BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 16 MAR 15
Featured in
Issue 170

Ann Böttcher

BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 16 MAR 15

Ann Böttcher, Returning to Svolvær, October 2014 (The Tree Trunks), 2014, four framed pigment prints, each: 36 × 36 cm

The centrepiece of Ann Böttcher’s exhibition was a series of black and white photographs of an ordinary-seeming modernist apartment building standing on the corner of Storgata and Parkgata in Svolvær, a small town in the Lofoten archipelago, northern Norway. Whether photographed in the 1980s by a man named Kjell Ove Storvik, with a Mercedes out front (Mercedes [Kjell Ove Storvik, 1982], 2014), or in 2014 by the artist herself (Returning to Svolvær, October 2014 [The Tree Trunks], 2014), you see nothing special. Perhaps the house seemed stylish in pre-war Scandinavia, but who’s to say? Turn back to 1943. Stand on the same corner, in front of the same building and a sense of fear catches in your throat, even if what you see is that same unexceptional apartment building. Because, between 1940 and 1944, this was the Gestapo’s outpost in Svolvær. The fear is sparked by the discrepancy between the mute, insipid architecture and the activities that may be going on within. Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’ – as trite as mentioning it may be by now – still effectively conveys this discrepancy. And it is here, in the irreconcilable gap between banality and evil, that Böttcher’s story finds its beginning.

The best view of the Gestapo building was from across the street, through the windows of the Svolvær Library. This provided a discreet perch for rubbernecking at the local torture chamber. In her installation, Böttcher placed us amidst a semblance of Svolvær’s wartime library, bringing five original wooden bookshelves, built in the late 1800s, into Galerie Nordenhake (Transmigration [Gestapohuset, Svolvær, Lofoten, NO], 2013). Time collapses. The muscular shelves are really there, and they are really empty. Well, empty but for sentimental little pencil drawings hung from each of the short ends of the bookcases – mementos of the spruce trees that were cut down outside the library when the artist visited. Eviscerated of books and connected to the trees outside by way of the drawings, the shelves become mute witnesses to what transpired on the corner of Storgata and Parkgata. A gap opens up between what they witnessed and where you stand.

The work made me think of Erich Mendelsohn’s Columbushaus (1932–57) on Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, where, in 1939, the Nazis conceived ‘Action T4’ – their programme for forced euthanasia of the mentally and physically handicapped. Thanks to modern ingenuity in the form of non-supporting walls, the rooms on the upper floors of the building could be endlessly re-configured, adapting effortlessly to the murderers’s requirements. The apartment building in Svolvær, while far less grand, exudes Mendelsohn’s spirit of efficiency, of design capitalized on in ways the Svolvær architect was unable to foresee.

What if the victims headed into the building on the corner of Storgata and Parkgata, or the one on Potsdamer Platz, realised that modernism, down to its last utopian promise, was a ruse? The question couldn’t have mattered to them at the time – it was far too late for it to matter. And yet, today, the question of what modernism promised and what it actually delivered is important. With Böttcher’s art, it’s like you are at sea and, having mistaken your bearings by a single degree, with time and over distance, you unwittingly create a disastrous divergence between where you think you are and where you are. Böttcher’s art orchestrates just such an unreconciled gap.

Ronald Jones is on the faculty of the Royal College of Art, London, and a regular contributor to this magazine.