In Cologne

That morning, on the weekend’s first flight from Heathrow the only other passengers are a dozen silent Rhineland businessmen, raising their coffee cups in greeting as they shuffle down the aisle. The transition from England to Germany is disturbingly seamless: at each end the same clean terminal corridors, the same overcast skies; only a shift in train moquette, Piccadilly blue to S-Bahn red, confirms arrival. Nine years ago, at the height of the refugee crisis, German stations were guarded by droves of heavily armed police. Now small khaki groups of soldiers mill around the ticket hall, chatting, scrolling, sipping Cokes. On exiting the Hauptbahnhof, the cathedral is too huge and too close to fit into one’s field of vision. It sits in the middle of the station forecourt, as if hastily dropped there. On its southern transept, the Gerhard Richter window, a derivation of his 4096 Farben painting: 11,500 coloured glass squares – ‘pixels’ – ordered by random number generator, then tweaked to avoid any suggestion of meaning.  

On the walk to Matthias Groebel’s studio, through the low-rise city centre, the sense of immanent Germanness deepens: long past their widespread disappearance in England, small independent shops of single purpose stagger on here under smart mid-century signs. The lettering of Elektronik van der Meyen is bright bee yellow; Top Service Reisebüro boasts a clean cobalt type; Boxspringbetten promises, in chirpy burgundy cursive, that you will ‘mehr als nur gut schlafen!’ From the direction of the river there’s the sound of a protest; I walk towards it and am, naively, astonished to see such numbers on German streets for Palestine. But it’s the red-white-green of Kurdish flags they’re waving, alongside banners bearing the face of Abdullah Öcalan – a proscribed image in a country where the PKK has long been banned. The crowd is mostly young men, escorted over the Rhine by black-clad members of the Bereitschaftspolizei.  

‘Wider brush, more colour’. I’m on my haunches by the tank, peering at the machine. ‘Narrower – less’. Matthias puckers, mimes a nozzle spitting out a delicate drop of paint. In the centre of the cool-lit studio is a small booth with a computer, walled in with piles of papers and books, an antique set of stereoscopic lenses; a few small bottles of acrylic ink indicate what is produced here, but there are neither brushes nor palettes, not a single mark or stain on the whitewashed concrete walls. We are looking through two panes of glass at a mechanical painting device. I am here to view the images this machine creates; something happens when you do, a friend has told me, that can’t be reproduced in photos.  

‘An artist has every right to turn around.’  

‘Something changes in the world, something changes in how we see.’  

‘Photos fade, a hard drive collapses, tapes rot, a WhatsApp message once took a fucking day to arrive – painting functions in different time.’

Matthias speaks in slogans, like he’s composing a manifesto on the spot. Offence as defence by a painter who trained and worked as a pharmacist – a painter who doesn’t paint. His practice is, has always been, unusual, taking images from analogue video stills, converting them via homemade software into digital information – pixels – that his painting machine then applies to canvas (an apparent automation which is, as Moritz Scheper has written, full ‘of artistic decisions’). The machine is a ship of Theseus, its parts continually replaced, removed and recalibrated over thirty-odd years. Today it is a contraption of chrome tubes, silver springs, slithers of wire and gaffa tape, bike chains and bolts soldered together and perched on rails, shoebox in size. Its first form comprised parts adapted from a Fishertechnik toy drawing set and electrical debris scavenged from Westphalian junk yards. Put together in the early 1980s, before any analogous commercial process had been developed, its assembly was a matter of skill, obstinacy and persuasion: You’ll never get an electrician to wire it up for you, warned one mechanic. Good luck finding a mechanic who can put that together, cautioned an electrician. ‘I left them to it’, Matthias says, shrugging, ‘and in the end it worked.’ 

