Image Situation

Laura Preston writes on Richard Frater's exhibition Off season at Kunstverein München in Munich.

I read some time ago about a jazz musician; his name was Ornette Coleman. In an interview with philosopher Jacques Derrida, he told of how he would play as though glancing over his shoulder—what was heard was more the memory of the song than the song itself.[1] This is perhaps not the most obvious place to begin when reviewing visual artist Richard Frater’s first solo exhibition in Europe, at Kunstverein München earlier this year, named Off season and spanning the winter to early spring months. But may it be said that the exhibition was a distilled replay of the artist’s spatial concerns, material interests and poetics, based on an idea related to the recall of sound or, more specifically, song. Birdsong.

There is a history, then, to be told of an art practice, just as the historical imprint of a building informed this recent exhibition project by Frater. The Kunstverein building in Munich is literally cloistered. It sits between the orderly, human-populated, sixteenth-century Renaissance Hofgarten and the unregulated, more bird-populated Finanzgarten, annex to the Englischer Garten, and closer to the river Isar. These are differences that the building physically bridges but which visitors do not usually notice, yet Frater did; he revealed this horizontal axis of orientation—purposely dismissed in the architectural plans through high walls and only a trim of windows—and, furthermore, he invited other life in.

Frater often approaches artistic research alongside conservation work.[2] He is also an avid bird watcher. His first thought for bridging the green spaces in Munich was to expand the bio-acoustic sphere by broadcasting archival birdsong with that recorded in real time, and to position this sonic rippling from either side of the building’s attic at the level of the tree canopies. However, after a series of consultations with ornithologists, Frater decided that the playback during the winter months would only increase stress for birds already competing for limited resources in the hostile city environment; typically, birds reduce their singing in winter to conserve energy, and many in Europe migrate to warmer climates in the Mediterranean or the African continent. It is the season, after all, to be off.

Richard Frater, Invitation dilemma (Honey buzzard), 2023, ambrotype (collodion positive print on glass), 14 × 11 cm

This year, Kunstverein München is celebrating its 200-year anniversary; consider what the organisation must have witnessed over two centuries of art fellowship, and in such a country as Germany. The institution has initiated an archival project to mark this bicentennial year. Frater responded in turn to the Kunstverein’s internal reflections by implicating the art institution in its much broader, ecological relations. Taking cue again from the allusions in the exhibition title—language matters—the ‘off season’ is a time of both restoration and review. In relation to the environment, it implies the dysregulation of present-time seasonal cycles: the seasons are all the more indistinct due to global warming, as seen in freak weather conditions, raging fires and torrential rains. It also anticipates the return of spring’s vivid life and birdsong. These are topographical metaphors given by Frater to the institution. And this sets the scene.

Inside the building, Scaffold (2023) was the first encountered and most visually dominant sculptural object. As a knowingly temporary structure, more often used for maintenance, it arched the first two exhibition halls, and from its platform visitors were able to see out from the high windows and toward both gardens. The sculpture also retraced an exhibition by Jef Geys at the Kunstverein in 2001, which presented a scaffold construction alongside a series of paintings, ‘Grote Zaadzakjes’ (‘Large seed bags’, 1962–2001). Once a year, since the early 1960s, Geys made a painting of a seed packet, bright with motif and inscription, and then sowed the seeds into his garden. Every painting carried the plant’s Latin name and its common name, emphasising the incongruity of categorisation, but also implying species hybridity. This emphasis has resonance with Frater’s project, notably for how Frater considers the actual complexities of urban life, imaging hybrid and symbiotic species compositions, nonhuman with human, and infrastructure as shared. His exhibitions are by no means singular, then. They implicate context. Nor, in fact, was this solo Frater’s first. His exhibition Living Cities 2011– (note the dash, of continuation) at Te Pātaka Toi Adam Art Gallery similarly presented sculptural interventions—a sound work made in collaboration with artist Richard Francis and gestures of material displacement— asserting an understanding of place as a build-up of multiple images and perspectives, birds’ included.[3]

