Stefan Rohrer, 2015
bon 1968 in Göppingen; lives and works in Stuttgart
Galerie Scheffel, Bad Homburg v.d.Höhe
Stefan Rohrer and Regina Michel in conversation
RM: For the artist book Parabolika you took detailed photos of the wall art Schleudertrauma Nr. 11 in curves – sometimes faster, sometimes slower – using the scanner. What was your intention?
SR: Time plays an important role in my work. In my sculptures I am telling short stories and make movement and time visible. This time aspect, questioning the time-space framework, also interests me in this book.
Whereas in the case of a long time exposure, things pass by the camera, the light bar of the scanner is drawn along the object. If the object is then moved during scanning, time and space warp. The distortion of the scanner with its light bar is like a timeline.
RM: At first glance, some of these scans are reminiscent of abstract paintings …
SR: For me the painterly aspect in my objects is becoming ever more important. My drafts, which are the first step towards my sculptures, are actually informal drawings. For me there is always a reason for the movement that arises in my work. I find and develop this movement through gestural drawings, which I then transform into sculptures.
This book is now an attempt through the use of a scanner to generate new pictures of my sculptures that emphasise the painterly quality of my work and lead away from the superficial materiality.
In spite of their alienation, many of the scans are meant to be read as details of my work. Even those pictures that seem completely abstract at first glance can for instance be localised through the reflections in the wall art Schleudertrauma Nr. 11. When we look at something and don’t understand it immediately, our brain makes adjustments until it makes sense. On the one hand, the distorted details, in spite of their alienation, explain the sculpture, but at the same time they are also stand-alone pictures that drift into the painting.
RM: With these newly created pictures to what extent do you overcome limits that you are faced with in your objects due to the basic raw materials?
SR: The randomly generated pictures help free me from the constraints of the material during the process of finding ideas and forms.
Me Mercedes You Saab
Auto-biographical comments on the art of Stefan Rohrer
In a jury session on art in public space the works of Stefan Rohrer are presented to the president. At the sight of the grotesquely distorted Vespas and automobiles, the seasoned district administrator bursts out laughing, whereupon the atmosphere among those present feels palpably relaxed at a stroke.
This scene is no isolated case. Even at vernissages and in exhibitions of Stefan Rohrer, time and again I could observe visitors of every age breaking out into spontaneous laughter on viewing his work. But what or who were they laughing about, and why? I decided on an auto-biographical approach to track down the secret behind the automobile sculptures.
A look in the rear-view mirror
Automobiles have been a lifelong passion both for the artist and for the author from an early age. Whereas Stefan Rohrer was interested in gender-specific Carrera tracks and toy cars as is proper, my early childhood experience, whether I wanted it or not, also included fast cars with trees, houses and people flashing by. As the daughter of an automobile designer in a big German car company, I already had the pleasure of sitting at the wheel of a Mercedes at the age of five; and at ten I had tried driving not only box cars, but also on steep banks and off-road. Father’s fascination with speed was especially obvious on Sundays when motor racing was being broadcast on television. Hour after hour the racing cars went round, uselessly in my view, but I regarded them with disinterested pleasure, and often wondered how anyone could fall into a rapt trance from the droning sound of racing car engines that made one oblivious to everything and everyone around.
However, one advantage of my socialisation with automobiles was that I was given my own car on passing my Abitur high school exam, as was the norm at the time, so that I could be mobile and flexible. One day, on my way to university, I underestimated the winter road conditions, with the result that I came in contact with the drawbacks of motoring early on. I overturned on an icy country road worthy of a stunt film, but by a wonder I climbed out unscathed from the vehicle, which was still new. What was previously a proud shiny black Ford Fiesta (1989 model) had been transformed from one second to the next, although that seemed like hours to me at the time of the rollover, into a sorrowful, battered total wreck on four wheels. Fully incapable of moving on its own, my first car, after just a short life, was towed by a recovery truck back in the direction it had come from shortly before. From then on I regarded the automobile as cult object with even greater mistrust, and increasingly devoted myself as an art and cultural historian to the symbolic significance of things in consumer culture from a discreet distance.
Stefan Rohrer, born in 1968, and like me a member of the Generation Golf, also corresponded in no way to the stereotype of a juvenile representative of the egoistic society, striving for success and consumption, in the way Florian Illies characterised teenagers of the 1980s in his bestseller Generation Golf 1. Completely untypical of his generation, he also distanced himself from the automobile as a status symbol early on. “As a child I wanted to be a car designer. As an adult that was no longer acceptable for me politically. For me the subject was very ambivalent; later the fascination of the car was for me also somehow painful, and I questioned the car as a prestige object”. Instead of single-mindedly pursuing a streamlined career as a car designer, Stefan Rohrer therefore began down-to-earth training as a stonemason, only afterwards deciding to trace his inner creative instincts, first as an art student at the Burg Giebichtenstein University of Art and Design in Halle, and later at the Academy of Art and Design in Stuttgart.
Possibly because he was spared the experience of a motor accident, and the real whiplash that not uncommonly accompanies it, Stefan Rohrer was able to keep his childhood fascination for the car into adulthood. With great momentum this then takes an affective course in the early artistic works.
Already during his studies the artist gave free rein to his childhood desire to find creative forms. Carried and attracted by the desire for movement, he developed his own individual DIY fantasy vehicle, using the ideas of toy cars and Vespas that he found discarded, as well as real car bodies.
