One of the 81 projected quotations in Tobias Zielony’s Dia-Installation (all ‘Trona’ works 2008) reads, ‘If I want a teenybopper girlfriend I’ll just saddle up the chopper, cruise the local high school and say to the prettiest girl, “Wanna saddle up and ride out?”.’ It could almost be a parody of a line from Richard Prince’s joke paintings, but the words appear to be those of a resident of Trona, the Californian coastal town where Zielony created the series. The Prince association signals Zielony’s self-reflexivity in his use of the documentary mode. The quotes may have been invented or recorded (there are no attributions); like the 16 photographs they accompany, they are neither exclusively fictional reconstructions of a cliché down-at-heel Americana, nor sociological records.
As a German, Zielony is an outsider in California, and his photographs are saturated with this awareness: how he can’t help but see his subjects through the myths constructed around them. One tradition in American art photography stemming from the early 1970s – in the work of artists such as Stephen Shore and John Divola – is both documentary record and meditation on photography’s capacity to document. The sunset/sunrise blue-greys of Zielony’s Ramshackle – an image of a dilapidated shack surrounded by shards of its own flayed shell – might be an homage to Divola’s ‘Zuma’ series, taken in the mid-1970s from within a burnt-out beach house, a metaphor for the black box of the camera. Even Zielony’s self-reflexivity is imbued with second-handedness in that it comprehends and extends the structuralism of his forbears.
The hooded eyes of teenagers in Beeren and Blick may indicate heat exhaustion, or that Trona is ‘the crystal-meth capital of the US’, according to one of the quotes. These are the contemporary equivalents of Larry Clark’s 1995 film Kids, or the socially reduced descendants of the beach swingers in Joel Sternfeld’s itinerant American photographs of the 1970s. Lighter shows a teenager mimicking fellatio with a lighter held at her sister’s crotch. Zielony’s moral relation to his subjects is as complicated as it is to his medium. Picturing these girls as stereotypical representatives of America’s ‘white trash’, he is exploiting their credulity even if he is recording their voluntary projection of a cliché. Yet his images are also indexes of his ambivalence about the alienation that his medium and his foreignness interpose between himself and his subjects. He is yearning across the divide even as he relishes its protection.
Zielony’s new series ‘ Jenny Jenny’ (2013), shown along with ‘Trona’ at Berlinische Galerie, is a structural contrast in that it is as close-to-home as the earlier series is exotic. Young Berlin women, many apparently prostitutes, reappear in various poses – half-naked on a bed, abjectly crouched in a dark street – as the series progresses. Thirty-eight images adumbrate a narrative that is never fleshed out. Portraits are diversified by figureless ‘settings’ – a dramatically foreshortened high-rise, or a spill of begonias – but the consistent red-green contrasts and harsh artificial lighting are unambiguous cinematic signifiers of disenchantment, seediness and neglect. Where ‘Trona’ conceives of realism as an unreachable core, Kino – a photograph of empty tiers of old wooden cinema seats, seasoned by use – reflects upon ‘ Jenny Jenny’s connotation of tropes borrowed from the New German Cinema of the 1970s or the Berlin dystopia of drugs and prostitution portrayed in Uli Edel’s 1981 film Christiane F.
Zielony’s idiom is predicated on gauging the distance between his subjects and his own subjective responses. His cultural proximity to the German material of ‘ Jenny Jenny’ seems to have led him to self-protectively heighten its artifice by substituting fictional tropes for the documentary ones of ‘Trona’. Consequently, the autonomy of the individual images is weakened by their reduction to fragments of an absent narrative. Danny, an eight-minute photo-animation installed as a coda to the series, redresses this imbalance, providing the filmic dimension that the photographs only imply. A flip-book-style animation slow enough to retain a sense of its constituent stills, it follows an overweight streetwalker attempting to attract passing cars with her flashing bracelets. She is a beacon in the dark, submitting to being both the drivers’ bait and the mannequin on which Zielony foists his structuralist interrogation of the filmic medium – the flashing neon echoes the flicker of his animation. Although his deconstruction of Danny’s image is self-effacingly pitched as synonymous with the kerb crawler’s consumption of prostitution, the tenderness of Zielony’s representation of the formidable but obviously vulnerable Danny redeems the work. Remarkably, however much Zielony flirts with cynicism, it never quite attaches to his imagery. Danny even appears to be having fun as she performs a little jig for the camera, as dawn breaks over the city.