Signs of Spaces by Matthias Harder

A piece of green landscape becomes a surface on the wall; and then a window, where you don’t know is it a photograph or really nature. But the view from here indeed continues on, into reality. From the trees outside we know which floor we are on. Occasionally, an uninviting interior opens out onto a balcony. History inscribes itself in these decaying rooms – traces of human life, perhaps the destruction of war, or merely underinvestment. Lina Kim seeks emptiness and quiet in the rooms that she finds. Her stage-like settings need no actors. Here, inside and outside are linked through the artist’s point of view.

With a middle format camera and tripod, Lina Kim enters the empty rooms and halls and waits with her exposure until the natural light fills the interior with an immaterial volume. She shoots three times, at eye level, mostly across the room along a central axis. The three photos then are merged into a single image of the space. Artificial light is not an option in this photo series. Many of the rooms are stripped bare to the bone. No one can live here anymore, let alone work. Last lamps or wallpaper strips dangle in one or the other room, until they, too, fall prey to destruction or disassembly. In some of the photos, from Beelitz, one can find cables, fire extinguishers or steel cabinets. The cabinet doors open into emptiness, becoming signs of absence. Rooms and cabinets are naked. The observer becomes a voyeur of a symbolic striptease, a historic skinning.

Different from Oliver Boberg, Lois Renner or Thomas Demand, the depopulated scenes of Lina Kim are real. Nothing in the rooms is arranged; only the perspective of the camera is set up. And although each image is a composite of several single photos, the pictures remain true to the traditional tenets of realism in the medium of photography. They are of abandoned barracks that identify themselves with their Cyrillic lettering as former living quarters of Soviet soldiers. Yet behind Lina Kim’s gaze into these lapidary rooms resides a complex conceptual approach, a rigid confrontation with the principles of civilization – as can be seen in her multimedial work in general. It was only towards the end of the 1980s in New York that the artist first used photography for a similar project.

Lina Kim archives the empty rooms abandoned to time that she discovered south of Berlin. She bores into the intimacy of the architectonic, then steers our gaze again to the window, to the outside, creating room for thought. The window theme is a nod to a parallel reality and time; on the other hand, nature outside the building has been left to its own devices as well. But while the interior approaches a standstill of functionality, the vegetation without blossoms lush. Through windows that are no longer there fall leaves that are no longer swept away. Mildew and occasional trash are a standoff to the former state of martial tidiness.

Lina Kim first came to Germany in 2003 upon encouragement from the Düsseldorf curator Jürgen Harten – and she stayed. With a grant from Schloss Wiepersdorf, a pastoral refuge in Brandenburg, and the help of her English art colleague Angus Boulton, she made her first encounters with the architectonic “vanitas motifs” at Jüterbog and Beelitz, Wittstock and Fürstenwalde. Today, the former military settlements exist in a no man’s land between wild overgrowth and abandoned villages. Lina Kim’s interiors were realized during a period of three years between 2003 and 2006, at various seasons; a closer look reveals a temporal development within the series. Although their previous function is hardly discernable in their current state of abandonment, Lina Kim’s formal rigor brings a conceptual order to the spatial chaos.

The particular political and social situation of a once divided Germany must pose a particular attraction to foreign artists who have observed the country from abroad and then from within. The Soviet barracks that Lina Kim selected as her subject lend themselves as icons of recent German history and German mythology. To this comes the landscape of the Mark Brandenburg – in particular the German forest – that has also been the subject of German photographers like Stefan Moses. And the idea of Prussian (later National Socialist) militarization becomes evident here, followed by the aftermath of the war with Soviet occupation, and then Reunification with its own resonances, both immediate and indirect.

In the time immediately following the Wall, Kim’s contemporary Laurenz Berges also commenced a long-term project with visits to former Soviet barracks around Berlin. At the time, the troops had just departed, taking with them everything that let itself be transported. The rooms themselves and their basic fixtures were for the most part left intact. Thus in Berges’ photos we still see curtains hanging before glass windows, sinks mounted on wallpapered walls, as well as ceiling lights and light switches. More than ten years later it looks different – as Lina Kim shows us. The same sorts of functional buildings (some left over from the Nazis) were used as living quarters by the occupying troops for years. In one of the photos, a colorful wall painting adorned by a number of soldiers attests to the heroic pathos of the military and war. But the image is faded, the colors peeling off the wall. The heroic Soviet army, which came from the east to liberate Nazi Germany and then occupied it, is now – at least on German soil – history. Lina Kim’s comprehensive survey may be seen as a kind of second wave of (visual) occupation of the premises. At the same time, it signals the end, given that the next logical step would be a documentation of their demolition.

The serial images invite the comparative gaze. Why do the rooms have these shapes? Why is the wall in one room much closer to the window than in the other room, which otherwise seems to have equal dimensions? The differences among the rooms definitely do not correspond to the various preferences of their former users (lower rank military personnel). Still, the variations in wall color from room to room remain a mystery. In Lina Kim’s photographic survey, the rooms are divided into color zones that have long been conquered by time. Yet behind the melancholy hides an elemental beauty and behind every Room photograph, a confrontation with principles of contemporary painting.

Lina Kim’s Room series is the documentation of a previous architectonic existence. Like no other medium, photography is so clearly bound to the idea of transience. This becomes especially clear when we consider early photography: The people that look out at us from the first photographs have by now – just like much of the paper on which they were printed – faded away. Similarly, the faded paint on Lina Kim’s walls can be read as metaphors for architectonic and human deterioration. And although the artist does not compare past and present in her work, still, beyond the timelessness and placelessness of the images, the past reveals itself within the transitory rooms – especially on the walls – like layers of time.

Special permits were required in order to access many of the buildings located in the former military security areas, while others literally stood open – for example, with missing widows and doors. Together with the photographer, we are intruders in a spatial order that has long expired. For many, an empty room is hardly interesting enough to linger with eyes and thoughts on the wall paint. Lina Kim, however, manages a sublime and precise portrayal of the found, bringing its very emptiness to the forefront. The natural light, the authentic spaces, and the site-specific colors unite the photos of the various barracks formally. The title Room indicates the elementary of the situation. The sparse beauty of the locations is narrated incidentally. This does not, however, make the overall effect less unsettling. One of the pictures shows a plain, dirty, white wall with four square outlines in a row that is reminiscent of a painting by Mark Rothko. There is no clue to the subjects of the pictures that used to hang there. Lina Kim describes places that are simultaneously palpable and mysterious places. The barracks become a dungeon; we encounter the illusions of a film set. But the scene is empty, the actors have quit the stage, the game is over. Here, the scenery creates the piece that was scripted by world politics, and whose protagonists have long abandoned ship. At work behind the curtain is Lina Kim’s penetrating curiosity for political and economic processes.  

The photographer is interested in other intimate places and change as well; for new uses or non-use of urban or architectonic structures, like in Niemeyer’s Brasilia or Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh. There she most recently collaborated on a photo project with Michael Wesely. At the same time, she seems fascinated by the possibility to visualize “things that do not exist”, as she described a work in her first German solo show in 2006 in Berlin.

With her camera, Lina Kim takes us into the rooms and behind the scenes of a past military presence, perceiving social phenomena that would otherwise go unchecked. Her interiors are like the alarm signal to an aberration, recalling the depopulation and the eradication of entire areas south of Berlin. The Brazilian artist manifests her artistic social study in the emptiness of rooms. What remains is an empty hull: walls, floors and ceilings with leftover color, lit-up by openings that look outwards like immense eyes. The Rooms formulate a liminal state of metamorphosis. They still exist, yet, somehow, are long past.