Manfred Menz: As plain as day
When paintings get stolen from museums, as often as not, their abductors cut them from their frames and leave the gilt quadrilaterals hanging, eviscerated, on the wall. Meaning no such harm, by removing the landmark from the sightseer’s prospect, Manfred Menz still realizes much the same conceptual effect: the attraction is gone, only the heretofore inconsequential natural phenomena that adorned our view of each man-made monument remain. This affords us the opportunity, of course, to admire the trees and shrubs and lawns that fringe the tourist attraction, whether the flora grows wild or potted, neatly in patches or extravagantly in enclosures. But what do we notice as a result? That the growth is tended and confined, even at its most verdant, to the point where the hand of man nearly usurps the hand of nature.
The Eiffel Tower’s disappearance, the effacement of the Golden Gate Bridge, the excision of the Spanish Steps from the postcard shot all reveal how artificial even the natural has become. The trunks, planters and greenswards are, finally, as “built” into the environment as are the absent edifices. Do we “miss” the missing monuments? We are aware that something immense has been removed, but its removal has taken its context with it. There is plenty of difference between a hanging vine and a procession of shade trees, but the entranceway or boulevard they imply could be (within climatic reason) anywhere. When we talk about constructing reality, Menz avers, we’re not simply talking in terms of perceptual philosophy; were talking landscaping.
Senior Curator Riverside Art Museum
Invisible Asia: Introduction
Past examples from Manfred Menz’s Invisible Project called attention to nature by means of erasing buildings, landmarks, and other cultural evidence from the international sites represented in his photographs. This action was achieved by digitally removing structures like the Golden Gate Bridge or Eiffel Tower – structures that proclaim man’s power over nature. Even when the trees and plants remaining in his photographs were manicured to show traces of human passage, Menz salvaged them in order to highlight the adjoining emptiness which exposed the mortality of our built environment.
His new series, Invisible Asia, functions in a similar way, but it focuses on Japan and Korea where Menz was obliged to engage the government of each country for its permission to access historic sites and monuments. Permits were needed in Hiroshima, Japan and from the South Korean side of the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. Menz traversed the difficult territory of politicized international boundary that divides one nation from another. His latest photographs not only suggest states of mind and ways of life that have separated groups of people from each other for decades, but they also begin to dismantle the cherished symbols that have survived to immortalize some incident which continues to segregate countries or deny their unification.
Many locations recorded in the Invisible Asia series are recognized as national treasures or have historical status within their country of origin. Some places are ancient, like Seoul’s Changdeok Palace which was built nearly 600 years ago. Others, like Tokyo’s Sony Building, are less than fifty years old. In some cases, sacred temples – symbolic structures which serve as sanctuaries for spiritual conviction and isolation – have been purged from the photographs.
The sites Menz has chosen for Invisible Asia chronicle the societal order and social movements of the past which were mainly produced by racial pride, regional loyalty, or religious bias. Yet they also tend to embody the nostalgia and collective remorse that follow the reassessment of a prolonged prejudice. By subtracting their icons, Menz reconfigures the intolerance and regret suspended in shared long-term consciousness. For example, in two photographs showing the site where the first nuclear attack in human history took place, the ruins of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotional Hall, which serves as a memorial to the people who died in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, have been eradicated from each picture. On August 6, 1945
– one of the darkest days in history – 140,000 people in the urban center of Hiroshima, Japan lost their lives. Menz attempts to swab the wounds of the past leaving only remnant plant life and the promise – a scar between nations – to never act again in the future with such little tolerance.
Contrary to the laws of nature
Menz employs by far the most economical and highly effective, visual means in dealing with the exhibition’s themes. In his large photographic prints, he manipulates the cultural memory of iconic landmarks and presents us with a view of nature sans architecture. In Eiffel Tower, Paris, Menz removes the eponymous iconic structure from its context and leaves us with the natural surroundings of its site. In place of the tower, there is the white expanse of photographic ground. This strategy of photographic erasure denaturalizes what has become a clichéd and conventional visual experience, endlessly reproduced in tourist postcards, and prompts a reflection of what is lost.
Leslie Markle, March 2007
Simply put, Menz’s photographs are altered depictions of famous architectural landmarks from which the highly recognizable structures such as the Golden Gate Bridge or Notre Dame Cathedral have been disappeared by way of digital manipulation. What remains are the manicured gardens, rows of trees, and topiaries that adorn these monumental edifices. The buildings have been replaced with the stark white of photo paper, which creates an interesting reversal of positive and negative space in that the landmarks, as seen conventionally, would normally read as positive and the surrounding flora would generally tend toward the negative. Menz pushes the overlooked to the foreground forcing the viewer to contemplate the reality of nature, or lack thereof, at the hand of man. The removal of what we know to be fabricated reveals that what we expect to be natural is indeed artificial. In Louvre (2003), the bricks before the Paris Museum have been removed emphasizing errant patches of grass that trace their pattern. Menz presents landscape not so much as an exercise in aesthetics but instead as an active philosophical player in constructing social reality.
Tommy Freeman, April 2006
Manfred Menz provided another narrative about removal, but Paris-Seine embankment in absence of river Seine and Notre Dame Cathedral was far more deliberate and evinced a much more heavy handed conscription of civilization than did Belt. Menz manifestly eradicates all evidence of human endeavor, leaving only elements of nature intact in his jaunty, nearly abstract imSages.
Shana Nys Dambrot, March 2004