Karl-Heinz Klopf


(from the series Streets, 1996–ongoing)
C-print, 53 x 81 cm


The original impetus of Karl-Heinz Klopf's photographic series Streets  (1996–ongoing) came from his fascination with the pictogram-like depiction of streets in Japan. From the typical design of such orientation maps, he developed a system in which he circles the buildings in which he is living or exhibiting (for example, hotels, apartments, galleries) and sketches the surrounding streets. Klopf then makes maps out of them in the specifically Japanese typology and finally mounts them on a window of the building he is using, which is situated within the streets shown. The view from the window together with the integrated map forms the motif of each photographic work.


Adam Budak


For children crazed with maps and prints and stamps –
The universe can sate their appetite.
How vast the world is by the light of lamps,
But in the eyes of memory how slight!

Charles Baudelaire: The Flowers of Evil


In a formal acrobatics of multiple codings, a complex image appears: a careful sketch of the neighbourhood, an outline of particular surroundings temporally inhabited by the artist during his numerous travels and wanderings. The place of spatial proximity is being meticulously registered as a pictogram, an alternative spatial language, and as such it is fixed on the window pane of an apartment, located within the depicted area. The final picture is a sequence of overlappings and superimpositions where the interior of the artist’s room is negotiated with the exterior of urban space through a very personal map, an almost abstract evidence of a real and physical location. The image consists of a twofold structure: a photographic quotation of reality and a graphic record of its selected territory. The window offers a view which constitutes a frame for a symbolic act of visual and mental exchange of patterns and story lines. Here, on its transparent surface, a sort of elemental geography is being staged, a performance of drawing the ordinary topology which unexpectedly turns into an enigmatic riddle of uncanny origin, an imitation of a map or a plan which abuses the language of (local) geography and appropriates its tools in order to elaborate a choreography of a still unknown and yet to come—possibly imaginative—event.

Karl-Heinz Klopf’s project of Streets is evental: it bears a potential of a happening and as such it makes a promise of a multilayered story. It is a plan of action (or a scene of crime?) and the (poignant) narrative almost resembles a detective novel, a body of evidence for a certain (private) investigation, an accidentally registered fragment of truth, as within the drawing’s frame of optical device in Greenaway’s Draughtsman Contract or a (hidden) unexpectedly frozen photographic detail in Antonioni’s Blow Up which helps to reconstruct a sequence of intriguing (criminal) events. As a spatial diagram, it hides a secret, a missing link of truly Hitchcockean suspense which excites and intrigues an imagination with a certain unknown tracing of a plot, inscribed in a symbolic and complex language of a labyrinthian pictogramic code which belongs to a particular urban environment. Analysing the Egyptian labyrinth described by Herodotus, Hubert Damisch observes that “beyond certain spatial or merely numerical limits, and however clear and regular its plan, every built structure lends itself to multiple traversals that are themselves labyrinthine”. He continues by recalling Benjamin and his reading of Poe and Baudelaire regarding the notion that “the paths traced by the man of the city, by the man of the crowd, effectively evoke the illegible, indecipherable figure of a labyrinth whose subterranean presence will obliterate the image of the city all the more insofar as the latter is homogenous and extended”. Damisch turns his attention to the significance of windows as one of the gazes that the city opens onto itself—actually a privileged gaze of singular, individual and private nature, the one through which both the street and the labyrinth of the city erupt into the space where subject resides. Windows are sites, where interior meets exterior, where inside encounters outside, and as such, they function “as emblems or symbols of circulating flux, of the physical, drive-based impulses characteristic of large cities, whose glass is unable to filter out external violence”. In Klopf’s project, they become the blackboards of subjective geography, where the urban labyrinth is deciphered and overexposed with all its real and fictitious topography of mental and physical events, but they also function as (optical) instruments of a social control, (transparent) witnesses of transgressions committed within the streets and all the outlawed and unauthorized uses of the public realm, truly Borgesian mirrors of (urban) enigmas.

