BY Jörg Heiser in Frieze | 04 APR 02
Featured in
Issue 66

Travelling Light

Franz Ackermann

BY Jörg Heiser in Frieze | 04 APR 02

In Caspar David Friedrich's painting Kreidefelsen auf Rügen (Chalk Cliffs at Rügen, c. 1818-22) a dramatic view of deeply fissured white cliffs rearing up against the calm Baltic Sea is framed by a peculiar triangle of figures in the foreground.

On the left a woman in a red dress is pointing down into the yawning chasm; in the middle a man is on his hands and knees leaning over the precipice; on the right a young man on the branch of a tree that protrudes over the edge is looking out towards the horizon, ignoring the void beneath and the couple beside him. Perhaps the two are just looking at her hat, carried away on the wind, or perhaps they are shuddering at the abyss of their relationship. Either way, the young man couldn't care less. His eyes are fixed on a sailing boat in the distance, as if it was his way of transcending the quotidian quarrels of lost hats and tragic love.

It's a 15-minute drive from Rügen (where postcards of Friedrich's painting are on sale) to the ruins of Prora, a massive colossus of a Nazi holiday camp. Built in the late 1930s, Prora looks like a Functionalist tenement block extended nightmarishly ad infinitum. It was supposed to cater for up to 20,000 guests on Hitler's 'Kraft durch Freude' (Strength through Pleasure) programme. Possibly the first mass tourism site, it was never used during wartime. When I asked the young hotel receptionist for directions to Prora, his eyes nearly popped out of his head: 'What do you want to go there for? There's a boring façade that's worth looking at for about five seconds, and that's it,' he said, 'the only other thing there is wolves.' It took me a while to realize how apt and yet absurd this was. Under the German Democratic Republic Prora was turned into a no-go military area, and until 1989 it wasn't even marked on maps. The hotel receptionist had doubtless been one of those kids whose parents used the 'wolves' as a way of warning him off.

Nowadays a small section of the six-storey complex is inhabited by local folk artists. There is a showroom with landscape watercolours (mostly of chalk cliffs), a pottery and a private museum. On the sixth floor is a Viennese-style coffee-house. On the fifth, one room has been reconstructed to the original Nazi design: it includes two simple beds, a table, two chairs and a fold-out couch. It looks like a prison cell, but one with a view: the entire compound was designed so that all the windows looked out over the sea.

For his recent exhibition at the Kunsthalle Basel, Franz Ackermann has built a life-size model of two of the complex's guest rooms (Prora, 2002). The installation includes no furniture - just walls, ceilings and doors. In the right-hand room a video loop of the guests' view of the Baltic, accompanied by the soft murmur of the waves, is projected behind a window-size opening in the back wall. It becomes clear that Prora was first and foremost a giant machine built to control the Romantic gaze, protecting it from every possible distraction, fixed to the horizon, turning it into fascist Zen that is not about longing for a different life but about an increase in productivity.

In the left-hand room, however, the sea view was replaced by a series of slides. Here: Promising Absence (All the Places I've Never Been to) (1995) consists of reproductions of covers from travel brochures collected by Ackermann. He has travelled extensively during the last ten years, including spending nearly two years in the Far East, but there were still 160 countries he had not visited. The piece is like a lexicon of picturesque exoticism: tattooed Papua New Guineans, spear-carrying Tanzanian warriors, Panamanian night owls.

In the decades after World War II the West Germans became world champions of mass tourism, eager to demonstrate their interest in the wonders of the world. But when one thinks of Leni Riefenstahl's photos of the Nuba or her films of the coral films of the Maldives, the globetrotting idyll loses its innocence - what Ackermann is unravelling is a dialectical drama of national fixation and global movement built on denial.

This was Ackermann's most expansive exhibition to date, a mini-retrospective of ten years work. You felt as if you were looking through a microscope at one moment and binoculars at another. At the entrance the view was at first blocked off by a shelf with pigeon-holes for every country of the world (World I, 2000). Some were filled with photocopied news clips, for example about a new law in Italy that forces travellers to carry at least 250 Euros in cash on entry; or photos, such as the one of a charity box on a Bangkok street asking for help for stranded tourists. But while the wooden structure conveyed the idea that the whole world was as accessible and neatly structured as a grid, the way it was positioned meant that the viewer was automatically directed to the first in a long series of Ackermann's 'Mental Maps'. And there the illusion of control vanished again: hung slightly below eye level, making the encounter even more intimate, these little drawings, all measuring 13 Ý 19 cm and executed in gouache, watercolour and pencil, are like a glimpse inside the brain of someone trying to make sense of, and blend in with, a foreign environment.

