Seeing yourself looking
It's no good - the time aspect of video art still bothers me. Every time I see a monitor or projection at a show or in a museum, I feel less than inclined to go over and watch it. Fact is, you usually have to wait first until the current showing is over. Then it starts again, and only then do you get the actual `work', which is spun out during the time allotted to it. It is simply taken for granted - and this is the bit that bugs me - that you, the spectator, are expected to look on passively and take what's given you. I still prefer the immediacy of a painting. It doesn't alter from the moment you first set eyes on it, it presents the same image throughout. It is up to you, the spectator, to choose how much time you spend examining it. You can try to read the time it took to paint from the rhythm and speed of the brush strokes. Or you can relive the concentration its author felt in the careful balance of the composi-tion, and look for confirmation of the preliminary studies and corrections you assume were made.
These, then, were my first thoughts on visiting Rob Johannesma's studio when I saw the set-up of monitors and a video beam. Slowly it dawned on me, however, that the video he showed me was fundamentally different from what is normally done in that medium. The projection time did not equal the duration of an event taking place on screen. I was looking at a still image. It was only after some minutes that I noticed a slight shift which though constant only related to the projection and not to the subject. Finally the video ended with a still image again.
The vertical set-up shows the image of a tree and branches on which the camera seems to slowly zoom in and then out, these two acts separated by a slow shift within the image. Very gradually it transpires that the tree/foliage imagery is drawing apart to reveal a distant horizon. You then wonder whether it was made using a moving camera and a zoom lens so that the transition from close by to distant seemingly abides by rules other than those governing the familiar optical distortion with a single vanishing point. Yet the video came about quite differently. Rob Johannesma made two transparencies of the same landscape, one shot fifteen metres further away than the other. These he placed one above the other on a lightbox with a video camera mounted above it.
He then zoomed in on one particular detail and out on another. These one-second frames were stretched to span three minutes and form the beginning and end of the video. Between them is an episode also lasting three minutes, in which the camera records the way he slowly shifted the upper transparency over the lower towards the right until the tree in the upper example was off-screen. Little by little the distant prospect of a sunlit landscape comes into view and remains there.
The one certainty in this video work is the tree, on the left of the screen up against the edge. It is so emphatically present that I am reminded of the classical motif of the `repoussoir' in painting and stage scenery. This compositional strategy suggesting depth has ended up, by way of picture postcards, in photography. It is now so much taken for granted that every¬ one resorts to it in their holiday snapshots, with not a thought for the landscape painters and stage set designers who started it all.
The image of the tree in front of the distant expanse made me think of the paintings of Cezanne with the motif of Mont Sainte-Victoire, seen from Bellevue. In one such painting at the Courtauld Institute in London a pine tree terminates the image on the left. On the righthand side the open expanse continues unobstructed as far as the frame.
The branches of the pine etched against the sky have a sequel in the branches of another tree whose trunk is left out in the Courtauld painting. Not so in a painting belonging to the Phillips Collection in Washington. There, the second tree terminates the visual field on the right. In comparison with the painting in Washington, the London painting zooms in, so to speak, on the subject.
Aside from the reference to the time-honoured repoussoir strategy, my being reminded of Cezanne is, in this medium of moving photographs, not without significance. It was he, after all, who in the 1880’s found a way out of the impasse of impressionism. The Impressionists, with their rapidfire depiction of patterns of light and colour analogous to the alternation of clouds and patches of sunlight, had found a painterly response to the recently arrived photographic production of images. It led to a naturalism of great virtuosity but also to the cul-de-sac of art for art's sake. Cézanne was one of the first to reexamine the possibility of a still-image based on an idea, and not on the fortuitous and ecstatic experience of the beauty of nature. No longer looking with the eye of the brushwielding photographer, he cast his gaze back to classical painting, to Poussin for example, and his Landscape with the Burial of Phocion in the Louvre.
There the landscape with its sequence of planes is conceived of as an expression of serene resignation, a metaphor for the funeral enacted in it. Cezanne sought to combine an idealistic view of landscape with an impressionistic rendering of nature. Basically, this is a paradox.
The driving force behind his laborious research can therefore only be found in the paintings it produced, and cannot be expressed logically in words. Typical in this respect is the moment when Cezanne ceased work on a picture, even when the canvas was not entirely covered with paint. For him, it was finished once a sequence of oppositions was visibly resolved: between a well-defined form and its apparition in light and colour, between the illusion of a well-lit space and the physical presence of streaks of paint on the canvas, between the order imposed by the painter and that governing the landscape.
