Walter Benjamin’s well-known phrase, ‘Ideas are to objects as constellations are to stars’ perfectly describes Christian Wachter’s art, because the relationship between its actual objects and their meaning is never essential but always open to interpretation. Wachter’s work is composed of and by this rather loose and contingent relation, his constellations shifting according to our perspective as we follow their breaks and gaps as much as their narratives and arguments. Perhaps, in this, Wachter is a contemporary artist typical of his generation, one interested in opening the world’s possibilities, rather than in preventing them from closing.

Wachter’s first work, “disappearance of landscape…” (1981-83), is a series of twinned images of the same thing, one taken in daylight and the other in the dark. This, the artist tells us, illustrates the difference between ‘the visible world’ and the conventions of the photographic ‘medium’ (space, time, light, etc.), and so reveals an ‘other nature’ (as Wachter quotes Benjamin), that only appears to the camera. This other nature has always interested Wachter, along with the ‘entirely new structural formations of the subject’ it reveals. As Wachter continues to cite Benjamin: ‘an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man. […] The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulse.’ Wachter’s work explores this unconscious optics in two ways; first in snapshot images, which he has consistently employed since at least o.T. Acedia (1985-87); and second, in more objective or documentary photographs taken with large-format cameras (e.g., Persönlicher Code (1989), or more recently the studio images of empty cigarette packets NFT-C (Non-Fungible Tobacco Containers), which Wachter dates before-2014 (when he smoked them), 2017 (when the photos were taken), and 2022 (when they were printed).

These two photographic approaches form a counterpoint in Wachter’s oeuvre, harmonising in their explorations of an other nature, while remaining independent in rhythm and tone (to borrow the musical terminology), forming constellations that congeal around internal difference. Wachter’s use of counterpoint as a compositional technique is most clearly seen in Obergrenze (Fuga) (2015), where photos of birds in the Algerian sky intersperse snapshot images of European churches taken through car and train windows. The two sets of images form a fugue (‘one of the most interesting and exciting forms of counterpoint’ the artist tells us) offering a poetic reflection on the refugee crises that was the work’s context. The raw and sometimes brutal framing of the churches refers the ‘Obergrenze’ discussed by the Austrian government at the time to its catholic background, while the soaring and elegantly organic murmuration of the birds in Algeria escapes it. This constellation of Obergrenze not only traces specific ideas from the contrapuntal arrangement of the photographs, but as well, offers us quite contradictory emotions. Together, these not only suggest an elegant reversal of accepted prejudice, but also open a new path, one that explores an other nature of feeling. This places ‘new structural formations of the subject’ at the very heart of the work, whose generosity of composition affirms openness as a poetic-political principle.

Despite these philosophical and political dimensions to Wachter’s work, the photographs themselves dwell on the surface of things. His snapshot images bring us up close, emphasising the artist’s presence and the intimacy of frozen time, as is the case in the many photos of the woman brushing her hair in Impressions D’AFRIQUE. But almost opposite in their intention, the more objective works express the artist’s distance, literally and figuratively, as in the long-shots of Diar El Mahçoul (2010–2011) showing us public housing in Algiers, or in the studio images of NFT-Cs whose timeless scientific demeanour evaporates Wachter’s presence, even as the objects themselves (cigarette packets) are his memory. In different ways, then, these works explore the camera’s unconscious optics, their opposed approaches laying out photography’s conditions. This is something Wachter often emphasises by placing photographs alongside other systems of expression, most commonly written language. In A-Z (1987-88) the letters of the alphabet correspond to portraits of writers with names beginning with the appropriate letter, in Persönlicher Code (1989) words taken from the ATM and images of banks are juxtaposed, in Europe (1992-93) it is places and their names, and both Impressions D’AFRIQUE and Einbildungen. Eingebildet (2009) include drawings. As with these other systems, the other nature revealed by photography is simply another side of the already there, but one that escapes our conscious expectations and normal subjective structures. This unconscious surface of things not only appears in the photograph, it also asks for interpretation, making this other nature not only the condition of photography, but also of our relationship to it. In this sense, Wachter’s work operates like the analyst’s couch, as a device enabling free-association. But anyone who has gone through analysis knows its nuggets of insight are paid for in boredom, and Wachter’s work seems to acknowledge this in its lightness of touch, in the way it offers moments at once uncanny and ordinary. Wachter’s work is therefore composed around its internal differences (elegantly arranged in counterpoint), but also in relation to its outside, now interpolated through its interpretation. This commitment to openness can not only be seen in Wachter’s works dealing with former French colonies in Africa, but also in the way they enfold the viewer, constituting what Benjamin, in The Arcades Project calls an ‘image’: ‘image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.’ An image, therefore, is history unfolding around its outside, and like Wachter’s art it is a living present emerging from the past’s (or an artwork’s) interpretation.

The challenge Wachter’s work poses, therefore, is not to understand its structure but to implement it, to become an active protagonist within its living constellation. The viewer must put themselves in play, for this is the only way in which to ‘understand’ (ie., to create) the work’s meaning. Structure is there, of course, but it is not insistent, rather its an invitation to our own memories, or more radically, to our productive unconscious. This, finally, is what Benjamin means when he claims snapshot images reveal ‘entirely new structural formations of the subject’, these structures are not discovered, as if waiting for the fateful encounter, they are born from experiencing the other nature of Wachter’s photographs, whose ideas are not anchored in the subject, let alone their mysterious objects, but await their outside to once again create a new future.

From: Christian Wachter, Concept versus Photography, Fotogalerie Wien, Vienna 2022