Since 1992 the artist has been making these maps as a compact visual logbook while on his travels. But whereas ordinary street maps provide a radically abstract two-dimensional representation in order to make it easy for the visitor to orientate him/herself, these are like hungry whirls, spitting out conflicting representations of the world. The surface of Untitled (Mental Map) (1992-4) is covered with little pieces of Elastoplast, like an aerial view of the houses in a suburban development. In the other 'Mental Maps' the streets look like blood vessels or nerves, sports stadiums like blood cells.

In Ackermann's large-scale paintings the quiet hum of the drawings becomes an irritating buzz: grey fragments of cityscapes sprout rainbow-coloured petals and ribbons. Ackermann does not go in for any messy, gestural application of paint, but nor does he divide the colours with the rigorous precision of a post-Mondrian grid painter. Like a psychedelic light show designer suddenly given a brush, he bathes the canvases, walls and sculptures in a relentless stream of garish yellows, reds, greens and blues.

But Ackermann is not an example of the artist as global flâneur, mistaking fleeting impressions for profound poetic insight and getting a thrill out of poverty. A self-portrait photograph shows him from behind, like one of Caspar David Friedrich's Romantic protagonists. Yet what he is looking at is not a picturesque scene but a nebulous whiteness, and he is wearing a bullet-proof vest with the word 'tourist' scrawled on his back in large white letters. This ersatz UN peacekeeper's uniform parodies a guileless wanderlust amid political conflict and war.

The photo is part of the installation Haus am Strand (House on the Beach, 1997), mounted on a wall panel of reproductions of posters advertising globetrotter slide shows. Every winter the walls of German cities are plastered with images of Tibetan mountains, sand dunes and New York skylines, designed to attract large crowds to slick multimedia shows for those who are either unable to travel or else can't get enough of it. Ackermann documents these campaigns with the fervour of an archivist, fascinated by the combination of exotic photographs, esoteric slogans and tacky graphic design.

In the 1820s, when Friedrich painted his Rügen scene, tourism was still a new phenomenon, fuelled by the Romantic idea of encountering the Sublime. Friedrich had gone to Rügen for his honeymoon - the couple staring into the abyss could well be him and his bride. The third figure could be his brother Christian, but it might just as well be an alter ego of the artist himself in his younger, more bohemian days, contemplating the horizon. Since then the nomadic loner, the free spirit spurning the demands and restrictions of long-term commitment, has become a central figure in Western mythology. One of its most celebrated exponents was the novelist Bruce Chatwin, whose elaborate idea of the songlines, loosely based on the indigenous Australians' sacred tradition of mapping their land with epic poems, has taken on a life of its own as the image of choice for those weather-beaten travellers roaming the world in creased white shirts.

It would be too easy to place Ackermann in this category. It is true that one of his shows, at the Aachen Kunstverein, was entitled 'Songline', and in Basel one of the rooms was covered in black and white lines, reminiscent of songlines (Faceland I, 2001). But his view of these lines is structural rather than narrative. These are not the traditional paths of authentic individuals, but makeshift patterns of social exchange in urban environments. The only human being Ackermann feels he can portray amid this web is himself: Faceland I includes an Arcimboldian drawing, with the face made up of buildings rather than vegetables. Faceland II (2002) extends the traveller's manic egotism - 'I am the city!' - to an obviously parodic 'I am the world!' A self-portrait silhouette is stuck on a giant spherical chandelier, as if branding the entire world with the artist's face. But this is the last ego boost before the dramatic breakdown: the final room in Basel, with the Prora piece as its dead heart, was framed by two metallic lattice structures covering two entire walls - Fassade (Northside) and Fassade (Southside) (2002). As these were mounted over drawings and paintings such as Permanent Sunrise (2001), with its cascade of orange glowing suns, the confidence of free movement seemed fenced in by suggestions of induced paranoia and genuine danger. Among the consequences of 11 September have been a sharp drop in intercontinental travel and a boom in health farms: people now spend as much money at home as they used to on travel. Not exactly good times for mental maps.

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.