Pola Sieverding is a young artist whose work shows a clear connection with recognizable strands that have emerged from Germany onto the international art and fashion scenes in past decades. For example, there’s a certain air of the throwaway incidental moments of Wolfgang Tillmans’ detached photography: a slight affinity with Juergen Teller’s refusal to deny human bodies their actual physicality.

And then, of course, there is her mother. It is really best to get that out of the way: to address it rather than pretend it doesn’t matter. As the daughter of Katharina Sieverding, one of Europe’s most distinguished artists, Pola has chosen a special burden for herself in daring to enter into the world of the professional artist. The fact that she also chooses to work primarily in photography – the medium for which her mother is not only known, but considered one of the key artists who uncompromisingly asserted the right of the medium to exists as ‘fine art’ without any qualifications or apologies in the 1970’s – makes one even wonder whether Pola is something of a masochist.

The lazy observer might even muse that there is a certain aesthetic sensibility that Pola’s saturated C-type prints share with some of the iconic works of her mother. But, any such observer really would be very lazy if he or she could not immediately also see huge differences and distinctions. Perhaps most notable and significant in getting to grips with the works of Pola Sieverding is that she, unlike her mother, seems to have no real interest in turning her camera on herself.

Katharina Sieverding is most famous for producing works in which self-portraiture becomes a vehicle for discussing a vast range of topics. These have ranged from theoretical points about the nature of ‘the documentary’ or representation through to even more significant points exploring the twentieth century’s main image-making technology’s ability to be harnessed to much more traditional artistic drives such as expression and Expressionism.

Pola Sieverding may share certain affinities for conducting similarly complex discussions via the medium of photography, but she is already proving assertive in showing her own artistic practice is adept, individual and, above all else, not necessarily linked to the coincidence of birth.

In the work of Pola Sieverding, for example, we find little evidence of an interest in conveying even a staged or implied notion of personal or autobiographical expression. At times, the clinical coldness of her voyeuristic lens is frightening. It is never cruel or inhumane – quite the contrary, in fact – but we find a complete discipline in allowing any overly emotive or sentimental notions enter the image. The humanity that emerges within the work of Pola Sieverding does so almost entirely because of this discipline or distance: realities and truths about her subjects emerge because she documents the nature of their illusions and delusions without being seduced into simply reinforcing them.

This tense line between involvement and icy distance is particularly evident in a recent series of works forming the core of her ‘Cadavre Exquis’ series. In it we are confronted by portrait-like images of a range of disparate individuals ranging from women in traditional Islamic dress walking in the street through to drag queens and people dressed up in fetish clothing. The overblown colours and strange contrasts, lapsing at times into blotchy abstraction, make it immediately evident that Pola Sieverding has little interest in the work being judged in traditional documentary photography terms, though, of course, its actual mode of production is, in fact, documentary in the simplest sense. There is a sense that her camera is being used to convey the inner reality of her subjects; to construct an image of the world as they see it and visually describe the fantasies and illusions that they hold. And yet, simultaneously, the very specific selection of images and their presentation, indicate that she refuses to be seduced, keeps that distance that ultimately allows us – and them – to recognize the level of (self)delusion at play in all of the various scenes.

This is particularly startling in the images of drag queens and fetish freaks. There is something of that special quality of early work by Nan Goldin in which, by entering into a scenario in which the photo is taken and colluding with an enactment, a starker, more poignant truth is revealed. Here, as in certain works by Goldin, we are left with no doubt that we (the audience), photographer and subject all share a moment of connection in which no one could mistake the parameters of fiercely guarded illusion and harsh reality.

Furthermore, another notable feature of Sieverding’s emerging oeuvre is the very is the very particular type of objectivity it creates. And since it knowingly creates this ‘objectivity’ – educated in theory that allows her to know that no actual extant objectivity exists – we should be particularly mindful of this development in her work. In a sense, this is what the work of a contemporary heir to the spirit of Neue Sachlichkeit looks like. While sharing few similarities with the visual building blocks of that specifically German visual language emerging in the Weimar Republic years, it turns out that there are, in fact, a vast slew of similarities. The fine line between deep compassion and a cold, almost defeatist, distance. The overt living and extreme interest in the world around the artist whilst simultaneously conveying a sense that the world, in fact, is beyond any real intervention. Pola Sieverding’s works share little of the cynical sneers or cruel humour of a Dix or Heartfield, but looking at the way she sees her subjects we can definitely find a suggestion of the quiet resignation of Christian Schad or theatrical neutrality of Rudolf Schlichter.

It’s even in the name: “Cadavre Exquis”. Alluding to the famous game of Surrealists in which each participant draws a section of a person before folding it and passing it on to the next, the surprising – and inevitably grotesque and deformed – character emerges to all as a surprise. With the title, Sieverding states her position. She turns her camera on a world in which body parts of alienated human beings, clad in the trappings of their own aspirations and delusion, have no relative value. Anything goes and everything is equal; amoral and as inevitably as the grinding cogs of modernity. This world-weary – though not truly cynical – position, in which the once outrageous activities of fetishists or exotic ‘otherness’ of unfamiliar cultures must develop their visual meaning on a level playing field of global Internet image fodder, inherits the mantle of an earlier generation that turned its scheissegal gaze on a Berlin in which anything was possible. To be a documentarian, or to make a specific intervention? If not quite a Culture of Despair, then certainly Pola Sieverding gives no illusion that she is uncertain as to how seriously she should take it all. Does one survive through wading in idealistically and earnestly or does one have to see it all as a big intriguing game watched from the sidelines?


Published in: WOUND - Creative Culture Close Up, Autumn 2009