Thomas Wrede. Strange Paradise

The Image: A Shore

"When viewing an artistic image, one is often confronted by emotional and intellectual paradox. What so candidly seizes one's attention is somehow disturbing, and yet the cause of the disturbance remains intangible and hidden. In contrast, what appears to be clear and understandable turns out to be nothing other than the result of a series of detours - intellectual negotiations, word usage, the ensuing clarity…All this derived from viewing a single artistic image or sculpture, where nothing is hidden and everything is executed with simplicity."

Georges Didi-Huberman, Confronting Images, 1990


A sailing ship upon a quiet sea, an airplane on a runway, an off-road tank, two wrapped trees, a settlement in a valley, a canyon, a beach, scattered people.

Not much is needed to describe this volume's photographic images, not even an affirmation. To perceive the subject matter in its true sense is an almost impossible endeavor. The childish reflex of identifying visible objects within the optical composition leads the viewer to an analytical deadlock. Every conceptual appropriation appears too simplistic, for no other reason than the fact that the conspicuousness of seemingly recognizable objects creates a perceptual void. House, tower, tree, forest, ocean…An iconographical reading of the composition reveals the image's illusive essence, and so the eye is challenged to seek out precise photographic parameters. The compositions are openly accessible; the color spectrum limited, the perspective at times alluding to the infinite. When first confronted by these images, one is left speechless due to the failure of conventional analytical strategies to decipher any meaning. It is true that according to Georges Didi- Huberman, "everything is executed with simplicity" in Thomas Wrede's photography-nothing is concealed. This volume's images are not disguising anything, yet still they remain cryptic. It is this paradox that enhances their iconic capacity.

Die Vögel stehen in der Luft und schreien / Samsø/ Magic Feelings

Those who are looking for a theoretical leitmotif in Thomas Wrede's photographic work are probably in for a moment of ambiguous discomfort. It is within the complex thought process of equivocation of meaning in relationship to the seemingly obvious that one begins to comprehend Wrede's work. One is accompanied by a growing sense of skepticism with each viewing. This process provokes the curiosity to uncover the conditions of the image's origin and to understand it. The more straightforward the image appears, the more obscure seem its related questions.

For example, what would the eye see if it could hear? "Die Vögel stehen in der Luft und schreien", is the title of a 12-part photographic project from 1994. This project depicts the menacingly dull thump that is caused by the impact of a bird on a glass wall. The fatal moment leaves remnants of blood, fat and feathers in its wake. The retroactive visualization of this moment by means of photography, with its reminiscence of the magical, evokes a cognitive short-circuit. In his tall format black and white photographs, Wrede exposes an acoustic memento mori, whose graphic quality is superimposed by cross-references. Manfred Schneckenburger describes the visual impact, "Like a bodiless phantom suddenly becoming corporeal and remaining all apparitional at the same time…Like a harrowed, vulnerable and out-of-proportion memory shining as a luminous vision in front of a black, cosmic terrain."

Viewing the image releases an unsettling echo, which continues to resonate in the 1996 series of works known as "Magic Feelings." This project involves a 30-part portrait series focusing on the passengers of a roller coaster. Unconstrained facial gestures demonstrating a fine line between excitement and terror are exposed in the capturing of these ever-vacillating expressions.

Wrede's first landscape project also invites multiple levels of interpretation. In "Samsø" (1994-1996), named after a Danish island, the artist/photographer discovers a manipulated landscape. The island's terrain with its bizarre fauna of plastic foil renders apocalyptic compositions. Here again Schneckenburger reiterates the artist's sense of strategic ambiguity: "The images are performing an impressive balancing act. On one hand, the objects appeal to our sense of decorative abstraction, and on the other act as a documentary for our code of realism…Wrede approaches his subjects from both sides. His photographs are both aesthetic and documentary, and yet one cannot put them into one camp or the other. The decision is ever-oscillating."

Magic Worlds/ Domestic Landscapes

A calculated maneuver to direct perception via the negation of view marks the second phase of Wrede's work. This is executed in conjunction with the transition to color photography and documentary image conception. The ironic name of "Magic Worlds" depicts fragmented artificial scenes in amusement parks across Germany, capturing the collective reservoir of yearning that exists in culture today. A Scandinavian lake is relocated into the Black Forest of Germany. A picturesque Black-Forest house stands incongruous in the Lüneburger Heide of northern Germany. The welcoming figure of the Statue of Liberty looms unmistakably from afar. Although these scenes are provocatively dreamlike, they are interrupted by inadequately disguised functional relics; the shock of reality is subtly implemented into the compositions. A steel cable blatantly cuts through the middle of the photo. Strategically placed garbage bins tinge the composition with a sterile presence. A Coca-Cola vending machine lies in wait for its customers. This pictorial documentation of "realistic" elements enhances what the viewer finds most unbelievable. The viewer may not immediately grasp the irony that these dismal facades were actually created in order to facilitate a "magic moment". Although the deserted parks with their overcast skies appear to be surreal allegories for the unrequited promise of happiness, the formal image conception, along with the wonderful aesthetic positioning of the large still photographic formats, result in an overall pleasing effect. One could speculate that this was yet another skillful attempt by Wrede to manipulate the viewer's perception. "Magic Worlds" communicates the failure of imagination without dismantling the façade.