From Frater’s scaffold in Munich another of his architectural insertions was visible, a tunnel set between two windows. Flight tunnel (2023), a semi- opaque, relatively light, elevated structure, spanned the width of the second exhibition hall, from one open window to its opposite, from one garden to the other. It invited passage—for birds.[4] As curator Gloria Hasnay writes, “The tunnel sculpture envisages the connection between the two adjacent tree canopies by creating a safe route across the institution.”[5] The sculpture, then, implicated a more-than-human sociality, an update on conceptual art’s interest in the socio-political dimensions of art as well as institutional critique.[6] Or, to put it differently, and as the artist himself quotes from geographer Doreen Massey, the work recognises “space as a simultaneity of stories- so-far.”[7] And so he tells stories, in image terms.

Richard Frater, Invitation dilemma (wood pigeon, Akademie der Künste, Hansaviertiel), 2023, C-print, digital scan from 35mm colour film, 45 × 30.2 cm
Richard Frater, Flight tunnel, 2023, wood, insulating panels, paint, foam, bird feeders, dimensions variable. Installation view, Kunstverein München, Munich, February 2023. Photo: Max Geuter

One such story is of the exponential use of glass in modern architecture, and how these resulting prisms of implied transparency and relatively low cost trick the perceptual capacities of urban bird populations. (In Wellington, the subject was metallurgic; the quick- fire roofing nails that allowed for expedient housing construction were later found to be the cause of lead poisoning in endemic birdlife.) When preparing for the group exhibition Common Birds with artist Scott Rogers and the professional bird photographer Georgina Steytler at Oracle in Berlin in 2018, Frater came across an incident involving his chosen city bird of study, the goshawk—one of these rare creatures had flown directly into a glass façade.[8] Frater went on to research and capture too many such incidents, especially those related to art museum buildings located in green spaces, finding trace of the impact, the smash, sometimes a feather. And as the series of photographs punctuating the show in Munich attested to—especially the alchemical ambrotypes, all smoky and spectral— these violences are disturbingly aesthetic. There is something of Warhol in their tonality, particularly those serial images of car crash, race riot, electric chair that convey the paradox of cruelty, its repulsion and attraction, as critical commentary on the modern.

Frater also reflects on the ethical tensions of image making, as noted in the title of the photographic series ‘Invitation dilemma’ (2020–23) that draws attention to the image as a problem.[9] These photographs could be seen to be mimicking the glass façades and their false invitation for a clear passage through the building by aestheticising the harmful realities of modern constructions. But it also could be said that Frater surrounds “an image in order to unsettle it,” a phrase that critical, poetic thinkers Stefano Harney and Fred Moten apply to recognising the complexities of modern democracy’s false image.[10] Their topographical metaphor was referenced in critic David Joselit’s article on the image as more than representational, and rather a complex ‘situation’.

Richard Frater, Off season. Installation view, Kunstverein München, Munich, February 2023. Photo: Max Geuter

Frater too reframes the artwork in relation to context and to life; his exhibitions, citing Joselit, are “a physical act of occupation as a form of progressive image politics.”[11] The tunnel that occupied the Kunstverein was modelled on a structure used by ornithologists at Biologische Station Hohenau-Ringelsdorf, located outside Vienna, for researching the navigational and orientational skills of birds in relation to differing treatments of glass façades. Their research illuminates the need for architects to recognise birdlife and to design bird-safe solutions prior to building. Frater noticed the tunnel as a possible readymade, that there was potential to make a Duchampian gesture. Winter and spring mark the off season for the research facility, too, so he was able to borrow parts of the structure for exhibition. The conservationist tunnel, as an enclosed, darkened container with an aperture, carries the appearance of a camera’s interior. Frater’s corresponding tunnel also recalls the dynamics of conceptual artist Dan Graham’s audience-feedback situation Performer/Audience/Mirror (1975) and his sculptural pavilions of multiple refracted planes, such as Oktogon für Münster (1987), a pavilion made of two-way mirrored glass.

