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March 2013

Andreas Magdanz: Stammheim
Large-format photography of rigorous restraint

By Andres Langen

One would assume that any photographer intent on targeting top secret installations must have taken leave of his senses. No government is likely to be amused at someone trying to gain access to its secret bunkers or intelligence-service headquarters armed with a camera. But Andreas Magdanz did just that - and succeeded.
His previous (sold-out) books Dienststelle Marienthal and BND Standort Pullach attest to his indefatigable persistence. In recent years he has also photographed the former Nazi Ordensburg Vogelsang training academy and the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Andreas Magdanz approaches such historical sites in a manner similar to that adopted by Herlinde Koelb towards her ordinary citizens, politicians, living rooms and bedrooms: seeking to fathom aspects of Germanness. For Magdanz's projects are excavations penetrating deep into the German psyche, both from an historical and contemporary perspective, and in so doing he occasionally unearths some rather rich and volatile seams.

Now Magdanz has trained his lens onto Germany's left-wing terrorist group, the Red Army Faction (RAF), and in particular onto the so-called German Autumn of 1977. This period saw the escalation of a conflict whose deadly repercussions have yet to be fully resolved. Magdanz negotiates this complex topic at one remove, as it were, by focusing on the locus of its culmination on German soil: the top-security prison of Stuttgart-Stammheim, which is now scheduled for demolition. This purpose-built concrete monstrosity once served as the stage for a spectacular drama: The bizarre choreography played out by the German state and the terrorists went on to shape this country and forge many myths and legends.

By virtue of its pivotal significance, it serves as the suitable arena for an artist who aspires to raising political awareness in its most austere form. Andreas Magdanz deploys his large-format camera with rigorous restraint. Reducing his motifs to black and white abstractions, he proceeds in the same manner as a classical architectural photographer: Every single detail is immediately identifiable, the rooms bleak and deserted, the angles carefully calibrated; the artificial lighting in the interiors and the diffuse daylight in the outdoor shots only reinforce the aura of a clinical and forensic documentation. This is complemented by a thoroughly uncompromising book design: a greyboard cover, high-quality images, full-bleed prints, ground plans and analytical essays - all printed in Helvetica. For Magdanz this book is more important than the exhibition version of this project, which is currently being premièred in the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart and features primarily large-format prints, a documentary film of his photographic work, together with TV and radio documentaries on the RAF.

The material featured both in the book and in the exhibition is possessed of a striking intensity and has, accordingly, fuelled much debate. But this is still not enough for Andreas Magdanz. Remarking that the resulting discourse is only operating at an intellectual, aesthetic and rational level, he describes the third section of his project: Still only a prototype, it comprises a virtual, high-precision, 360-degree reproduction of Stammheim Cell No. 719, in which Andreas Baader died. The projection space which Magdanz has dubbed Cave 719, is designed to generate an extreme and visceral feeling of discomfort. But for what purpose is he creating here a kind of sophisticated ghost train? Why seek to overwhelm viewers instead of move them? Intelligent photographic studies of political conflict highlight the limitations of the medium's possibilities: Paul Graham portrayed the rain-sodden front lines of the civil war in Northern Ireland, Alfredo Jaar the sun-drenched backdrop to the Rwandan genocide - both reflections of the invisible. Here Andreas Magdanz has adopted a visual language of barely unsurpassed forensic precision and detachment - and this too connects with the viewer. But instead of trusting in the medium which has evoked a haunting poignancy, Magdanz shifts on to more shaky terrain both terminologically and conceptually. Reporting from the highly charged atmosphere of the Stammheim cells, he asserts that such perception can be engineered above all by knowledge, personal experience and subjective empathy. One location alone signifies little, as Graham and Jaar vividly illustrate. Similarly, the real Stammheim Cell No. 719 signifies virtually nothing, and following Baader's death it was completely refurbished. Apart from a shelf and two wall sockets there is not one square millimetre of the old cell remaining from the RAF era. Instead the cell has been occupied by other prisoners for the past 30 years. And what about the traces they left? The amorphous category »aura« forges the very myths which Magdanz seeks to dispel.

In my opinion, a wiser approach than Cave 719 would be to ask all those involved in the events of that fateful night in Stammheim to deposit their recollections with a secure non-governmental institution, upon condition that their material is only opened after the death of all witnesses. It is with this proposal that Andreas Magdanz concludes his book. Artistic work could hardly be more convincing or relevant.
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