Dear Clark, Portrait of a Con Man

If the fiction is given over any further to the principles implicit in the con man, into fictitiousness, he himself would disappear out of sight behind the mechanisms of the fiction: everything inconsistent, changeable, shifting, identity-less.

The work of Sara-Lena Maierhofer evolves around the life of a stranger. In Dear Clark, the artist tries to approach Clark Rockefeller, a con man whose life consisted of adopting and abandoning different identities. When she fails to arrange a meeting with the person in question, she decides to study him from a distance. Step by step, the artist comes closer to getting to know her subject; his appearance, his peculiarities, his intentions. How can one construct a profile of someone who constantly readjusts himself? What characterizes a man who systematically defies character? How do you grab someone who constantly aims to breakaway?

“As a time traveller moves between different centuries, a con man like Clark Rockefeller travels between various identities and lives, at home only in permanent transformation. Trying to capture him in his many disguises is a rather hopeless endeavour. After several attempts to trap his persona, I realized I had to beat him with his own weapons. Accordingly, I encircled the phenomenon of the con man on different levels: his appearance, his conventions, criminal profile and pathologies. Above all, I had to become accustomed to experimenting with deception myself, if I wanted my research to be successful – to the point where reality and speculation merged, and where facts seemed as unknown and unknowable as fictions.”

The work is divided into seven chapters: The Promise, The Lie, The Transformation, The Duplication, The Reflection, The Shedding and The Trace. The final body of work consists of about 70 color and black & white photographs, collages, photo copies and found photographs plus several videos, socalled Truth Studies, and a book including the images, various texts and a short story.

Interview with Celina Basra / Feldbuschwiesner Gallery

“The distinction between virtuoso dissimulation and genuineness is too small to be measured. Never go to the theatre. You are ruining your play. You are not allowed to have a family. Everything in South America or dead.”

Walter Serner, Last Loosening: A handbook for the con man & those who aspire to be one, 1927

Sara-Lena Maierhofer came across the story of Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter in a newspaper article: Born in 1961 in a village in Bavaria, Gerhartsreiter travelled to America as an exchange student where he continually created new identities, until eventually, as Clark Rockefeller, his cover was blown and he was arrested.

As Maierhofer didn't feel she could do the story justice with a solely documentary approach, she decided to mix fact and fiction together: to gain a better understanding of the con man, she became a con artist herself.

Her visual study Dear Clark, is an installation comprising 70 photographs and documents, reminiscent of Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas in the way the images are grouped and organised. Every image contains a iridescent universe of truths, through which she expertly exposes the subjectivity of vision and memory and the fragility of our perception and identity.

Sara-Lena Maierhofer (*1982) studied politics before graduating in 2011 from the University of Applied Sciences Bielefeld with a degree in photography and media art. She was drawn to photography through a desire to find a different approach to reality.

Dear Clark, is her final project and is available in a limited edition art book. The work has already been presented at various locations including FOAM, Amsterdam (2011), and also won the Gute Aussichten award for young photographers. It formed part of the recent My Secret Life exhibition at the C/O Berlin as well as the portfolio presentation Plat(t)form at the Winterthur Museum of Photography. Dear Clark, is her first exhibition at FELDBUSCHWIESNER.

The title of your work is Dear Clark, – the beginning of a letter. Who is Clark and what does the letter contain?

Dear Clark, is the story of Clark Rockefeller – a con man who lived under various aliases in the United States for almost 30 years. His story is one of the longest of any con artist in the US, and it all began in Germany: Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter was born in 1961 in a small village in Chiemgau, Bavaria. At the age of 17 he left his family and homeland and created a new identity for himself in the US. Over the years that followed he continually changed his location, name and profession – Los Angeles, Boston, New York; Christopher Crowe, Chris Gerhardt, Clark Rockefeller – masquerading as a descendant of European aristocracy and confiding in his acquaintances that he was working as a scientific assistant for NASA and the Pentagon.

Dear Clark, are also the opening words of a letter I wrote to him, addressed to the prison not far from Boston where he has been detained since 2008: “As much as I can understand the absurdity of being a public figure and receiving letters from strangers, I would still appreciate to start a correspondence or to meet you in person.” He never responded.

You once said in reference to your work that : “To understand a con man, I would have to beat him at his own game and become a con artist myself.” How did that work out? And why was this approach necessary?