The series "Domestic Landscapes," created around the same time as "Magic Worlds," also examines the depths of yearning. With virtuosity, Wrede unveils the chasm between a tangible space and the intangible dream image within a private interior. The conscious choice of colorful photographic tapestries opens the view onto digitally stimulated idyllic landscapes that appear to have originated from travel brochures. The images satisfy the viewer's subconscious, romantic longing for a balanced "soulscape". The domesticated image within the composition serves at best as decoration. Enhanced by opalescent decor, the image is forced to yield to its functional requirements. Josef Spiegel describes the conceptual arsenal of polarity interwoven within these images as a constant interplay between "Reality and fabrication, interior and exterior, knowledge and theory." In these masterful sociological studies, Wrede dissects, by means of the photographic composition, what mere images of longing fail to achieve. Simultaneously, his photographic documents with their complex transformation of image produce powerfully communicative visual forms that can never be achieved through language. The contradictory duality of elements in "Magic Worlds" creates an artistically balanced dilemma from which the viewer cannot escape.

Small Worlds

The series "Small Worlds" forms the prelude to this volume and at the same time marks the beginning of Thomas Wrede's third phase of works. In the foreground, this 2001- 2005 series signifies a break with the controlled, documentary-style strategy of "Magic Worlds" and "Domestic Landscapes". The compositional simplicity of the images, their semblance of color and their compelling blurriness obviously concentrate more on the conditions under which they were generated and less on the subjects. As frameless surfaces, the wall-works affect an initially strong yet muted presence. The unique intrinsic value of each image is articulated in the title of the series and at the same time tempts another misleading perception, due to the association with toys. The ship is a ship. Wrede The banality of this assessment being provoked by Wrede as he once again exhibits the putatively real. With the alienating effect of the uncertain, he evokes a well-calculated ambiguity in the viewing process while still holding the viewer hostage in the identification of the objects (for example "Queen Mary"). Due to blurriness, his shots of single vehicles forlorn in a vast exterior landscape balance on the fulcrum of reality. This influences the simple viewing of images into questioning the very character of the photographic duplicate. The viewer is seized by another childish reflex, in this case defending the authenticity of the subject. "Yes, that ship must be real", one is tempted to say, and then one proceeds to search the photocopied object for such evidence. The images of "Small Worlds" in their aesthetic orientation hold the viewer in strange suspense.

Wrapped Landscapes

The title "Wrapped Landscapes," 2004- 2005, represents neither the result of an artistic hand nor the ostentation of a refined real landscape. Rather, "Wrapped Landscapes" are strict portraits of isolated and groups of trees, all of which stem from the postindustrial decor of a toy train set. Those who study this landscape with its detailed reproductions of palm tree, willow, oak, fir, birch and various shrubs find an ironically high level of inconsistency. Märklin's (miniature railway system manufacturer) childish motives for attempting to re-create the real world idealistically is revealed and questioned. Wrede's images caricaturize Märklin's naive creator's gesture by presenting the objects in their original packing material. The viewer, facing an image within an image, is confronted with a familiar sense of yearning. The forest as a distinct isolated object, or as a group of objects, is analogous to the interior shots of "Domestic Landscapes" with landscape foils that weave stories of a perfect world. "Wrapped Landscapes" are without exception fabricated miniatures, which by definition should eliminate any association with reality. In their color-enhanced likeness to authenticity, one is surprised to discover no sense of loss at the sight of plastic vegetation. Rather, one is left with the impression that the artist- photographer wrapped the process of perception itself. The documentary format of "Wrapped Landscapes" is executed in such a formal way that it approaches absurdity. One is challenged to examine not only the artificiality of the subject matter (various species of plastic trees) but also the relative reality of one's own attempt to derive deeper understanding.

Real Landscapes

What is real? What isn't? Once more, the quest for alleged reality draws the baseline for the "Real Landscape" series, 2004- 2005. This time, Wrede transposes the microcosmic back into a macrostructure, which he discovered on the North Sea island of Amrum. In placing model houses and settlement buildings of the H0-Railway set into an authentic sand landscape, he coerces his viewers into examining images that deal ambiguously with the monumental. The enormous, compelling panoramic sceneries, taken from an aerial of half a meter, vary between the idyllic and the catastrophic. The aerial perspective, as an artistic strategy, obviously aims at visually overwhelming the viewer: on one hand rendering overall visibility, and on the other portraying the natural elements as ominous forces.

It is even more disquieting that, in the process of viewing, the playful elements of staging the images at the North Sea beach become all too obvious. The eye catches irregularities and discrepancies. One example is in the proportions and the slightly manipulated shifting of colors that suddenly make the grains of sand appear to be snow. Wrede uses the interplay between large and small to establish scenes that have been linked to the landscape theme for centuries. Once more, ambiguity is his calling card. While the formal orientation is to some extent celebrating nature sublime, the toy caravan, perhaps "Cars", is literally stuck in the sunset.


This volume's terminal point of artistic exploration is the "Seascape" series, 2001-2005, which marks Wrede's return from the designed to the documentary. With this sequel of images, Wrede seems to pay homage to a collective beach experience that evokes the cosmic. "Seascapes" are imaginative "soulscapes" that, with the incantation of imagery, weave a tale of limitlessness and redemption.

This series of images owe their existence to the expansive panoramic view, which is quintessential of a North Sea beach. Overexposure and strong back lighting increasingly seem to dissolve the coastal landscape. Scattered people evaporate into the horizon's reflection, mutating into notations on a white surface, until finally all that can be discerned are minute stencils on a light-flooded stage. One may conclude that the human subject is of only marginal significance.

Should one be overcome with a sensation of paradox after studying this volume's photographic images, it may be well founded. There is a sneaking suspicion that Thomas Wrede may have placed something blatantly visible yet subtly hidden while developing his compositions. As Ludwig Klages once said, "Not objects, but images have a soul. That's the key to all of the teachings on imagery."


© Christoph Schaden, 2005

published in: Thomas Wrede. Strange Paradise, Bielfeld 2005, p.7-15

Thomas Wrede

Text published in:
Thomas Wrede - Strange Paradise
Bielefeld 2005, p. 7-15

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