So it is Cézanne who springs to my mind when I look at the video work of Rob Johannesma, because of just that combination of landscape motif and photography. It leads naturally to a comparison with Straub and Huillet's film Cézanne (shown at Witte de With in Rotterdam in 1991), a documentary in which still images are endlessly sustained, with a voiceover that reconstructs a dialogue with the artist. It requires a sturdy dose of good will on the part of the spectator to keep watching for longer than ten minutes.
Rob Johannesma's video of moving photographs proves to be more effect¬ive than that combination of still images and words. It seems to reenact what a painter like Cezanne saw when he seated himself before a landscape and alternated his gaze between what he saw and what he depicted, taking the time to clear his mind, just to observe and see his inner need for order reflected in the landscape before him. In Rob Johannesma's work the time factor is coincident with the time the spectator spends observing the moving images of the landscape. It has often been said by artists: you can see yourself looking. Unlike when listen¬ ing to music, you are aware of the fact that looking has itself a form, distinct from that which is observed.
Our gaze is shaped by artists and photographers. `What a beautiful Monet' we say when the sun turns the shadows in the snow blue. `There! Rembrandt' and we see in the picturesque light a family of refugees in a ramshackle barn. `Look! Goya' and a woman cries, her arms raised above the body of her lifeless son. A photographer recognizes it, and captures it. Art and reality, natural gesture and pose, seem to briefly coin¬cide and that gives the photograph a claim to art that gets it on the front pages of newspapers and has it proclaimed press photograph of the year. We know what is beautiful in photographs and identify that aspect as pictur¬esque, `like a painting'.
These days, too, we are able to manipulate images perfectly using the computer, so that the photograph loses its credibility as historical evidence. We can no longer keep up the pretence of `that's the way it was' à la Roland Barthes; the photograph has itself become illusion. So the idea that we see reality through the eyes of the photographer is in need of revision, unless we accept that reality has a surreal aspect. The rela¬tionship between reality, the depiction of reality and the observers, our¬selves, has to be affirmed on each new occasion. The question now is: What does the world look like after photography? And then: How does that answer differ from the one Cézanne gave to the question he asked himself: what does the world look like without photography ?
Rob Johannesma's video work brings this issue into view, for instance in a video whose stepping-off point was a transparency of a volcanic region in Arizona. The images were made by placing the transparency on a light box and filming it from above with a camera on a tripod. The tripod was shifted by hand so that the camera progressively picks up part of the land¬scape. Other images are of the transparency projected on the studio wall. The image was filmed with a steadycam from front and side in segments of 10 to 15 seconds. The image stabilizer was turned off so that the images move back and forth. The repeated and varied shots seem to be attempts to penetrate deep into the landscape, the sense of agitation heightened by the focusing and unfocusing of the image. It is as though the filmer wants to zoom in on a landscape beyond the projected image but keeps getting thwarted by the grain of the film.
Here, unlike in the video described earlier, time is not conceived of as a single entity, a regular trajectory from start to finish. This video unwinds a litany of fragments, resembling a kind of nervous quest that keeps going back to square one. That there is no overall view is borne out by the absence of a horizon. The landscape has been filmed from a low viewpoint and the horizon you would expect high in the image has been shut out. As a result the daylight has been reduced to light indirectly reflected on the ground and in the plant growth. That quality of light is enhanced by saturating the colours of the reddish brown volcanic soil on the transparency so that the shot seems to have been taken at twilight, when colours are brighter than during the day and seem to radiate a light of their own. The shadows in the video are so black as to suggest holes punched in the image. This blackness makes the splashes of sunlight on the glossy leaves shine like individual light particles, as though they were openings in a projection screen where the light source shines through.
In the triangle of relations between reality, the depiction of reality and the role of the observer, the landscape shakes off its limited role as a prere-quisite for reproduction. It attempts to break through the barrier of the reproductive medium, which is also the border between past and present. The video takes me back to a visit I once paid to the Camera Obscura at Bristol Observatory, where the world outside is enacted in the dark on a glass table. In it I see a small group crossing the bridge. It's like watching a silent film from the twenties. They are making their way here, presently I'll hear them on the stair. If I leave now they will follow me on the glass and see me as a shadow from the past.
This article is a slightly altered version of `Rob Johannesma. Jezelf zien kijken',
Nieuwsbrief Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, No. 50, Bert Jansen (Beek, NL, 1946) is an art historian. He contributes frequently to the Dutch daily paper Het financieele Dagblad and the arthistorical journal Jong Holland.
Translated John Kirkpatrick