After Sigmar Polke travelled to Paris in 1971 and New Yok in 1973, the trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan followed. It is, and Polke could not have guessed this before, a milestone in his work – and in photography in general. If Polke was known primarily for his painting, up until a few years ago, and if his countless objects, drawings, prints, films, and above all his incredible photographs have been mostly overlooked, then this series of pictures is probably the most extraordinary, perhaps the most underestimated, but in any case, the most visually impressive part of an oeuvre that cannot ever be fully grasped.
In 1974, his relationship with Mariette Althaus ends – perhaps the catalyst for Polke to get into the Buick with two friends, Peter Breslaw and Fredi von Beck, and set out on the journey, which will last a total of six months. The destination: the so-called "Hippie Trail", which at that time, with its various routes, is a very popular way to leave the Western world behind for a while and to explore oneself, new cultures and the meaning of life – and to consume cheap drugs. The men travel via Turkey and Iran until they reach Afghanistan.
The artist, who sets out with two friends in an American cabriolet, on a journey to the Orient in search of something other, is fascinated by fluid, alternative ways of life and behaviour that open up and transcend the bourgeois narrowness of 1970s Germany.
But most impressive are the photos Polke takes in the opium dens of the Pakistani city of Quetta. He moves right in on the closely packed groups of bearded men sitting on stone benches, squatting or standing close together. Wrapped in white, wide, sometimes elaborately folded robes, they are busy with their opium pipes or in delirium already, eyes closed, looking up at the ceiling or into empty space, relaxed, with dislocated bodies or simply talking to each other. These are images of such intimacy and intensity never produced before in German photography – and certainly not in the way in which Polke transforms them: A few years after his return, he revisits them and begins to treat them with chemicals, to apply scratches and creases, or to paint them with bright colours – individual motifs are suddenly filled with bright yellow, neon orange, or deep blue, and over and over again abstract-cloudy colour surfaces float like ghosts within the pictorial space.
The results of such treatments are absolute masterpieces, within Polke's oeuvre and in the history of photography in general.
Within the last years single photographs of the so called Quetta series have been on view in international exhibitions, such as the retrospective exhibition at Museum Ludwig, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Tate Modern in London 2014/2015.
The first museum exhibitions of selected, mostly overpainted photographs, which gave an overview of Polke's photographic work, were held in the 1990s at the Kunsthalle Baden-Baden or the Museum of Modern Art in Los Angeles.
Almost all of these large-format overpainted photographs can be seen today in international museums or collections - such as the photograph from the Lambrecht-Schadeberg Collection in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Siegen - in the illustration on the Cologne art market at Erhard Klein's stand at the end of the 1970s.
The exhibition Road Trip through the Middle East - Pictorial Photography form Afghanistan and Pakistan gives an overview of the photographs from the trip for the first time.
Not only do these pictures reveal an almost tender look from up close, which was certainly not granted to every tourist and which, in addition to its fascination, shows the highest respect. But also, through the change, through the inclusion of mistakes and bright colours, which give the pictures a supernatural tone, we get a feeling for the mental states of the subjects – and perhaps of the photographer himself – that are detached from reality.
Polke creates irritations about what these images actually are: painting or photography, documentation or staging, dream or reality. The Quetta pictures are interior views, virtually free of Polke's typical irony – if it weren't for the play on expectations of travel photography, perhaps of photography as a supposedly truthful medium in general.
Since all the photographs are handmade as gelatin silver prints in his own small photo laboratory (or perhaps more accurately: in the bathroom at Gaspelshof), it is also guaranteed that each picture remains a unique experience (meaning: photograph).
Soon the air begins to shimmer and the room to vibrate, due to the use of silver and gold lacquer. Nothing seems to remain in its place, everything is incomprehensibly dissolved in motion. Before the viewer's eyes, a dynamically garish spectacle of dancing colours and shapes unfolds, which seems to evoke a sensation very similar to that experienced by the opium intoxicated men in the photograph.
The coloured overpaintings and technical manipulations subtly achieve a congruence between the motif and the visual impact, which will later prove to be prototypical for Polke's pictorial practice as a painter
Polke is ahead of his time when he simultaneously serves and overrides the stereotypes of scenes and people in the Middle East. He does this in an immensely poetic, gentle and dedicated way, full of melancholy and enthusiasm for a world beyond any petty-bourgeois reality. His interplay with the prints is devotion and reverence, appreciation and appropriation at the same time. Polke's spirit haunts these pictures – in a way it never did before or after.
New publication | Sigmar Polke
All excerpts used are taken from the texts "Easy Rider" by Gesine Borcherdt and "Pakistand und Beyond" by Ulli Segers, which can be read in full in the catalog.