An example is Strudel from 2004. In this case Rohrer single-handedly extended the roof and hood parts of a blue VW Golf 2 (in production 1983 – 1992) skyward in expressionist forms. By contrast, the work Schleudertrauma Nr. 11 documented in this artist book shows a collision between two differently colored model cars, a Pontiac GTO (in production 1964 – 1965) and a Ford Mustang (in production 1964 – 1973), typical representatives of American Muscle Cars 2, at the moment when their wheels, rear ends, and miniature drivers are flung through the air by the impact, like a gloriole or halo. Similar to an instantaneous photograph, the climax of the centrifugal forces is frozen in a sculpture. Even though the artist lets the movement of the cars run on and does not show the collision, the catastrophe nevertheless ultimately resonates in the thoughts, and like a religious Memento Mori, continues inescapably in the minds of the viewers – with or without the whiplash experience.
Rohrer’s graceful, strongly-colored Memento Mori out of sheet metal are on the one hand in the tradition of Pop Art, since real everyday objects are transformed into art. However, the elegant painterly lines of Schleudertrauma Nr. 11 and his other wall reliefs are in addition also reminiscent of the futurists, who glorified the automobile and the associated exhilaration of speed at the beginning of the last century. To this fascination for the movement and surface aesthetics of goods, the artist has now added with this artist book a further facet: he has scanned photographic images of the work Schleudertrauma Nr. 11, and reproduced them distorted and alienated, like the real work.
By grotesquely exaggerating the dynamic movement patterns of automobiles in his works, Rohrer overshoots in the truest sense of the word the positivistic faith in technology of the modern age directed toward the future. From a postmodern stance, he takes a sceptical and ironic view of the forward looking positivistic optimization paradigm of the performance society: faster, higher, further in the here and now. One possible explanation for the laughter of the district administrator?
The postmodern distance of the artist from the sham of the affluent society with its standardized facade identities is also clear in the work Lothar 2007 in a humorous way. In an allusion to hurricane Lothar, Rohrer subverts the uniformity of lower-middle class suburban estates by formally really sorting out the miniature model terraced cottages, to use a colloquial expression.
While Stefan Rohrer, still relatively almost unnoticed by the public, step by step continued to develop for himself and refine his constructive language of form using scrap parts, and invented forms of his own design, I was at the University of Tübingen as an intellectual. To the chagrin of my father, at an advanced stage I came in contact with culture critical ideas that in the 1980s were increasingly dealing with the ambivalence of a construction of reality centered around the automobile.
Particularly formative for me were the French sociologists, with books like Distinction 3 by Pierre Bourdieu, and The System of Objects 4 by Jean Baudrillard, that show how people in the modern consumer society look to the culture of things for identity construction and self-expression. Along the lines of Me Prada, You Armani 5 the functional and utility value of things falls increasingly into the background in lifestyle capitalism. More important than the function of things is what the goods signify, and the emotions they arouse among consumers. “We are what we buy” 6, according to the latest feuilleton-style edition of the writer Robert Misik on this insight. “I am what I am because I wear Prada and not Armani”. With products we buy lifestyles that fit to us, and model our own identity. “People”, writes the cultural theorist Hartmut Böhme “expand their ego boundaries to ever more object realms. Never before was the world of things so dense, diverse, seductive, artificial, fascinating…” 7.
It is obvious that the automobile in particular possesses great potential for ego tuning, and is exactly predestined for an outwardly oriented interpretation in such a way. Along the lines Me Mercedes, You Porsche, the automobile industry offers a whole collection of automobile identities, off the shelf so to speak: from tough SUV driver to the intellectual with a Swedish car.
While writing, I am reminded of my fellow student Dirk Stork. At the time I was studying he made an impression on me because he passionately came out against the automobile as a substitute identity, and prothesis for the soul under the title The ritualised dealing with individual mobility as a way of forging identity? An automobile cultour 8. “These pseudo identities offered by the car”, wrote Stork at the beginning of the 1990s in his mid-term examination in the department of Historical and Cultural Anthropology, “do have the advantage that they can be continually adapted to demands: however as a bearer of real identity they are exchangeable, and socially washable in an easy-care way, so to say” 9. Like a pamphleteer, he therefore called for the development of an inner identity and not consumption to be placed at the centre of life: one that the individual generates from within during a reflective process. Stork concludes that people should be enabled through increased social opportunities to find and express their personality in a creative process in the same way as an artist or scientist. This brings us to the present.
Reading these lines again from earlier it becomes clear to me what fascinated me so much about Rohrer’s individualised automobiles from the start. As counter models to the glossy aesthetics of automobile product ranges, his four and two wheel art creations are an authentic expression of individual freedom that have taken on a form; they are inspired and, as an expression of a life guided from within, they embody less the sham but rather the authenticity, and not least the freedom of art. Coming across a quotation from Roland Barthes that the truth can best be read from the wastebasket, my respect for Rohrer’s position soars skywards into infinity like a sheet metal gladiolus.
Then it suddenly struck me: Rohrer is a modern Shaman who, in hours of manual work, devotedly breathes new life into already devalued, industrially mass-produced products – exchangeable off-the-shelf goods – thereby giving them a new aura as an art fetish. On our behalf, he stoically searches for the truth in scrap so that we can hardly but recognize our pursuit and desire as mirrored by a Ford Mustang, Opel Kadett, or VW Beetle given a new life by the artist’s hand, and laugh about ourselves.
My job is finished. After the interview with Stefan Rohrer we drive off together to a Stuttgart studio. In keeping with the spirit of the age, it is no accident that it is situated in a scrapyard. The gaze of the artist falls on a battered 911 Porsche body. His eyes begin to light up, and I feel certain that, possibly unlike the casualties that were in it, a second life in art awaits this wreck; perhaps even an everlasting eternal existence in a museum.