In the artist’s photographic series though, the phantasmagoria of the enigmatic and the extraordinary is firmly intertwined with the ordinary and the elemental. His Streets are the sites of the ordinary man, “a common hero, an ubiquitous character, walking in countless thousands on the streets”, to whom Michel de Certeau dedicates his “Practice of Everyday Life” and the entire project seems to be generated by a spatial practice which links a desire to tame a space with a truly Borgesian illusion of “possessing the whole” on the way to produce a knowledge of a beyond local and intimate dimension. Encountering Klopf’s photographs, one recalls both, the astonishing frenzy of representation, expressed in a pathology of scale and proportions as reflected in Borges’ description of a perfect, quasi-scientific and hypnotic attempt at verbally mapping the confines of reality, and a crisis of representation, as analysed by de Certeau in his studies on “walking in the city” which begins with an appropriation of an experience of viewing Manhattan from the 110th floor of the former World Trade Center: “what the spectator perceives is a geometrical ecstasy on the edge of optical breakdown: a wave of verticals. The elevation transforms him into a voyeur for whom the world by which one was possessed appears now as a text which lies before one’s eyes”. But for de Certeau, this “immense texturology” is anything more than a fiction, a representation, an optical artefact which resembles a facsimile produced by the space planner, an urbanist or a cartographer. Criticising a pleasure of “seeing the whole”, a panorama-city as a theoretical visual simulacrum, he turns into the ordinary practitioners of the city: walkers, “whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban text they write without being able to read it”. Thus identifying spatial practices, Michel de Certeau expands the meaning of the notion of flanerie. His “rethoric of walking” is a strategy of concentrating on everyday life and focusing on walking in order to overcome the functionalistic view of the city as a view from above. Here, a walking activity is being perceived as a certain kind of “poetic geography” of urban sites, which aims at constructing “micro-narratives” linked to the moving and strolling body. Dealing with representation and mapping a terrain of his temporary habitation, Klopf negotiates the symbolic vocabulary of a double lie, which is often associated with the elaboration of maps. The miniature (urban) text oscillates between omission and falsification: it synthesizes and simplifies particular chosen surroundings thus filtering them and censoring them through a lens of his own perceptive skills, intention, and a selection process but it also manipulates them, shifting their geometries and proportions, according to his own purposes and directions. Thus achieved, reduced and sublimated, “transposed image” becomes an autonomous sign, an icon on the crossway of reality and imagination, information and fiction, in the shadow of truth and illusion of totality.

Klopf’s Streets series is a personal travelogue and a diary of walking written with an alphabet of pictograms where each is an autonomous spatial poem, shaped by the fragments of trajectories and alteration of spaces, in a web of networks and independent pathways. Here, the walking is a space of enunciation: according to de Certeau, it is a process of appropriation of the topographical system on the part of the pedestrian, but it is also a spatial acting-out of the place and it implies relations among differentiated positions while moving between places. Resembling a postcard sent from a distant destination, Klopf’s photographs bear an (anonymous) inscription “From / To,” which indicates both the travelling (or a walking) route that was challenged by the artist, as well as possibly the personal relation that was addressed by this sign of presence and an evidence of a geographical spot. It is a sort of certificate of existing reality, an essential aspect of a legend, which together with memory and a dream constitutes a symbolic mechanism which organizes the topoi of a discourse on and of a city. Attached to a map, a legend provides a narrative structure and a meaning to the applied symbols and codes of a geographical knowledge. It is a panel of names and symbols, icons and colours that cover the surface of a topographic plan, a blackboard where all stories and information are simultaneously hidden and revealed. Klopf’s series of photographs are the collections of such legends and myths that remind of both Japanese “address books” with their larger-than-life narrative volume and of the emblems of a minimal stylistics that operate through a tension between their transcendental ambition and formal simplicity. Depicting always a very precisely described location, they are also the collections of memories and identities, as if finger prints of subjective space and time, diagrams of past events and the ephemeral moments, units of thought and experience that here become formative givens in the process of producing a spatial organization of knowledge. As such, the pictograms are screened on the surface of a window which reconnects them with the exterior they come from and belong to. They are collections of projections, dreams and phantasms of a (proper) space, a mental exterior, tamed and appropriated by the personal mapping, registered and embraced by a familiar frame, beyond any available rationalities and categorizations. Here is a catalogue of private mythologies, a memoir and a book of dreams stored in an archive of a hectic cartographer.

