Knoefel's pictures of the Berlin slaughterhouse
by Stefan Raum
In dreamed recollections and as immoderately as when awake, Knoefel has imagined spaces which are festooned with images like intersecting points, without lessening the force of experience. Following a first exhibition shaped in the form of a tableau, this labyrinth was brought about between April and May in the gallery of the Dresden School of Art. Since summer 1986 the artist has been in the grip of a new theme which with one or two interruptions he has been working on for almost two years. The final result was a thematic configuration consisting of several layers of meaning and points of reference.
The first was the site itself, once Berlinâs slaughterhouse and now the VEB Fleischkombinat which, as both he and Daniela Dahn once observed, is located just inside the furthest corner of the city's Prenzlauer Berg district. It plays a major part in the food processing industry. When he was at school, Knoefel used to work here, and he is likely to remember it as a place where people worked hard. (The director of the collective also agreed with us on these two points.)
The next thing which immediately became apparent were the people. This place encompassed their social and mental reality. ăIf there hadn't been those people who wanted to see my photos the very next day, I would have probably given up.
What makes one enter this place? In the course of time this encounter must somehow have become imbued with a sense of destiny. What is it that removes the photographic approach from the cool style of reporting, from a depiction which is concerned with unusually precise observation?
It lies in the character of the photographer and the special nature of the work, in which the photographer detects codes for social behaviour. The slaughterhouse as a metaphoric site where various forces intersect. Döblin, Sinclair and Brecht have all contributed their observations on this tradition. The efficiently industrial and as such unsentimental nature of events attains an absurd dimension through its sheer banality. Something happens to our image of humanity in such deadening conditions, and this dumbfounds the photographer. The industrialization of killing becomes a symbol for social events which have ceased to be comprehensible.
All that ultimately remains are several dozen photographs which are fitted into the too narrow corridors of a wall-high installation made of industrial iron sheets. The pictures wobble to and fro against the bare, slightly silver walls. There are snapshots of people working and of people resting, objective portraits, symbolic details and ănature morte. Often thrown out of focus by movement and full of sharp black and white contrasts, some pictures suggest a sense of emotional aversion to the events.
But in graphic terms they are too well embedded in an overall concept to be merely that. Stefan Oerndt has already pointed out the varied and contradictory way we viewers encounter Knoefel's emotional world. This is what allows the pictures to surge forth as dreamlike, lucid visions contradicting their surface appearance. Our expectations are simultaneously fulfilled and contravened. The pictures of bloody entrails are shocking. Yet they only achieve their capacity to counteract indifference by reminding us of industrialization and the phenomenon of mass death (2,500 pigs per shift represent the requirements of the city.)
These stand in dialogue with the faces of the people who work here. They are average and in some places impressively tranquil. The people are aware that their job is by all means attractive and want to be photographed. Peering out from the pictures they reveal no sign of inhibition, aversion, and almost no distrust. Similarly to Knoefel, I feel this to be a noteworthy statement of fact.
50 years ago Wilhelm Reich wrote: ăWhatever the rigidness of his pelvis and spine, whatever the stiffness of his neck and shoulders, whatever the tightness of the stomach muscles, however proudly and fearfully he bears his breast, in the inner depths of his being he senses that he is but a piece of organized living nature. He was referring to twentieth century man. Knoefel assesses facts. He selected several of his exposed pictures and found a way of combining them so that they would not drift into artistic photography. In photography the slaughterhouse is also a traditional theme. It ranges from the documentary reportage of Doisneau to the highly dense aesthetic still lifes by Madam d'Ora.
Knoefel has elected a different approach. He views photography as a direct reference of the human image. ăIf I donât have any purpose of my own I don't feel as if I'm a photographer. He does not take human actions for granted and observes adaptation. In the course of the project he became interested in philosophical interpretations: Man wolf or sheep? Photographers of his generation persistently use their pictures to ask questions often alarmed and disturbed , instead of offering answers. This also is what distinguishes them from their journalist colleagues. But the age of innocence has passed. Wolfgang Kil) The pictures or more accurately: the picture contexts have become subversive. Severity is born of sustained human empathy. The interest shown in the exhibitions of younger photographers in recent years offers a clear indication of the widespread unease provoked by the social erosion of the GDR in the eighties.
The exhibition in Dresden has now been taken down. There was no doubt as to its success. The tense neck is being craned. In a roundabout way the exhibition has reinforced our sensibility of being but a piece of organized living nature, and that we must also behave thus.
Berlin, 19 June 1988, Stefan Raum
Postscript by Stefan Raum, 12 April 1997
Knoefels slaughterhouse project was and remains a large tableau, a commentary on an underlying spiritual and social context. This is not about reinventing aura. The patina is not a body. But this commentary from that period draws our attention to the question of what art might offer today. Knoefels photographic strategy documentarist in style, yet with a different motivation captured the event of industrial killing. This was driven less by aesthetic, than by political and social concern. It grew from the spirit and mood of the time which particularly in East Berlin was somwhat like the needle an inner compass. Within the maze of state tutelage and wilful stubbornness, cultural and personal self-assertion scraped grimly through a ăleaden age (Wolfgang Kil). Close observation was a prerequisite for personal survival. Knoefels ăslaughterhouse metapher was and remains pertinent. It is both a real situation and a Îmythical problem at once. In a certain respect, it happened quite instinctively. With his project, Knoefel came face ot face with a situation which he found hard to bear. that's called a symbolic act. Maybe now no longer viable in that form. But in a different way and that's worth talking about.
Translation: Matthew Partridge, 1997