Galerie Tobias Naehring is well connected to Leipzig’s rail transport network. Located at 98 Lützner Strasse in the west of the city, the gallery is a stone’s throw from Leipzig-Lindenau S-Bahn station (Line S1), while the Henriettenstrasse tram stop (Lines 8 and 15) is just a few steps away. In this light, and in a city whose inhabitants have traditionally taken pride in their disproportionately large station (‘Europe’s biggest terminus’), an exhibition focussing on railway-related phenomena immediately made sense. On the other hand, this politically and culturally charged topic goes far beyond any local context: there is Germany’s timeless obsession with timetables and trains, the historical guilt incurred by the railways during the Holocaust, and their connecting role during the country’s reunification.
In Wilhelm Klotzek’s new film, Seddin (2017), screened in one of the gallery’s two rooms, the Berlin-based artist has edited together close-up shots of accelerating and braking goods trains at the Seddin marshalling yard, southwest of Potsdam. Out of these logistical train movements, he develops a choreography of more or less abstract, rusty, dented panels of colour, some with technical inscriptions. Suddenly, a shipment of brand new cars, fresh from the factory, seems to glide through the scene. Unlike Jürgen Böttcher’s classic marshalling yard documentary, Shunters (1984), which focuses on the noise and hard physical labour of the workforce at the Dresden-Friedrichstadt marshalling yard, Klotzek shows no people and uses no wide shots. Instead of the original soundtrack, he has synchronized the moving images with sound poetry reminiscent of Ernst Jandl and Kurt Schwitters, the wagons seeming to speak, whisper, sniff or growl to the rhythm of their own movements. This substitution of human sounds for train sounds lends the film an artificial, surreal character that oscillates between classic avant-garde references, a documentary aesthetic, and slapstick distancing, while still dealing with the constant logistical flow of everyday goods transportation.
The other works in the show, two outsized flag objects (Between the Tracks and Individual phenomena in the signal world of German railways, both 2017) and a vitrine containing a matching vase and plate set (Vase as Wagon, 2009), derive their humour from the ways the artist has processed and displaced the thematic material: the cultures of technology and memory set within the context of the railway. The authentic-looking decorative plate, made by Klotzek, celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Hbbillns 305, a goods wagon that will most likely prove familiar to no one but railway workers and model railway enthusiasts. The information accompanying the exhibition explains that, in 1994, during the merging of the state railway companies of former East and West Germany, the names for specific types of wagon were standardized into a countrywide system. In the process of German reunification, many things in the former East changed their names in one way or another – most prominent, perhaps, were commemorative street names, which no longer fit with the new political realities. In the rare case of Hbbilnns 305, however, the old East German name was retained.
With the exhibition title, ‘Individual Phenomena in the World of Railways’, Klotzek formulates an interest in phenomena that seem to be at odds with a railway philosophy founded upon punctuality and safety, standards, norms and uniforms. What does individuality mean in this context? Does it refer to the proverbial exception that proves the rule? Or to the teenage graffiti sprayers and their illegal pursuit of personal expression in the marshalling yards at night? Like them, but far more elegantly, this exhibition successfully infiltrates the ordered system of railway signs and signals, working within it and using large-scale overwriting, dismantling and reassembly to create semantic chaos in an entertaining way.
Main Image: Wilhelm Klotzek, Seddin, 2017, DV-Video (still). Courtesy Galerie Tobias Naehring, Leipzig; photograph: Daniel Poller