The latest James Bond film Skyfall (2012) has a surprising ending. Since GoldenEye (1995), the British secret service agent has served under a female boss M, and for quite a while now the so-called ‘Bond Girls’ have had a lot more to offer than their proverbial womanly charms. But now, at the end of the latest film: M dies and is replaced by a man. A battle-hardened man – the previous M had ultimately proven awkward with guns. As for Moneypenny? She realises after an assignment that she’s not into shooting either and really belongs behind a desk. In the Bond franchise, the male world is back in order. Guys put their paws on colts while woman place their delicate hands on keyboards.
This short excursion into Pop culture seems appropriate for Peter Piller’s exhibition Tatsächliche Vermutungen (Real Assumptions). The central series Umschläge (Covers, 2011–2) is also dedicated to the relationship between weapons and gender roles and offers viewers something rare for Piller’s work, namely the possibility of distancing themselves from the work. Umschläge consists of 30 prints of enlarged magazine covers – cleansed of all text – from the GDR National People’s Army periodical Armeerundschau (Army Review), which was published from 1956 until 1990. Its cover usually featured soldiers, weapons, manoeuvres or all three, and, on the back, portraits of elegant-to-coyly dressed civilian women, mostly popular singers or actresses from the former GDR. Piller – an obsessive archivist and sociological sorter – selected these motifs from his collection of over 300 issues. The reproduced constellations of paired military and feminine poses make it seem like the picture editor – whether consciously or not, seriously or subversively – was looking for parallels or the biggest possible discrepancy in colour, background and composition. In Umschläge #12, a bikini-clad girl leans on the mast of a sailboat while, next to it, a military boat plows through the sea; in another, the neck of a guitar protrudes alongside the muzzle of a gun (Umschläge #16); still elsewhere, a young woman sits lost in an innocent frilly dream next to three sinister looking soldiers in leather jackets with their rifles at the ready (Umschläge #29).
Piller is great at ordering media images typologically and thematically and at finding succinct and fitting titles for them such as Tanz vor Logo (Dancing in front of a logo), Noch ist nichts zu sehen (Bauerwartungsflächen) (Nothing yet to be seen. Future building sites) or such as In Löcher blicken (Looking into holes) which are all from Archiv Peter Piller: ZEITUNG (Peter Piller Archive: Newspaper, 2000–6). Before our very eyes, Piller unmasks the everyday satire in bureaucracy, suburban dreams and contemporary rituals – both private and publically institutionalized. Much of Piller’s work is in a comfortable way familiar, particularly from a (West) German perspective. To find ‘the Other’ in Piller’s works is difficult. But with Umschläge – and with the GDR firmly in the past – such finds are suddenly possible. One looks at these strange, ideologically-constructed images of role models with a historical and political distance. In these models, as academic Christine Eifler who analyzed the same magazine noted, the male body is shown as inviolable; the woman’s body, in need of protection. There’s a latent problem with this series: the viewer’s moment of self-identification with the people in the images – a moment that occurs with many of Piller’s other works to date – is complicated. Such an identification seems impossible today in light of the passing of time and our distance with respect to the social reality of the people in the photographs – even though the images are by no means dealing with long debunked ‘exotic’ or ‘laughable?’ roles, as the most recent Bond film shows.
So it’s a good thing that this rather spectacular work is accompanied by two series made out of strictly black and white images, which show a significantly more demure Piller, with his eye for quiet, uncanny and highly-charged places. Immer Noch Sturm (Still Stormy, 2012) combines found photographs of WWI battlefields, dotted with barren tree stumps, with dramatic ocean images which were taken from a historical textbook and which all seem like snapshots from a hostile cosmos, devoid of people. In light of the familiarity of these images of destruction, they seem ultimately interchangeable. Which is natural violence, which is the violence of mankind? The dimensions of Tatsächliche Vermutungen (Real Assumptions, 2012) are a lot more modest. This series of slides, apparently depicting outdoor sites without people – or perhaps crime scenes? –, was taken from the television series Der Kommissar (The Commissioner, 1969–76) which was mostly filmed in a studio. These are places without any particular characteristics; it’s only through their link to a detective series that they become imbued with a kind of malevolence or mysteriousness. In contrast to the offensive motifs of Umschläge, here a very subtle form of voyeurism is at play, an interrogation about settings rather than looking. The entire exhibition made clear that Piller is first and foremost a sorter, an orderer and a kind of maker of meaning who doesn’t really seek the spectacular but rather the structures and drives hidden beneath phenomena and the depictions of them.
Translated by Dominic Eichler