But Flight tunnel was not used for testing—or, if it was, it was directed more toward the reception of the human visitor, their perception of a place, and their assumptions of the building’s purpose and who may occupy it—the work deflected the representational image into a situation. This was seen again in Live stream (2023), presented in the third and final exhibition hall of the Kunstverein. Based on the initial idea of working with birdsong, this live-feed video transmitted images recorded by a camera placed in the attic and facing out toward the tree canopies, capturing the Hofgarten, including the passages made by human visitors through its hedgerow paths before and after entering the Kunstverein, alternating with a close-up on the branch of a tree in the Finanzgarten, which intermittently imaged resting birds as well as budding spring.

This is the contemporary work of a critical image practice as situation. It refers to histories of conceptual art and it is ecologically inspired: an update on institutional critique, it goes further and attends to the consequences of modernity for the more-than-human urban environment to image other spatial structures. Birds did, in fact, use the tunnel during the off season in Munich, but, as Richard Frater comments, the work was not merely altruistic; it was a conceptual visualisation of the complexities of systematic thinking during a season for reflection, informed by the latent potentials of song.[13]

Richard Frater, Live stream, 2023, ​​video live stream from the attic of Kunstverein München into Hof- and Finanzgarten. Installation view, Kunstverein München, Munich, February 2023. Photo: Max Geuter

Header image: Richard Frater, Off season.  Installation view, Kunstverein München, Munich, February 2023. Photo: Max Geuter

[1] Ornette Coleman, interviewed by Jacques Derrida, ‘The Other’s Language: Jacques Derrida Interviews Ornette Coleman,
23 June 1997,’ trans. Timothy S. Murphy, Les Inrockuptibles 115 (1997): 37–40, 43.
[2] Richard Frater’s conservation work includes, more recently, volunteering as a bird ringer during the spring-summer of 2022, tracking birds at Ottenby Fågelstation, on the southern cape of Öland, an island off the coast of Sweden, where migratory sea and land birds from Eastern Europe, Siberia and Africa gather seasonally. It is a site that birds have returned to over many generations.
[3] Richard Frater, Living Cities 2011–, Te Pātaka Toi Adam Art Gallery, Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington, curated by Laura Preston, with Stephen Cleland, 2015.
[4] Richard Frater has been opening windows in art spaces for some time. He removed a 6 partition wall to reveal a window and a view as part of Living Cities 2011–, and in the same year removed the entire window frontage of the project space Alterations in Wellington in Retouch Some Real with Some Real, curated by Amit Charan, Joel Cocks and Laura Preston.
[5] Gloria Hasnay, Richard Frater, Off season (exhibition booklet) (Munich: Kunstverein München, 2023).
[6] Another sculptural echo of Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube (1963–65) is Richard Frater’s aquarium sculpture Stop Shell (oyster Filter version) (2017), in which a live oyster filters, cleans and contributes to the maintenance and care of its own ecosystem. For a comprehensive account of these earlier sculptural works, see Boaz Levin, ‘Nothing Consoles You Like Despair,’ Contemporary Hum, 22 March 2019.
[7] Doreen Massey, For Space (London: Sage Publications, 2005), 9; notably, the quote from Massey was written in Frater’s hand as part of his work Sketch (2022).
[8] In birding circles, the relatively large, rehabilitated population of the rare goshawk in Berlin has made the city a much-pilgrimed destination. Similarly, as it is well known, it is a city of artists.
[9] Invitation Dilemma was the title of Richard Frater’s exhibition in 2020 at Kunsthaus Glarus, where he first showed the series of photographs.
[10] Quoted in David Joselit, ‘Against Representation,’ Texte zur Kunst 95, ‘Art vs. Image’ (September 2014).
[11] Ibid.
[12] Frater has considered the inside structure of the camera before and abstracted it into an installation. See his exhibition project focused on a Greenpeace calendar photograph, shot by a nature photographer earlier sentenced for the Rainbow Warrior bombing and manslaughter, at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, curated by Matt Hinkley, 2015, presented again in the Biennale für aktuelle Fotografie, Mannheim-Ludwigshafen-Heidelberg, curated by Boaz Levin, 2017.
[13] Richard Frater in conversation with the author, studio visit, Berlin, 9 May 2023.

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