Dear Clark, a Portrait of a Con Man
Interview by Natasha Christia
Erasing the past, tailoring a new identity, becoming somebody else; not just anyone, but a Rockefeller, the husband of a wealthy woman. The old, long-buried self used to be Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter from Bavaria. But he vanished a long time ago in a journey from Germany to the States. His initials were lost in a series of taken names; his skin appropriated a handful of aliases, all grandiose and luxurious in lifestyle. In 2008, after three decades of spurious identities, the lie collapsed and with it the man. Christian Karl Gehartsreiter, aka Christopher Crow, Clark Rockefeller to name but a few; to many a swindler, a con man, a crook; to others, a gifted storyteller, a man with a polished accent who dared to be whoever he wished.
Sara-Lena Maierhofer discovered Clark in a Süddeutsche Zeitung article in 2011. She became fascinated by the man with multiple skins and decided to approach him. After Clark refused to meet her, she decided to study him from a distance, to conduct her own criminal investigation based on the existing pieces of forensic evidence – the bits of newspaper, pictures, even Clark’s early drawings, and her letters to him. Still, Maierhofer needed to go further. In an attempt to penetrate the multiple layers of his lie and reach the core of his personality, she chose to approach him through fiction, following Clark’s lead. She imagined him in a world of clones and doubles, one where the borders of truth and lie collapse against the rigid confinements of the image.
Dear Clark grew into a multifocal installation and a book that carry both the rigorous yet awkward aura of an uncanny cabinet of doubles, Siamese twins, and the world’s most famous criminals. Departing from Clark’s case, Maierhofer took one step further and enclosed in her study a fascinating register of chameleonic apparitions and unresolved tales of hybrids and optical illusions, some real, others invented. Liquid definition and duplicity are omnipresent in this open-ended narrative that asks the viewer to join in piecing together the clues Maierhofer has collected.
Like other contemporary visual artists who use photography to explore the possibilities of fiction, rather than the forensic search for truth, Maierhofer seems not to consider her photographs able to tell her story on their own. She instead incorporates them in a systematic, non-hierarchical use of archival documents and resources as diverse as pure documentary, staged photography, texts and film studies, in order to unmask the subjectivity of vision and the fragility of perception. Her production process lies transparent on the wall and the page, inviting a series of playful and, at times, unsettling associations between images, words and media, in equal, democratic terms. As she explains, “it is all zooming in, zooming out, looking at different perspectives, reviving the joy I first experienced when compiling my material and browsing through it.”
Cinematic in pace, Dear Clark allows for mystery and intrigue. Maierhofer acknowledges her documentary roots and the influence of the German film director Werner Herzog who has extensively theorised about and mingled the languages of fiction and documentary. It is from him that Maierhofer draws her philosophy, one that defends tampering with the truth for the sake of storytelling. The elasticity that both the installation and the book possess reinforces this determination to engage multiple layers of meaning, interpretation and experience. “I was concerned”, Maierhofer recalled “about how much information I should provide without destroying the viewer’s imagination, without being didactic. The installation provides the opportunity to discover things. You can flip the pictures, read the texts underneath them or behind the glass vitrine. You can if you want, but you do not need to. I wanted to preserve this element in the book, hence the different paper layers and sheet lengths.”
The elliptical narrative in Dear Clark eloquently unravels the strong underlying parallels between the flux of fraudulent identity and photography’s unfulfilled promises of objective truth. The extent of the lie in Clark’s case – how he took it to its limits and imposed it on everyone – is another example of human credulity before the presence of a seducing image, imagined or real.
Says Maierhofer: “Identity seems to be after all a matter of persuasion. Clark did not just choose to be anyone; he chose to be a Rockefeller! He was not just like any other common crook out there who tries to make money out of peoples’ beliefs. What he was after was status. For months he studied the Rockefellers thoroughly, and managed to pass himself off as one of them. People bought into his lie and invested in it because it was so charming.
“All of us are drawn to storytellers, to people who make reality just a little better with their lies. In Germany there is a saying, ‘I will love you forever is the most honest lie in the world’. The same applies to photography. It wants to give us the truth but it can’t.”
Images direct our attention towards their confined surfaces; it is their unique, privileged bond with the real that renders them so appealing. They tempt us to believe there is more beyond the surface. The condensed meaning palpitating in one single photograph allows us the space to imagine multiple universes, a life of different options. And yet, when the hour of truth comes, it is so hard to specify the path to the final meaning. Charming and ambivalent, the Barthesian punctum resists being tied down to the norms of language. As does Clark. He becomes the punctum for Maierhofer: an exemplary subject avidly explored. A recollection of family pictures in the series shows him the way he was: blurry, unrecognisable, an awkward pose defying definition. Every time he had his picture taken, he would cover himself or make a face: he, the man of invention, chose to leave a weak imprint on film.
Clark is the man in constant rebirth. A series of chapters with Kafkaesque titles – The Promise, The Lie, The Transformation – allude to his duality and process of transformation, but also attempt to fully capture his complexity, to neatly outline him as the subject of a readable narrative. Maierhofer disposed of two portraits of him: a newspaper clip from the day of his arrest and the portrait of a smiling young man with sunglasses. This latter picture, which was taken in Germany when Clark was around seventeen, is the only photograph where we see him openly looking at the camera. “I love this picture”, says Maierhofer, “it delivers the naïve hope he had as a young man. When he first landed in the States, he spent some time in Pasadena trying to succeed as an actor. But he failed. When you travel to the US you just expect everything to be like in a Hollywood movie. The whole country is a particular setting of reality and fiction. This is what happened to Clark. He got the message of the American dream delivered by him in his living room in Germany, went there and expected that he could be anyone he wished.”
As an ideal, charismatic subject, Clark remains mysterious and blurry until the end. Still, Maierhofer confesses that romance gradually faded despite her initial fascination with him. The gloomy part of the story prevailed. “Inventing a fake persona and keeping track of the lie for thirty years takes a lot of calculation”, she explains. “Just imagine, Clark was never able to tell anyone about who he really was. I sometimes fantasise about him going out to these little drive-in bars, running across a stranger probably drunk, letting it all out and then going back home”.
Clark Rockefeller, or Christian Karl Gehartsreiter, is currently serving a sentence for murder in America. Sara-Lena Maierhofer carried out the project without meeting him; he never responded to her request. How would the work have turned out if he had said yes? “It would have certainly been less my project and more his”, responds Maierhofer. “Clark would have directed me. He is an extremely intelligent man who knows how to play the game of seduction. A con man is the perfect mirror. He gets into people’s heads, finds out about their desires and gives them what they want. In our case, it would have been the same. Clark would have sensed what I want and would have manipulated me. He would have been the rider and me the horse”. ♦
All images courtesy of the artist © Sara-Lena Maierhofer
Natasha Christia is a freelance writer and curator. From 2005 until 2014 she was the art director and development manager of Kowasa gallery/bookstore in Barcelona.