Based on a True Story (2017)
Dawn Michelle D'atri
15 x 21 cm
What Do Pictures Present to Us?
In this instance, we must insist on reading and rescuing the “moments of truth” preserved in the photos, or else it no longer makes sense to speak of truth at all.
Hito Steyerl 
Based on a True Story—the exhibition title catches our attention, for it promises something familiar to us from movies and novels: a story that is extraordinary, perhaps tragic, but always taken from real life. Such a true story is then told with words and images. But what is the relation to that reality being referenced by the narrative? This scenario instigated by the title touches on precisely that question that informs discourse about the documentary. After all, it harbours in its very essence this aspiration of being shaped by a true story.
The question as to whether and how truths manifest in documents is posed in the political sphere even more urgently than in the private. This is especially the case when it comes to processing the Holocaust, which is brought to bear in Tatiana Lecomte’s work. How to represent this horror? Claude Lanzmann, for his film Shoah (1985), arranged current pictures of the site of crimes in relation to interviews with contemporary witnesses. He forewent archival material, such as documents on the liberation of the concentration and extermination camps. Lecomte, too, shows only a few sheep behind a fence or the unassuming masonry of an old abbey in her series Leben und leben lassen (2005). But we know where we are: at a place where the unimaginable and perhaps unrenderable happened, where a concentration camp and later an asylum for “problem girls” were located.
Again and again, the work of Tatiana Lecomte revolves around questions of representability—and around those gaps in pictorial memory that permeate discourses like that of the Holocaust, around image politics like those pursued by the National Socialists, which use imagery to reinforce ideologies and to repress anything that might be surmised beyond the pictures. It seems as if Lecomte were searching images for moments of truth, for instance in those that suddenly appear and frustrate image politics. This includes, for example, four photographs that were secretly captured by inmates at Auschwitz; Georges Didi-Huberman insists upon the veracity of these shots in his book Images in Spite of All. But it also includes photographs like the one presented by Lecomte in her work Kadavergehorsam 1 (2010) rendering the young Wehrmacht soldier and thus visualizing the heteronomy and loneliness of the individual within the psychological collective.
In the Leibnitz exhibition, Lecomte taps into her own archive for the first time in the form of an installative presentation. She shows different works and allows them to reciprocally offer commentary. Some of the images (perforated contact prints) have been hung front to back on the wall. Even Kadavergehorsam 1 remains concealed, for Lecomte has leaned the work backwards against the wall. Labelling on the reverse side gives an indication of what might otherwise be visible, for example, Silvester 1934 (New Year’s Eve 1934). A narrative is hinted at here, perhaps touching on how the private and the political became enmeshed during the Third Reich in an oppressive way. Other works are made visible by Lecomte in a fragmentary pictorial cosmos, with reproductions of book pages that show a starlit sky from an astrology book or straw stars from a crafts book meeting unfinished puzzles with idyllic mountain landscapes, views of the Breitenau concentration camp, or a film still from the 1940s.
What is visible and what not? What is shown and what not? And which reality (or true story) is really being presented to us by the pictures? Lined up in rows is a series of Polaroids that depict a gallows from different perspectives. The work Am Struthof (2005) was created in Alsace, in the only former Nazi imprisonment and labour camp that is today situated on French soil. Yet what we see, rather than an original, is actually a replica of the gallows formerly in operation there, a reproduction of a true story, so to speak. As a highly enlarged C-print, Lecomte then shows a further aspect of the gallows, though not immediately recognizable as such due to the perspective. The artist photographed the view from one of the Polaroids—it is the reproduction of the reproduction of the reproduction of a true story. Even though the gallows is little more than a piece of wood, says Lecomte, it is needed in order to immerse oneself in the past. Even this wood is imbued with a moment of truth.
The private ultimately comes into play in an especially obvious way. Lecomte, who regularly comes across fascinating compilations of pictures at flea markets and other places, shows an enlargement of a slide from the private archive of a man who photographed his wife in pornographic positions over the course of decades. The picture selected by Lecomte is one of only two in which he himself is also seen in the nude. Lecomte already used this collection of slides for her work Die El-Alamein-Stellung. Eine Montage (Positions at El-Alamein: A Montage, 2012), with the wife posing naked on the beach of El-Alamein, where the Allied forces won two victories in 1942. The artist mounted the images together with pictures from history books and films that for instance show bodies of dead soldiers on this very beach.
Lecomte photographed the images for Die El-Alamein-Stellung in such a way that her fingers remain visible along the edge of the picture. Reflection on her own position as the producer of the images and visual constellations is an essential part of her practice, in the present exhibition more than ever. We can imagine how Lecomte—like a director on set—selects the found and self-made photos that reference a “true story” in manifold ways and then rearranges them again and again; how she orchestrates her archive so as to finally leave it up to the viewers to pick up the narrative threads and develop them further—on a quest for moments of truth that are suspended in the images.
1 Hito Steyerl, “Documentarism as Politics of Truth” (2003), in Marius Babias (ed.), Jenseits der Repräsentation / Beyond Representation: Essays 1999–2009, vol. 4: n.b.k. Diskurs (Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2016), p. 186.