Ricarda Roggan began her career by photographing spare constellations of furniture in dank, grey rooms, or piled up in isolated dark spaces underneath transparent plastic tarps. There has always been a sense of forlorn isolation in her still lifes, beginning in those cramped rooms in which she took great care to place old tables and chairs in just the right arrangements. ‘Still Life’, her first institutional solo show in Germany, collects several of her series made between 2003 and 2008. Press about Roggan’s work regularly cites the fact that her images are taken in disused spaces in the former East Germany, where the artist was born and still lives. Such places are laden with suggestions of failed systems and obsolete ways of life – well-worn territory for her German photographic peers and predecessors. Thankfully her photographs don’t rely solely on this evocative patina of obsolescence for their meaning. Roggan quotes her peers and examines her loaded context knowingly, making photos that refuse rather than invite romanticization of the aesthetic of the past. She does not simply document these defunct spaces as they have been left; rather, she carefully prepares, cleans and in some cases revamps them, so her series become documents of subtle actions or understated new installations.
Roggan shoots her stark, conceptual series with a large-format camera, making every detail always and equally visible, though this extreme accuracy doesn’t yield any more information about her subjects themselves. Her images remain hermetic and impenetrable. ‘Schacht’ (Shaft, 2006) is a series of nine photographs of empty, claustrophobic brick rooms that could almost pass for former (or potential) white cubes, but which are actually ventilation rooms in a disused cotton-spinning plant in East Germany (though they could just as easily be located in an old building in the West). What is significant is the contrast between their former state and the meticulous alterations Roggan makes before photographing them: newly poured and smoothed concrete covers the floors, still visibly wet, and the windows and doors have been sealed with freshly painted white plasterboard. In stark contrast to the stained and peeling brick walls, these simple interventions almost function as abstract paintings intended to be documented by these images, reminiscent of the deliberately sterile and exacting fabrications of Thomas Demand or Gregor Schneider. Roggan’s camera aims directly at the walls, never more than a few feet away, creating a stonewalling of possibilities: we are trapped here with her, confined, literally, to watch paint dry.
Similarly claustrophobic, the series ‘Attika’ (Attic, 2006) pictures old wooden attics in which slivers of light penetrate the slats between the boards, barely illuminating these dark corners. Not only have the attics been cleared of whatever belongings may have been stored there, they’ve also been prepped for their close-ups by Roggan – the floors have been swept clean of dust, so they look like sterile new constructions built from old materials. The images have a feeling of rigid meticulousness that doesn’t let the viewer make any assumptions beyond their surfaces. Her deliberate staging and photographic precision carefully regulate the details we have to work with.
Roggan’s two most recent series move away from allusions to her East German past and toward more generic subjects, and in this sense they are even more accomplished. ‘Bäume’ (Trees, 2008) is a series of six unframed prints that picture nothing other than the dense green foliage of a forest from a birds’-eye view. It’s tempting to anthropomorphize these living trees with their tangles of vines and drooping boughs. Like the sealed off rooms, there is a kind of refusal or stubbornness in these views, even in their dense detail. ‘Garage’ (2008) is another nocturnal suite of photos, not unlike the still-life arrangements of her furniture piles, which shows frontal views of wrecked cars illuminated by harsh lamplight. Roggan manages to make these objects seem to represent a human failing or a human emotion, as if they are victims rather than just vehicles. A falling-off bumper looks like a frowning mouth, while smashed headlamps suggest downcast eyes. The spectre of abandonment, isolation and death is present – not only because there has been an accident, but because these cars are obviously not bound for the repair shop: they will remain permanently obsolete.
In their restrained subject matter and carefully controlled execution, Roggan’s scenarios can seem incredibly desolate, even repressed. In her earlier series, the artist seemed to have isolated herself inside these cramped rooms in order to limit her own possibilities. This strict confinement could equally have been a statement about the limitations of constantly resurrecting the ghosts of socialism past – its defunct architecture and interiors. Luckily Roggan has found a way out of this dead end by exploring new subject matter that escapes the constraints of its context.
First published in Issue 118