An illicit love affair almost always goes un-chronicled. It’s in the inherent nature of the thing: an affair is over, after all, as soon as you leave too many traces. And so a love affair’s importance and impact often live entirely in memory. If we document it, the affair lives in a few pictures, letters—maybe today, a text or two. If you do more, you’re an admirable archivist, and also either madly in love or totally fucking creepy.
Take this new exhibit of found art from Germany, now debuting in New York at art space White Columns. Titled Margret: Chronicle of an Affair—May 1969 to December 1970, it’s an at times unsettling but nevertheless consistently absorbing collection of photographs, documents, objects, and samples (some of the biological persuasion) from German businessman Gunter K., 39, who obsessively chronicled his love affair with his secretary, Margret S., 24. Both were married, and they spent a year and a half trysting about while he apparently documented its every logistical detail within an inch of its life.
According to White Columns’ description of the exhibit, the entire collection was found in a forgotten suitcase, in a German apartment decades later. Eventually, it was all sold at auction:
The archive consists of hundreds of color and black-and-white photographs showing the same woman (Margret S.) in various places and poses: sitting at a typewriter at the office, traveling, or in hotel rooms, undressing, changing, or getting dressed. In the archive, inscribed with dates, are samples of Margret’s hair (from both her head and pubic region), her fingernails, and empty contraception packages, as well as a blood-stained napkin. Receipts from hotels and restaurants, as well as travel documents and tickets from theaters, reveal insights into the places the couple visited as well as acknowledging their preferences and interests. Personal notes and diary entries, mostly written with a typewriter, resemble official records. The focus of virtually all these writings is the sexual act, its frequency, its endurance, etc. - all factually underlined yet at the same time described in a coarse and often obscene language.
So let’s get a look at some of this stuff, shall we?
There is, all told, a kind of cold bureaucracy to the proceedings here—which is surely heightened when these artifacts are presented in a museum setting. Even taking these photos alone, in aggregate, there’s less intimacy than there is voyeurism. The photographer clips her hair, pastes it to a notecard. Rather than documenting sex itself, he seems to be documenting an impression of sex with a woman who happens to be in the vicinity.
White Column included the initial introduction to the project from its curator, which gives us more detail:
The couple go on “business trips” in Günter’s Opel Kapitän, stay at spa hotels and visit the casino in Wiesbaden. Then the trysts begin to take place in an attic flat in Günter’s store building. Nobody is supposed to know, but people must notice something. Margret prepares roulades and redfish filets with cucumber salad. They drink Cappy (orange juice) with a green shot (Escorial, strong liquor) and watch “colourful television.” Margret dresses for him in the clothes he has bought her. He, the perfect lover, in truth is a macho man who wants to have everything under control. She enjoys his attention, his generosity, is happy to let herself be manipulated, is jealous, becomes pregnant despite the pills, and has an illegal abortion − for the third time in her young life. Just before Christmas 1970 the reports and photographs break off. The relationship appears to be at an end. Margret is scared. She tells him that “after Christmas the fucking will be over and you will not dance at two weddings anymore.” He gets involved with other women. These are no love stories, though, just obsessive sexual romps, chronicled nonetheless in hundreds of grotesque documents testifying to the stuffy German milieu in the early years of the Kohl era.”
In a look at the exhibit at Messy Nessy Chic, we get more glimpses into the couple’s trajectory:
Indeed, his notes reveal that his wife Leni is aware of the affair but chooses to endure the humiliation. In one of the first long notes, typed on a page from a calendar, Günther describes a confrontation between Margret and his wife:
[Roughly translated from German]
Monday 7.9.1970: At lunch Leni (Günthers wife) says to Margret: Madame, you are a lesser character, you are disrupting a good marriage.
Tuesday 8.9.1970: Around 10 a clock Margret says to me: You let this insult from your wife against me pass? No more sex, you can jump on your own wife. Whatever you do, you are not allowed to jump on me anymore.
Later, my wife has to apologize to her at lunch on 8.9.1970.
That afternoon they go upstairs again to make love and the note ends with:
Devil salad is eaten. Everything is okay again.
Messy Nessy Chic notes only one instance of Margret’s feelings poking into the account:
He gets involved with other women at the request of Margret who wants him to go on dates with other women, presumably to quell suspicion from her own husband.
There is Giesela, who Günther describes as “sexually starving”, and Ursula, a “big and skinny” 21 year-old who “looks really good. White boots, green dress, black hair.” Günther reveals Margret’s subsequent panicked jealousy, begging him not to fall in love with Ursula. He also mentions that despite him still being involved with Ursula, Margret fights with her husband and asks for a divorce.
In a way that love affairs immediately go cold once they’re over but maintain an inherent mystique, the documents and objects in this collection fascinate—but there is little obvious pleasure in the (admittedly cheap) satisfaction of learning all the ins and outs (sorry). Instead, the whole thing seems like a slightly unsavory mystery left unanswered. There are no clues to Gunther K.’s motives here. We’re given all manner of detail but no real heart, no understanding—of why they did it, what they got from it, whether it meant anything to either of them, and in the end, what it all added up to, grand-scheme. It is all trees, no forest. (This, interestingly enough, is also the conclusion of a woman who data-analyzed all the emails between she and her boyfriend, who deduced that love is best not looked at so clear-eyed.)
The details, anyway, never matter: not how the love affair started, or why, or even really, with whom. All affairs circle around the same essential act, the motivation for all the dinners, drinks, trysts, hotel rooms. Rather, what these details allow is for Gunther to tell the story, all on his own terms. They say history is written by the winners, but perhaps it is merely written by the archivists: happy to tell the story their way, covering up the more difficult motivations and actions with a flood of mundane facts. What never appears in this exhibit are Gunther’s emotions, or his opinion about the love affair—let alone, of course, Margret’s side.