / Hamburg, on December 17, 2009)

About Martin Schneider
Martin Schneider, born in 1958 in Bingen on the Rhine, is as yet only known by a fairly small audience. Schneider studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Karlsruhe; he held a DAAD residency in Vancouver/Canada and was awarded a graduate scholarship by the State of Baden-Württemberg. Schneider has been residing and working in Hamburg since 2004.

His work has been presented in various exhibitions, among others,
in Gewalt der Gegenwart, Badischer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe (1992);
Agentur für zeitgenössische Kunst, Chistoph Grau, Hamburg (1997);
Palais für aktuelle Kunst, Glückstadt (2002);
Lange Nacht der Museen, Deichtorhallen (2007);
Life as a Legend: Marilyn Monroe, Kunsthaus Hamburg (2003);
works of the artist are in the collection of the Städtische Galerie Karlsruhe,
the Harald Falckenberg Collection, Hamburg, and the collection of the Kunsthalle Hamburg,
Galerie Hengevoss-Dürkop,
Im Galeriehaus Hamburg Klosterwall 13 20095 Hamburg Tel.: 0049 40 30393382