Christian Rothmann at the Gallery Chika

by Monty DiPietro

If you are like most people, when you go abroad Ė you take photographs. Christian Rothmann isnít like most people. Putting a twist on travel, when the 44 year-old Berlin-based artist is out and about in the world, he gives people pictures. Big, splashy portraits of the artist himself. He uses these pictures to establish communication with prospective new subjects, whom he then uses to make more pictures, which, finally, are the pictures Rothmann uses to make his art.

"Presence and Absence" is an exhibition of some 32 Rothmann pieces, each of which starts with a travel-snap-style photograph of a person or group of persons the artist met on his travels last year through Japan, Germany, Australia and America. What the purple-haired Shibuya kids and Midwest American cowboys have in common is that they are all clutching a portrait of Rothmann as they mug for the camera. The artist then links each shot with an abstract image, mounts the 30x40cm color prints one atop the other, and "Presto!" you have the cute conceptual art-photography that is now up on the big white walls at Gallery Chika in Tokyoís Shibuya Ward.

The self-portrait is a tradition in photography that suits the self-promotion, especially of oneís visage, practiced by many post-Pop artists Ė the faces of Warhol, Basquiat, Gilbert and George are probably more easily recognized by the general public than those of Duchamp, Picasso, or Johns. If Rothmann, who works as an art professor and is a correspondent for the Japanese art magazine "Atelier," were simply selling himself, at 150,000 yen a pop, then these photos might be an amusing parody of artists who put their own image ahead of their art, and in doing so make their image into their art. But what develops the project are the blurry photographs of diffracted light that Rothmann teams with each of his pictures-within-a-picture.

"Itís kind of macro and micro," he explains, "the second shot is taken in the same space and sometimes it looks like itís a detail of the other photo but it isnít. Itís from somewhere in the vicinity Ė shop lights at night, for example."

Still, the focus has to be on the pictures of people holding Rothmannís picture.

"It is about communication, which is the first step in doing art," he says, "and the other thing is that both pictures are reality pieces. Itís also about authenticity, about me being in the space at the moment."

Rothmannís compositions succeed in this respect, the same face in the same picture (actually there are now several versions of Rothmannís portrait being used, which I think detracts from the effect), appearing in the hands of different people in very different environments, can be interesting to look at, especially when one attempts to decipher clues as to the mood of the moment in which the shutter was tripped. Capturing a moment, after all, is where photography works best, and creating a moment is what Rothmann is doing when he approaches the usually remarkable-looking strangers that catch his eye, and asks them to pose while holding his picture.

"Once, in Australia, a couple undressed and held up my portrait while nude," he recalls. "Some people just thought, ĎOh, heís a crazy artist!í but the Germans always asked ĎWhat is this for?í and about the copyrights and so on. Here in Japan, usually, when you go up to someone to get a picture you hand them a camera, but I would hand over a picture! It was good because Japanese people like to be photographed, so this was the best country to begin with."

While he is showing regularly in Europe, it is appropriate that Rothmannís "Presence and Absence" is debuting in Japan. The artist plans to take the project on the road one more time, there are still several continents to visit, he says. He will then decide whether to modify his approach by simply sending the photo off on its own, with instructions of course.


notes: Until Apr 3, 1999 (3449-9271).
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