FEB 15 - MAR 15, 2014
OPENING: FEB 14, 7-9 PM
''The distinction between virtuoso dissimulation and genuineness is too small to be measured. Never go to the theatre. You are ruining your play. You are not allowed to have a family. Everything in South America or dead.''
Walter Serner, Last Loosening: A handbook for the con man & those who aspire to be one, 1927
Interview with Sara-Lena Maierhofer
The title of your work is Dear Clark, – the beginning of a letter. Who is Clark and what does the letter contain?
Dear Clark, is the story of Clark Rockefeller – a con man who lived under various aliases in the United States for almost 30 years. His story is one of the longest of any con artist in the US, and it all began in Germany: Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter was born in 1961 in a small village in Chiemgau, Bavaria. At the age of 17 he left his family and homeland and created a new identity for himself in the US. Over the years that followed he continually changed his location, name and profession – Los Angeles, Boston, New York; Christopher Crowe, Chris Gerhardt, Clark Rockefeller – masquerading as a descendant of European aristocracy and confiding in his acquaintances that he was working as a scientific assistant for NASA and the Pentagon.
Dear Clark, are also the opening words of a letter I wrote to him, addressed to the prison not far from Boston where he has been detained since 2008: ''As much as I can understand the absurdity of being a public figure and receiving letters from strangers, I would still appreciate to start a correspondence or to meet you in person.'' He never responded.
You once said in reference to your work that: ''To understand a con man, I would have to beat him at his own game and become a con artist myself.'' How did that work out? And why was this approach necessary?
I have approached the whole phenomenon of a con man from various different angles – his appearance and emergence, his rules and patterns – to the point where there are no other angles left. How can you comprehend (and apprehend) someone who is constantly reinventing himself, whose very components are in a continuous process of disassembling and reassembling? What is his motivation? How does he achieve it?
In an attempt to understand his world from the inside out, I transformed bit by bit into a con artist myself.
Alongside records and traces of Christian Gerhartsreiter’s life, Dear Clark, also contains images of Siamese twins, a trickster toast and a tailor from Bielefeld – how did you choose your subjects? What is fact and what is fiction?
These various figures are the supporting cast in my story; I use them in a similar way as a director would – to fill out the plot line or take things in a new direction.
The game of truth and fiction remains a game and, ultimately, is not resolved. Along the way, all differences between staged and documented; objectivity and subjectivity; reality and fiction disappear for the spectator.
The French director Jean Eustache once said ''Le faux ne s'oppose pas au vrai, il permet de faire émerger les mécanismes du discours'' which roughly translates as ''the false is not the opposite of the truth, but rather allows the mechanisms of discourse to emerge.''
Photography always promises to portray the objective truth. However, it cannot keep that promise – the secret always remains hidden behind the picture. This is also true of Dear Clark,. Con artists, like photographs, are just surfaces.
Your background is in portrait photography. Does Dear Clark, also fall under this category?
The subtitle Portrait of a Con Man would suggest this. However, the work does not create a concrete portrayal of the figure of Clark Rockefeller. The portrait remains a mere flicker – a composition of slivers and fleeting moments. It is nevertheless people that interest me.
Christian, alias Clark, would never let himself be photographed. What prompted this withdrawal from photographic images?
He avoided any kind of definition and confinement. A photographic image presses our three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional one, confines space and keeps that moment on record for eternity. This wouldn't be fitting for a con man.
The Promise, The Lie, The Transformation, The Duplication – the work is subdivided into chapters like a novel.
The headings originated from the desire to organise my material. I came back from the US with so many documents and pictures, and I wondered: How can I tell the story?
The chapters are the narrative structure of my story and bring together the sprawling cosmos of con artists, twins and doppelgangers in one choreography. They give the material poetry, and allow the observer to pause for breath before the next chapter begins.
One article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung describes the transformation of Christian Gerhartsreiter as shedding– can a person shed their identity as a snake does its skin, or a butterfly its cocoon?
Identity is not a solid structure; it is a process. And Clark is somebody whose Self is most comfortable in a state of constant transformation. But I believe that fragments of the discarded identity always remain. Steve Savio, who knew Clark during when he first moved to the US, said in an interview: ''How was it to see his picture in the newspaper almost 30 years later and read about all of this?''
'Oh, I didn’t even recognize his face. My mum did. His features had changed, somehow become blank. As if the masks he had worn all those years had dried on his face. ''
In another context, curator Chus Martinez said: ''The very act of telling this story to other men and women becomes crucial, the account of everything we take for art reveals itself as a way of making things happen, of opening up a space.''
What importance does the telling and retelling of a story have in this context? To be a con artist, is it also important to be a good storyteller?
Not only as a con artist; also as a car salesman, a hairdresser, an artist. Stories are what remain; they give rise to our memories and eventually our identity. Identity itself is a narrative construction – it's a story we tell ourselves.
In this way, memories are generated dynamically out of the present – is the work also going to evolve and grow?
Yes, our own memories are constantly overlapping and evolving, just like Dear Clark,. However, I am trying to curtail this growth and channel my attention into other projects. But the fascination remains and sometimes I relapse. I’m showing two new pictures at the Feldbuschwiesner exhibition.
And lastly, what is the meaning behind the trickster toast?
The toast looks as if it is toasted, but it’s not – it’s just been sprayed. And what you see here are the traces left behind.
Sara-Lena Maierhofer came across the story of Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter in a newspaper article: Born in 1961 in a village in Bavaria, Gerhartsreiter travelled to America as an exchange student where he continually created new identities, until eventually, as Clark Rockefeller, his cover was blown and he was arrested.
As Maierhofer didn't feel she could do the story justice with a solely documentary approach, she decided to mix fact and fiction together: to gain a better understanding of the con man, she became a con artist herself.
Her visual study Dear Clark, is an installation comprising 70 photographs and documents, reminiscent of Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas in the way the images are grouped and organised. Every image contains a iridescent universe of truths, through which she expertly exposes the subjectivity of vision and memory and the fragility of our perception and identity.
Sara-Lena Maierhofer (*1982) studied politics before graduating in 2011 from the University of Applied Sciences Bielefeld with a degree in photography and media art. She was drawn to photography through a desire to find a different approach to reality.
Dear Clark, is her final project and is available in a limited edition art book. The work has already been presented at various locations including FOAM, Amsterdam (2011), and also won the Gute Aussichten award for young photographers. It formed part of the recent My Secret Life exhibition at the C/O Berlin as well as the portfolio presentation Plat(t)form at the Winterthur Museum of Photography. Dear Clark, is her first exhibition at FELDBUSCHWIESNER.
 Zit. ChusMartínez, The Futures of Art, in: Ingo Niermann & Erik Niedling, The Future of Art: A Manual, Berlin 2011, S. 315-316, S. 315.