Monday, September 08, 2008

The birth of the modern

Johann Dieter Wassmann, Untitled, Mexico City, 1897. Albumen silver print, 18 x 23 cm.

As a pioneer in the field of sewerage management, Johann Dieter Wassmann travelled extensively through the 1880s and 1890s, designing and overseeing the construction of waste disposal systems in Europe, the Americas and the Asia/Pacific region. He took passage on his final voyage in 1897, travelling to Cuba and Mexico, where he consulted with Mexico City officials on the ponderous task of devising a gravity sewerage system for an ancient city built in a lake at the bottom of a valley.

Most of Wassmann’s overseas travels took place prior to his gaining an interest in photography, leaving previous adventures largely undocumented. By 1897, however, his photographic skills were well-honed, as was his dexterity with the new hand-held roll film cameras widely available at the time, allowing him a degree of mobility and spontaneity unimagined until the late 1890s. Nowhere is this more evident than in his breathtakingly modernist vision of Mexico City.

This portfolio is often compared to the early work of Manual Álvarez Bravo, but any similarity may be more attributable to content than either style or intent. Wassmann’s motivation and sensitivity sits more comfortably with that of his fellow Europeans, sharing more closely the strong geometric, volumetric and spatial concerns of Aleksandr Rodchenko, Boris Ignatovic and Eugéne Atget, whose work would, of course, only come a decade or more later. All the same, the birth of the modernist vision, arising at any number of places and over a number of years, expressed itself universally with an energy, originality and clarity unencumbered by all that came before.

The untitled photograph I’ve pictured above is often cited as one of Wassmann’s most pioneering works, an image of absolute purity, reduced to minimal geometry and form. Die Mut zur Lücke, as Kurt Schwitters would later confide: the courage to leave things out. The charm of this image, however, also rests subtly in its content. Johann was, after all, a sewerage engineer; he has chosen here to record curbing and channelling and the passage of storm water on its journey to a drain somewhere beyond the picture’s edge. Like Rodchenko, he has placed his photograph beyond personal ego, elevating it rather to the service of a larger societal good, that of technological advancement. This subtext of the utopian dream so evident in the early modernist movement is without precedent in the history of art.

Over these past three years, I have done my best to place this blog in the service of a larger good as well, that of raising our understanding of the foundations of modernism itself. To this end, I have often merged Wassmann’s work into the contemporary dialogue, as in my discussions of Roger Buergel’s leitmotif “Is modernity our antiquity?” during last year’s Documenta and currently with Daniel Birnbaum’s “50 moons of Saturn” for the upcoming Turin Triennale. It is my conviction that without a thorough understanding of the great hopes of the modernist dream, it is impossible to assess the failings of the modern movement today. Toward this end, I hope our efforts to better understand the works of Johann Dieter Wassmann have brought readers a measure closer to understanding what expectations we should hold for the contemporary artist.

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