EIKON N° 51: WALTER NIEDERMAYR - Changing Spaces
WALTER NIEDERMAYR Space Con/Sequences #118 2004, C-Print © Walter Niedermayr
About new RAUMFOLGEN by Walter Niedermayr
When the EIKON special issue Raumfolgen (Room Sequences) by Walter Niedermayr was published in the fall of 2001, it came as a surprise to many: instead of photographs from his monumental set of works from the Alps, it included an extensive series of hospital room photographs that he had produced alongside his mountain works. By then it had become clear that the topic of this artist's reasoning and imagery is space - space in the anthropological sense but also its mental, emotional, and even spiritual and autobiographical dimension.
Therefore, Niedermayr is also interested in rooms which, like hospital rooms, carry a stigma of the negative, the marginalised, the repressed and the threatening: prison cells. In spring 2003, he worked at the penal institution of Berlin-Tegel, in the fall of 2003 he worked at Krems-Stein, and in 2004 he worked in the youth detention centre in Gerasdorf near Vienna. We are now the first to present several works from this cycle. Once again, most of them are diptychs. Like his earlier room sequences, these works are not about superficial fears or exalted menaces, but about the latently oppressive. With the momentum of overexposure he creates an aesthetic that almost gives way to an impression of the uncanny upon extended viewing.
WALTER NIEDERMAYR Space Con/Sequences #129 2004, C-Print © Walter Niedermayr
The Prison Space
From the moment I enter to the moment I leave, I am under constant surveillance. Guards observe me as I go through the security checkwith my car; they make a phone call to say that I have arrived; then the second gate is opened and I enter the prison yard. One of its enclosing walls is made up of the numerous windows of the inmates' cells, from which they, too, observe me. Here and there, I can hear someone greeting me or asking me for something. Anonymous voices, except the ones I can recognise.
I go and get my keys in the guards' office.
Each room can only be opened with a key; sometimes an invisible hand does so, from far away. The camera eye senses that someone wants to enter or leave, and the door opens with a beep.
My office lies in a somewhat isolated area on the ground floor, next to other conference and treatment rooms. A small corridor houses the so-called "special services", such as the doctor, the dentist, the psychotherapist, and the psychological and psychiatric services. The impression is of something "not public".
All of the departments (their names are: entrance dt.; long-term sentence dt.; sanction dt.; release dt.) are above our heads. Depending on where you are, you can hear steps, shouting, a dumbbell hitting the floor, music from different cultures, and again shouting, conversations shouted from open window to open window (the inmates cannot see each other), sometimes quarrels, insults, or the dull rumbling of bodies or objects as they mingle with the voices….
WALTER NIEDERMAYR Space Con/Sequences #132 2004, C-Print © Walter Niedermayr
The inmates only move through the institution without escort - depending on the degree of their sentence or its loosening - if there is a reason to do so. The reason may be a visitor in the visitors' centre, an appointment with social services or another special service, or the priest. But it is always this "reason" that initiates the inmate's movement; he cannot decide for himself when or which room he will enter or leave.
The inmates are led in groups to their workplaces in the facilities. Single workgroups have lunch together, at different times for different groups because the refectory only has space for a limited number of people. Then they go back to their workplace, or to their prison department when the day's work has been done.
Groups from one prison department are always escorted by officers when they go to dinner or - once a week - to the kiosk, where they have the opportunity to buy goods from an "outside" merchant.
The floods of people moving through the institution are loud, and along with them come skirmish and noise. They stumble against closed doors, and then they flow onward through the rooms until they encounter the next obstacle.
28 people are incarcerated in each department, of which 22 are in solitary confinement. There are two cells with three beds each. These cells that hold more inmates are much desired, since they are bigger than the single cells, even though many wish to move out soon after moving in: living together demands a higher degree of social interaction or submissiveness. Or an inmate has been given his own TV set and does not require the company of another inmate anymore.
WALTER NIEDERMAYR Space Con/Sequences #124 2004, C-Print © Walter Niedermayr
Each 8-sq.m. cell offers the possibility of retreating into an almost private sphere. There is not much space that cannot be seen through a spyhole.
Between 8 pm and 7 am, on weekends from 6 pm, it is time for "lock in". Inmates are locked in their cells. They can communicate with the guard on duty over a loudspeaker in the guards' office or through a door flap at chest level.
On these occasions, the inmates themselves communicate through the open windows.
Electricity is switched off at midnight.
For these teenagers, being locked in a single cell is one of the harshest components of imprisonment. This is prison, then; this is punishment. Being alone. Then the shadows of the past return; they remember their crime, feelings of guilt are wakened, and sleep does not come. Now that the outside space is dark, the inside gets alive.
At this point I go back into my small, mobile, private space again and feel freedom, envied and observed by all of them.
postscript: As a psychiatrist, I feel that it is essential to know that control, the loss of liberties, and punishment - which the prison imposes on these young people, with all its real (built)structures, but also with the abstract spaces of authority, the court, the sentence, a subculture, etc. - do not seem as hard to bear as an inner, mental space. This is where ghosts lurk and the real prisons and punishments reside.
PS.: The EIKON Sonderdruck #7, Raumfolgen (Room Sequences) is exclusively available at firstname.lastname@example.org.
WALTER NIEDERMAYR born 1952 in Bozen. Lives and works in Bozen
CARL AIGNER born 1954 in Ried im Innkreis. Lives in Krems and Vienna
GABI ZROST, psychoanalyst and psychiatrist, born 1957 in Vienna. Working at her own practice in Vienna. Since 1997 at the youth detention centre Geradorf/ Wr. Neustadt. Lives in Vienna