Richter / Pärt review – history is everywhere and the present is fleeting
Source:theguardian Author:Adrian Searle Date: 2015-07-13 Size:
The essence of the collaboration between German painter Gerhard Richter and Estonian composer Arvo Pärt rests in our grappling between the differences between what we hear and what we see……

Gerhard Richter, left, and Arvo Pärt at the premiere of Richter/Pärt, part of the Manchester international festival.

The essence of the collaboration between German painter Gerhard Richter and Estonian composer Arvo Pärt rests in our grappling between the differences between what we hear and what we see, what we are told and what we experience with our senses, what is mediated and what hits us directly.

It also rests in the difference between a painting and a photographic reproduction, a musical composition and its performance, the story the music alludes to and the things buried under the painting, and what it points to. All this gets recomplicated as we stand in the single gallery at the Whitworth amongst Pärt’s singers and Richter’s almost-paintings.

The four abstract paintings hung high on one wall are photographic reproductions. Each is divided into four equal sections and the gaps between the sections create a cross. The original painting is currently being exhibited at the Albertinum in Dresden, opposite another set of reproductions, as though it were being shown in a hall of mirrors. Richter considers the reproductions part of the same work as the canvas itself, which is titled Birkenau.

Related: Connecting the odd couple: Gerhard Richter and Arvo Pärt

These abstractions are produced in Richter’s familiar layered and squeegee’d manner. It is as if some now unknowable image has been deconstructed on the painting’s embattled surface, with its skids and blurred brushstrokes and interrupted layers. Black slurs over white. Red and sometimes green cross the surface, disintegrating, stuttering, petering out. The squeegee Richter paints with sucks under-layers to the surface. Richter’s abstract paintings are always on the verge of saying something or resolving into some sort of image, but they don’t. If this were a TV you’d want to whack it with your shoe, in the hope that things might become clear. The title, Birkenau, refers to the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and, I have been told, under all that paint is a pencil drawing, copied from four photographs taken by an inmate of the camp, depicting piles of bodies. Richter realised that to paint the image, in his familiar, blurred realist style, was impossible. So it has been buried under a slurry of blacks and whites, greens and reds.

Knowing this makes you look differently, just as knowing that Pärt’s choral work, sung by a choir that stands among us in the gallery, refers to the visitations of the Virgin that appeared to three shepherd children in rural Portugal in 1917, predicted the second world war, and presaged visions of hell. The Virgin also exhorted Russia to return to the church.

Pärt’s singers repeat the same song, seven times in succession. Every time it sounds different. Richter’s four grey diptychs, hanging opposite the Birkenau panels, play a further formal game of similarity and difference (the paint hidden from us on the reverse of glass sheets). The grey, paired panels are alike one another, but no two greys are the same, though each pair of panels has one lighter, one darker sheet. Comparisons between the different pairs are difficult to make, and shift according to where we stand, the ambient lighting and time of day. They are filled with murky reflections. Similarly, listening to Pärt’s music, we sense differences in the rendition, even though exact comparisons are difficult. In any case, the various choirs that will be singing between now and 19 June will all undoubtedly sound different to one another.

Pärt’s Drie Hirtenkinder aus Fatima, with its rendition of the 8th Psalm (Alleluia, alleluia … Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast Thou ordained strength) has both a sacred quality and a kind of innocence. Richter’s paintings here do not reveal themselves, and have nothing to reveal except the stories that have already begun to accrue around them. If we find meaning in them it is in part a matter of faith (of whatever sort) and suggestibility, and a knowledge of where they belong in a history of images, abstractions and preoccupations. There are no unmediated images, and no musical compositions that come out of nowhere. History is everywhere and the present is fleeting. That’s what being in this room, with this music and these images is about.

The Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, until 19 July

[Editor] 张艳

    Artintern