In his attempt at producing a spatial knowledge, Klopf performs a multiple task of a geographer and that of a cartographer. He is drawing his own personal version of a map, which is often denoted as a model, in which symbols stand for spatial phenomena in the “real” world. By doing so, the artist enters the area of ontological and epistemological questions regarding what is “reality”, how can it be represented and how is it interpreted and read. Here, the map is a particular text, which portrays a generalised representation of reality and as such it deals with four, according to Arthur H. Robinson, elements of simplification, classification, symbolisation and induction that provide the user with the spatial information and data. Jacques Bertin, the author of the theory of graphic semiology, elaborates the schemata used for the graphic symbolisation, which serves the two main purposes of maps: as a visualisation tool and as a communication device. Such purposes are being executed by the three categories of symbols: point, line and area, which are responsible for the hierarchy of objects, measurements, scales, densities and all other parameters, ordered by the cartographer in his meticulous occupation of representing the world and consequently applied by the geographer in his task of “drawing the world”. From its Greek etymology, geo-graph indicates the drawing of the world; it is a story of a line—geography as such is nothing but the drawing and interpreting of a line. Klopf is drawing a line while walking and strolling through the streets that embrace and construct his temporary neighbourhood, thus sketching linear architectures of particular accuracy, precision and elegance. The very word line, as Roland Barthes points out at the beginning of Empire of Signs, has a double connotation, both graphic and linguistic. Graphics and language sustain a relation with writing, thus constituting a particular expression of verbal and nonverbal nature. According to Deleuze and Guattari, “we are composed of lines . . . or rather, of bundles of lines, for each kind is multiple”, and our task is to invent our own lines of flight and to effectively but subtly draw them in our lives. Depending on the individual, or species, lines constitute the matrix of human navigation and indicate the trajectories of our acting. The authors recall the studies of Fernand Deligny, who transcribes the lines and paths of autistic children by means of maps, where the practice of walking, but also perceptions, gestures and language, are structured by “lines of drift” and “customary lines”. These lines are constantly crossing, intersecting for a moment, following one another, thus expressing a certain dynamics of an affair of cartography, which composes our map: such is the rhizome which soon becomes the locus of language, a signifier and a structure, another labyrinthian architecture, a burrow, which constitutes a Body without Organs (“itself an abstract line with neither imaginary figures nor symbolic functions”). What is your body without organs”—Deleuze and Guattari investigate—“What are your lines? What map are you in the process of making or rearranging? What abstract line will you draw, and at what price, for yourself and for others? What is your line of flight? What is your Body without Organs, merged with that line? Are you cracking up? Are you going to crack up? Are you deterritorializing? Which line are you serving, and which are you extending or resuming?” Composed of forking lines and curves, Klopf’s pictograms are the subjective rhizomes, Deleuzian maps that are involved in both experimenting with the real and constructing the unconscious. They are marked by potentiality and flexibility: “the map is open and connectable in all of its dimensions; it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification. It can be torn, reversed, adapted to any kind of mounting, reworked by an individual, group, or social formation. It can be drawn on a wall, conceived as a work of art, constructed as a political action or as a meditation”. Here is the plan of possibilities, a dictionary of strategies and tactics, an array of modes of operation, a guarantee of psychic comfort and security, but on the other hand, anxiety of getting lost in the web of intersecting lines, of reaching a dead end in a maze of multiple entryways, of following lines that never meet . . .

In Klopf’s photographic series, the marking or tracing of space is integrated with a desire to register time. His From/To indicates as much a spatial relation as it is concerned with a particular duration, a time flow. Each map and a drawing are as much an evidence of a particular space, as it constitutes a calendar of travels and walks, a certain itinerary of arrivals and departures. It documents a presence in a similar way as On Kawara’s “date paintings” or his Postcards aim at visualizing (personal) time and registering life, or Roman Opalka’s painterly, photographic and tonal “rituals” during which the artist almost literally catches the passing moment by inscribing and “pronouncing” the numbers and simultaneously by drawing a map of time in a series of photographic self-portraits. Karl-Heinz Klopf’s presence is predominantly spatial, and as such it reflects the working of a memory and remembering, longing and separation, and last but not least, it reveals a construction of private histories and affairs—between hypothesis and fact, truth and fiction—in an on-going process of a translation into a language of collective consciousness, available for all.


Literature references:

Barthes, Roland. Empire of Signs. Hill & Wang, 1983.
Berg, Stephan;  Engler, Martin (Ed.). Die Sehnsucht des Kartografen. Hamburg: Kunstverein Hannover, 2004.
Bertin, Jacques. La Sémiologie graphique. Paris: Mouton,1967.
Damisch, Hubert. Skyline. The Narcissistic City. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2001.
de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkely: University of California Press, 1988.
Deleuze, Gilles; Guattari, Felix. A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

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