During the opening of this exhibition of works from Peter Roehr’s estate, curated by Saâdane Afif, visitors were invited into a next-door space every hour. There, the opera singer Katharina Schrade and Augustin Maurs on piano performed seven compositions, conceived by Afif and composed by Maurs, each dedicated to one of the displayed works, collectively titled Sept notes sur le travail de Peter Roehr (A Performance) (2013).
Between 1962 and his untimely death in 1968, Roehr used film and collage to develop a pictorial language, based on repetition, that aimed for the most thorough possible suppression of subjectivity, narrativity, and expression. Whereas Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915) was painted with ideas of transcendence in mind, making the work appear as a singular statement with universalist demands, Roehr was concerned with a radical literalism and expendability. In the series of pictures from 1966 (OB-124 bis OB-133), referred to as ‘Blackboards’, each monochrome surface is just an element among similar ones within a total system: ten, five-by-seven black cardboard rectangles have been assembled into squares. This central group of works was represented by the smaller-format Untitled (OB-134) (1966).
As a whole, the exhibition presents a cross-section of Roehr’s output. Alongside these works were four of Roehr’s so-called ‘Typomontagen’ (typographical montages), in which he sets the same mechanical characters on paper, over and over again. These include Untitled (ST-5) (1962), a 115 cm-long paper scroll where the character ‘1’ is typed, repeatedly in a right-aligned column. Also present were two collages with advertising motifs, and two photographic prints showing a seven-by-seven grid of five-Deutschmark coins.
‘I alter material by reiterating it without changing it’, declared Roehr. Each repetition serves to construct a system – which, in turn, assigns a specific place for each repetition. Thus, one can speak of a transformation of the elements – as in the way Diedrich Diederichsen describes repetitive music as an example of his cultural theory of the loop (Eigenblutdoping, 2008). The loop creates not so much a reiteration as a diversification of experience. With his musical adaptation, which also serves as an audio guide in the exhibition, Afif extends this diversification into the acoustic realm.
In the wake of minimalism, techno, and the unlimited reproducibility of digital data, Roehr’s exaggeration of industrial production’s underlying principles is even more enlightening today than it was for his contemporaries – but there is a price for that, namely that his works are not as immediately surprising or irritating. They are what they are, repetitions – even if, by now, they bear somewhat nostalgic witness to the techniques and motives typically associated with the ‘economic miracle’. In light of this, Afif’s reading of the work, which seeks to actualize Roehr’s programme, is justified.
Afif shares with Roehr a striving for clarity and discretion. Whereas Afif often asks others to contribute to his works, here it is he who adds something and thus opens up a new way of engaging with Roehr’s pieces. The musicians’ physical overinvestment and the reverential air of the concert evening are disrupted in their course by the semantic emptiness of the works’ overly plain descriptions: ‘répétition […] une répétition […]’, or ‘Ce un / ce un […] un un’ are excerpts from the lyrics, which have been partly reproduced on labels mounted beside the pictures. The piano also avoids illustration and expressivity, in that it straightforwardly follows the notes of the singer’s part. When using the audio guide, which adheres to the manner of didactic art interpretation, viewing the exhibition becomes a fully orchestrated experience.
What Afif curates is not so much an arrangement of pictures as a form of encounter with them. However, he is not interested in an acoustical doubling of Roehr’s gestures. Each one of his pieces breaks forth into variation and offsets Roehr’s pure seriality. From repeated runs through the word ‘argent’ comes the mischievous ‘über alles’. In this way, Afif avoids the danger of overvaluing Roehr’s decisions and bestowing a new significance upon them. His kind of affirmation relies on distancing: all elements, Roehr’s and Afif’s, remain discrete and autonomous, suspended alongside each other in abeyance.
Translated by Ani Kodjabasheva