Martin Claßen

The Failure of the Imaginary


October 31 – December 20, 2009



There where evidence of European culture falls victim to disappearance, Martin Claßen works with his large-format camera. Death and decay are recurrent themes in his work: thus he has not climbed into just the catacombs of Palermo, he has also captured with his camera the baroque churches and villas of southern Italy in the beauty of their decay since the mid-1980s.


The Forum für Fotografie shows the outstanding photographs from the different series of works by Martin Claßen, including the series Verlorene Stätten and Sizilien, images of Tuscan and southern Italian church ruins, villas and palazzi, as well as the work series Catacombe dei Cappuccini, Palermo and Cappelle nel Quartiere Spagnolo, Neapel.


The seemingly romantic-elegiac grandeur in the photographs, which are partly architectural portraits of dilapidated historic buildings staged like theater backdrops, is displaced through a sober directness, with which destruction and loss of substance is documented. The element of the sublime of an all too harmless ruin aesthetic is counteracted, indeed directly broken through from the propagating feeling of emptiness, desolation, lifelessness: the soulless places as sign of absence, as manifestation of the “failure of the imaginary”: “It is a world of the imaginary, of the religious notion of unity and wholeness, which formulates itself in the symbolic, in the language of its visual tradition and architecture. We see how this imaginary becomes the real¬—a silent, disenchanted material.”


The amazing thing about Martin Claßen’s images is not just that the destruction is surveyed. Something else is also documented here, the aura of these spaces has also evaporated with the dilapidated body of the buildings; the spiritual space is broken. The religious symbols are now just damaged decoration. There is nothing left to see of the transcendence that allows the inert material to soar, from a house of God remain only dust and bricks.” (T. Linden)


It is the contradiction of history and emptiness, idea and material, and soul and inanimation that connects the architectural series with the photographic studies of the Palermitan Capuchin crypt. The dramatic struggle of humankind is shown ad absurdum, particularly as in the photographs in which corpses grotesquely staged as actors try to snatch away a piece of eternity from death. This attempt to hold eternity in the present results only in the conviction of failure and loss. “The attempts to clothe and preserve the dead to give them a physical existence beyond death appears touching, helpless, vain, and grotesque. How very fixated we are on the body and its staging.” (T. Linden)


The 2007 photograph Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, Rom, EUR impressively demonstrates how Claßen’s reflections, which developed out of a historical survey, allow themselves to apply to the present day. Here in the surreal combination of ideals from advertising and political manifesto the bridge between the architectural series and the theatricality of the catacombs is made. Duty bound to the empty scheme, the here-unified “archetypes” of seemingly contrary worlds challenge one another. Both mechanisms seem to want to lead on ad absurdum. In a constructed space of artificiality only one thing remains: the distorted mask of lost humanity.


Thomas Linden (translated by Thea Miklowski)




Martin Claßen, born in Cologne in 1959, studied art photography at the Kunsthochschule Köln für Grafik und Design. Classen has participated in numerous exhibitions, including Agfa Historama at Museum Ludwig Köln, Goethe Institute in Palermo, Centre Pompidou in Paris, with the Architects Suter & Suter in Basel, and at photokina Köln 2008 in the Visual Gallery. He was a scholar of the Villa Massimo, Rome, in 2009. His publications include Architektur der 50er Jahre in Köln, Dresdner Villenarchitektur, Verlorene Stätten – Italienphotographien, and Sizilien.


The exhibition was curated by Thomas Linden.


Photographs © Martin Claßen