I have approached the whole phenomenon of a con man from various different angles – his appearance and emergence, his rules and patterns – to the point where there are no other angles left. How can you comprehend (and apprehend) someone who is constantly reinventing himself, whose very components are in a continuous process of disassembling and reassembling? What is his motivation? How does he achieve it?
In an attempt to understand his world from the inside out, I transformed bit by bit into a con artist myself.

Alongside records and traces of Christian Gerhartsreiter’s life, Dear Clark, also contains images of Siamese twins, a trickster toast and a tailor from Bielefeld – how did you choose your subjects? What is fact and what is fiction?

These various figures are the supporting cast in my story; I use them in a similar way as a director would – to fill out the plot line or take things in a new direction.
The game of truth and fiction remains a game and, ultimately, is not resolved. Along the way, all differences between staged and documented; objectivity and subjectivity; reality and fiction disappear for the spectator.
The French director Jean Eustache once said “Le faux ne s'oppose pas au vrai, il permet de faire émerger les mécanismes du discours” which roughly translates as “the false is not the opposite of the truth, but rather allows the mechanisms of discourse to emerge.”
Photography always promises to portray the objective truth. However, it cannot keep that promise – the secret always remains hidden behind the picture. This is also true of Dear Clark,. Con artists, like photographs, are just surfaces.

Your background is in portrait photography. Does Dear Clark, also fall under this category? The subtitle Portrait of a Con Man would suggest this. However, the work does not create a concrete portrayal of the figure of Clark Rockefeller. The portrait remains a mere flicker – a composition of slivers and fleeting moments. It is nevertheless people that interest me.

Christian, alias Clark, would never let himself be photographed. What prompted this withdrawal from photographic images?

He avoided any kind of definition and confinement. A photographic image presses our three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional one, confines space and keeps that moment on record for eternity. This wouldn't be fitting for a con man.

The Promise, The Lie, The Transformation, The Duplication – the work is subdivided into chapters like a novel.

The headings originated from the desire to organise my material. I came back from the US with so many documents and pictures, and I wondered: How can I tell the story? The chapters are the narrative structure of my story and bring together the sprawling cosmos of con artists, twins and doppelgangers in one choreography. They give the material poetry, and allow the observer to pause for breath before the next chapter begins.

One article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung describes the transformation of Christian Gerhartsreiter as shedding – can a person shed their identity as a snak e does its skin, or a butterfl y its cocoon?

Identity is not a solid structure; it is a process. And Clark is somebody whose Self is most comfortable in a state of constant transformation. But I believe that fragments of the discarded identity always remain. Steve Savio, who knew Clark during when he first moved to the US, said in an interview: “How was it to see his picture in the newspaper almost 30 years later and read about all of this?”
“Oh, I didn’t even recognize his face. My mum did. His features had changed, somehow become blank. As if the masks he had worn all those years had dried on his face.”

In another context, curator Chus Martinez said: “The very act of tel ling this story to other men and women becomes crucial, the account of everything we take for art reveals itsel f as a way of making things happen, of opening up a space.” What importance does the telling and retel ling of a story have in this context? To be a con artist, is it also important to be a good storyteller?

Not only as a con artist; also as a car salesman, a hairdresser, an artist. Stories are what remain; they give rise to our memories and eventually our identity. Identity itself is a narrative construction – it's a story we tell ourselves.

In this way, memories are generat ed dynamical ly out of the present – is the work also going to evolve and grow?
Yes, our own memories are constantly overlapping and evolving, just like Dear Clark,. However, I am trying to curtail this growth and channel my attention into other projects. But the fascination remains and sometimes I relapse. I’m showing two new pictures at the Feldbuschwiesner exhibition.

And lastly, what is the meaning behind the trickster toast?
The toast looks as if it is toasted, but it’s not – it’s just been sprayed. And what you see here are the traces left behind.

Interview by Natasha Christia / 1000 words magazine

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”.

Sara-Lena Maierhofer (born 1982 in Freudenstadt, Germany) lives and works in Berlin. She graduated in 2011 from the Fachhochschule Bielefeld with a degree in photography and media. Recent group shows include: Figuring Out, Taking Shape, Facing In at the LCC, London; Not Yet Titled at Westwerk, Hamburg; and Rear View/Borders of Photography at the Overkant, Amsterdam. Her latest work Dear Clark, a Portrait of a Con Man investigates the life and lies of Clark Rockefeller, aka Christian Gerhartsreiter, was on display at FOAM, Amsterdam from 16 December 2011 – 8 February 2012.