The paintings I’m here to see are of a single building in Whitechapel, the Rowland Tower House. Made in 2006, they represent a shift in Matthias’s approach which he divides (slicing the air with his hands) into two rough periods: from 1989 – 2000 he used images taken from satellite TV, which arrived in Germany in 1984. At first there were only two stations: Programmgesellschaft für Kabel- und Satellitenrundfunk and Radio Télévision Luxembourg; PKS and RTL, the country’s first private TV channels, both specialising in endless repeats of American chat and game shows, padded out with ad hoc local programming to fill the yawning pit of 24/7 broadcasting. The need for footage of anyone doing anything fostered an anarchic attitude among producers; Matthias was drawn to anonymous faces caught off guard, at awkward angles and in lo-res close ups, which, paused, he used as the source material for early works. But TV got too predictable, or rather, ways of being on TV became too predictable. People stopped acting normally weird and started acting weirdly normal – like they were on screen. They pulled faces and posed. They anticipated the shot. The images Matthias was looking for vanished. So, from 2000 onwards, he started making his own tapes. ‘I always used cheap tech’. He picks up a Canon video camera onto which he’s grafted a two-mirrored lens as a viewfinder. ‘No need for grants that way – no need to explain yourself.’  

A lurch of nausea, a rush of adrenaline, a front of pressure in the brow. Something happening that your body can’t understand. Six paintings, each with its own internal duplication, of video stills of the shuttered and boarded Tower House. On the left, the building is in a dilapidated state but uncovered, on the third and lowest canvas two elderly men in kurtas and skull caps walk towards the image’s edge, then do so again. On the right, the same sections of building, now covered in tarpaulin, scaffolding, adverts for the property developers who are gutting and selling this former doss house, a model of Victorian industrial philanthropy, in which Stalin, Orwell and Jack London all stayed, as well as thousands of anonymous working men.  

The effect is astonishing. Somehow – Matthias himself cannot explain it – there is depth in the canvas, not the flatness of a Magic Eye nor the pointed jabbing of a 3D movie, but textural latent space. The tarp over the building flattens and bulges as if the windows have inhaled, the poles of the scaffolding protrude and hang, retreating into the walls, the cornicing of the gated entrance might crack and fall in front of you. In another painting, from the same series, a girl in a hijab and long skirt twirls in front of a young boy who is about to walk through a wall. Matthias’s paintings are often referred to as ‘ghosts’. Before visiting, I thought this was a description of the figures within them, but I was wrong  (‘your eyes adjust to the depth of the frame at the wrong speed’ I write down ‘not too fast, not too slow, but wrong.’) A few years ago, the poet Timothy Thornton, wrote that ‘ghosts are people who remind people of nobody.’ But these aren’t paintings of ghosts; better to call them ‘ghost paintings’. Something awry, misplaced, there where it isn’t, caught on canvas but missing, an absence without a gap.  

Over dinner with Matthias’s family that evening, in their warm kitchen (the windows steamed from cooking, a cage of chattering budgies by the door, books and clothes and cushions scattered in just-orderly piles) we all forget the word for the animal we’re eating. Sophia, his wife, mimes antlers, Matthias cries ‘Hirsche!’, I yell ‘deer!’ and the table bursts out laughing at this impromptu game of charades. We finish our venison stew and I’m handed a pair of silver goggles to try on, each lens a kaleidoscope. Everyone doubles, blushes eight different shades of pink. Now in the cage behind me there are hundreds and hundreds of birds. 

Cologne’s art scene has cycled through boom, bust and back to modest boom again, Matthias and Sophia explain. Site of Dada’s formation in 1919, home of the storied Kunstverein and the first art fair in 1967, at the end of the 1980s openings had crowds queuing down the street: women decked out in furs, limos crawling towards the galleries. When the wall fell, the artists decamped, as a flock, to Berlin; rising costs in the capital had lately brought some back but gone were the days of David Zwirner cycling around town waving hello to painters, collectors, friends.  

What is a ghost? I ask Matthias before I leave. He answers without missing a beat: ‘a ghost is information out of place’.  

Back in London, a few days later, a friend shows me around the theatre where he works. We sit in the stalls to catch up; I tell him about my trip and ask if he’s ever seen a ghost. Not personally, he says, but recounts a story about his colleague, B., who has been known to take naps in the flies. One day, B. woke up and knew, immediately and certainly, that there were people on stage. There was no one there, of course, but nevertheless there they were. Information where it isn’t; something stuck in transmission – there in that gap between pixels and paint. 

17 – 18 February, 2024 

Read on: Julian Stallabrass, ‘Radical Camouflage‘, NLR 77.