City Gallery

Tim Corballis, ‘Peter Roehr: Film Montages’, Circuit, 18 June 2015. 

Pop and minimalism—each, in its own way, names a reaction to the distant remove shown by high modernism. While pop was rifling around for its material among the mechanically reproduced culture of the masses, minimalism broke open frames and pedestals and eschewed subjectivity and expression, presenting us with the monochrome and geometric, the repeated and the given. They were, of course, by no means incompatible projects, as (for example) Warhol’s silk screens sometimes demonstrate: the pop cultural object given serial (and other) treatment, the high artist’s subjective expression nowhere to be found. They did, however, each step down from modernism’s heights in a different direction: this way culture’s recognisable images, colours and sounds; that way the materiality of the object, almost a formal thing in itself.

In the latest in a series of archival discoveries, from somewhere near the border between the two movements, comes a short programme of film montages from 1965 by German artist Peter Roehr. Roehr died of cancer in 1968 at only 23 years old, but in the 6 years prior to his death he amassed an oeuvre of over 600 works: found material and imagery, often from advertisements, arranged in grids; repeated letters or symbols typed on paper; and the films, a relatively minor part of his practise. He was an artist of citation, of clipping and organisation. In the spirit that runs from Duchamp via Dadaist collage to the contemporary blurring of the distinction between artist and curator, he was an artist who refused to alter his material beyond uplifting it from its context.

A comparison with Warhol seems obvious—popular material in grids, again. However, if Roehr was a nascent ‘German Warhol’ cut off in his prime, there seems to be an extra edge to his work. His found material is often recognisable, but just as often loses any original meaning; at the same time, he claimed that the repetition of things reveals qualities in them that are otherwise hidden. Implicit in his project, then, is the transformation of the everyday, making it strange or discovering its strangeness. And indeed, Roehr was working in Germany, where mass culture was still ‘American’, still foreign, the ambivalent product of a post-war occupying power that had arrived as both saviour and victor. Warhol by contrast, however foreign New York might seem to America’s deeper territories, was working at the heart of the culture—and his work, if it at times carried a critical charge, often seems vanishingly close to what it drew on.

Film is, in many ways, an obvious medium for Roehr’s concerns—both irreducibly ‘popular’ and one of the birthplaces of cutting and montage. The 22 films on display at the City Gallery were originally shown as three separate sequences, but were posthumously combined in 1970 and then digitised in 2009. Short clips, often from US advertisements, are repeated anywhere from 6 to 15 times in quick succession. The montages of the first and third sequences have original sound, while the middle sequence is silent. There are a great deal of effects in them, partly drawing on the complexities of the source material that includes image, voiceover, screen text and music. There are highways with cars, bridges and tunnels; night driving scenes, made over into the play of lights; clips, possibly from the same source, of petrol advertisements showing slogans, signs and logos; advertisements also for hair products; shots of skycrapers; a car tumbling over a cliff and a truck plunging into water; wrestlers.

There is a tension here most obviously between the familiar and the defamiliarised. The tropes of advertising—as it was in the 60s—are legible: male voices, women’s faces, well-conditioned hair. In the montages that recognisably include these elements, or that include written or spoken text, it is hard not to read them as critique: repetition renders the transparent message ridiculous, as in Haaretrocknen 13x, which features a closeup of a woman drying her hair and the repeated male voiceover ‘If you’re using a detergent-based shampoo, use Breck’. Equally, in PCV 12x a similar authoritative voice repeats only a single phrase, probably ‘Crank case ventilation’, though the first word is hard to make out. The critical remove is, to be sure, likely somewhat overdetermined for us, viewing these works fifty years later. Pop, it might be said, dates as fast as the cultures it derives from—and advertising dates like nothing else, its attempts to persuade now only clumsy or quaint.

There is, however, plenty in the films that pulls against the tendency towards overly simple critique. It is not quite right just to say that the cutting and arranging of found elements can work against figuration, though there is abstraction here, most obviously in Tunnel 12x, which loops blurred, multiply exposed tunnel lights and headlights against a black background. There are also hints at sculptural concerns in Ringer 10x, where wrestlers’ bodies are made over by the montage form into the abstracted shape and structure of muscle. Far more often, though, the objects in the clips remain recognisable even if the advertising message itself is obscured. I am thinking especially of all those cars and the roads they drive on. They are, to be sure, designed things, things that advertise themselves—and so a critical repurposing of their message is always possible—but the film loops work less with the cars themselves than with their movement. This can mean the repeated approach to a tunnel, cut always short before the camera enters and thrown back a hundred metres (Durchfahrt 10x). Alternatively, it can mean the near continuity of Brücke 15x or Autos 15x, where the end of the clip nearly matches the beginning and the flow of traffic seems to continue endlessly, interrupted at most by a slim jolt—in the case of Autos 15x the cut is obscured in any case by the jumpiness of the film. An argument emerges here about traffic itself—its repetitive or even rhythmic nature, the tailgate of the car in front constant among the changing scenery to the side. The point, then, might be that the film loop reveals nothing so much as a loop in reality, something that was already there to be revealed. This is one of the possible arguments to be made from the arts of mechanical reproducibility—that society itself is modelled on just such industrial repetitions; that advertising hopes to model us, its subjects, in the same way; and that we see such truths only when they are presented to us in their starkest forms.

It is interesting, then, to read the loops in terms of their continuities and discontinuities, the small jumps or large gaps between end and re-beginning. We can read them, that is, for the various different effects the different montages have. A car falling from a cliff and exploding in Explosion 6x—this is the repetition of a singular event, not the rehearsal of a continuous flow. More jarring still are the Gulf commercial repetitions in Gulf I 12x and Gulf II 10x, which include a second or so of silence and stasis, after the end of the music and voiceover, before the clips begin again. Here, more than in any of the other loops, the discontinuity is stark. Each time the clip begins afresh we are dropped into the middle of things; there is a jarring rhythm, a repeated interruption, that makes the advertisement’s silent denouement into a nervous emptiness.

The same dialectics—of continuity and discontinuity, of unveiling and transformation—are present at the level of sound. In Haaretrocknen 13x, even as we laugh at the dated shampoo commercial, it is the music that is transformed into its own uneasy loop, a repeated, dumb and slightly creepy slide of strings and piano that owes something to musical minimalism. On the other hand, however, with Lichter 10x or Turn 10x, accompanied by a jazz soundtrack, the music is hardly challenged, made over simply into a slightly awkward, extended vamp—the music might well have been non- or minimally developmental modal jazz in the first place, or at least has that effect in its repeated form.

The brilliance of these deceptively simple loops, then, lies in their ability to do no single thing. They reveal differences in the texture and flow of the material they derive from; they heighten its effects or obscure them, tending towards a remove that is critical or contemplative, seductive or jarring. They fall on either side of the divide between pop and minimalism, now emphasising popular cultural origin, now becoming the minimalist thing-in-itself. They are arguments about repetition, but also about punctuation and rhythm—starts, stops and commas; music and noise. They take backgrounds, both musical and cultural, and shift them forwards, towards our attention; but they as easily push the foreground message back into the play of image and sound.