The Nearness of the Distant

Janneke Wesseling, 2002


In the 1930s Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), writer and philosopher, descendant of an old Berlin Jewish family, wrote the anthology Berliner Kindheit um neunzehnhundert. In 1933 he was forced to leave the city of his birth and live as an exile in Paris. When he realised that it would be a long time before he ever saw Berlin again – indeed he never returned  there, for in 1940 he took his own life when fleeing from the German troops in the Spanish border town of Port Bou – he started work on a series of literary sketches in which he recorded memories of his childhood. He spent years writing and rewriting them, constantly changing their order. The last version of Berliner Kindheit that he wrote dated from 1938. These short records never idealised their subjects but were coolly observant and very precisely written: they form an extremely expressive collection of articles.

In one of them Benjamin tells how he visited the Kaiserpanorama, a collection of fifty transparencies of far-off places, Reisebilder. The wonderful thing about them, Benjamin found, was that it made no difference where you started your trip round. From chairs placed in front of windows left in a circular viewing wall visitors were able to see lightly coloured views. Each picture wobbled into view in a small wooden frame, set upright in the wall, and then after a short while disappeared off to the left in the circular wall. There was no music: the only sound was a tinkling bell indicating that the current picture was on the point of moving on. Then everything went dark for a few seconds, before the next picture appeared. Fjords and coconut palms, sloping vineyards with finely drawn vine leaves, railway stations with clouds of steam, each scene was permeated with the pain of approaching parting, announced by the softly tinkling bell.

Although a century has gone by between the world described by Benjamin in his Berliner Kindheit and the contemporary reality to which Rob Johannesma relates in his work, an echo can be heard of the stories of the one in the video works of the other. There is a compatibility, a similar Sehnsucht. Benjamin's sketches are the expression of a passionate longing to preserve his earliest recollections. Noted down and endlessly refined, these recollections become tangible and visible to the reader, who is able to see the stripes of sunlight on the walls of the old courtyard of the house where he was born, listen along with the child that he then was to the falling snowflakes and try to understand their story. The moment is experienced and cherished, over and over again. The writer makes time stand still.

There is stillness with Johannesma too, the process of listening to a picture, of wanting, somehow or other, to work one's way into it. There is the same vain attempt to preserve the fleeting recollection, to force a delay, the same almost despairing attempt to slow the passage of time. And just as in the Kaiserpanorama there is no beginning and no end, no development, no story, only pictures in which the observer can lose himself.

Falteringly the video camera scans a photograph of a small sulphur lake. This piece of dead nature is almost completely colourless: bleak, motionless, whitish water, dark algal growth, withered branches and yellowed grass. The composition of the picture is precise and balanced, divided horizontally into three parts, blackish brown darkness, greyish white phosphorescence and the greenish darkness of pine trees further up. The focus is on the cross-cut side of a thick branch, sticking out of the water. The observer's gaze keeps returning to this, without being any the wiser for it: the branch is absurd, revealing no meaning whatsoever. The observer has before him a wall of silence and non-existence which yet has a strange beauty and attraction. The only movement in the picture is the unexpected appearance of a shoulder. Apparently there is someone else there, also looking at the lake, and the observer is looking over his shoulder. But to what kind of reality does this shoulder in fact belong? To the reality of the sulphur lake, where it stands like the shadow of death, or to our own reality, living, unphotographed, unfilmed? If it were part of our reality, it would be with us in the here and now. But it is not, it is clearly there, on the screen - though again not in but in front of the picture. Moreover the video camera has recorded its movements, which means that those movements belong to the past. The shadow is an intermediate figure, a barrier between observer and landscape, epitomising the unbridgeable gulf between the here and now and the there and then.

As basis for his videos, Johannesma photographs the countryside in Texas, in Nevada and around Bamberg in southern Germany. From the hundreds of photos which his collection contains by now, he chooses a single image to process into a video work. Painstakingly he examines the chosen image with a hand-held video camera, using a steadycam or image stabilizer, or, as recently, a camera in a tote bag, specially constructed for the purpose and worn on his body. The physical irregularity of the examination on film is important, because the irregular movements make clear that the filming is not merely a mechanical process. Johannesma makes thirty or more versions of each of his video works, persevering until his perception becomes saturated and he is so familiar with the photographic image that every detail has become recorded inside himself. As this goes on the filming changes slowly but steadily into a meditative operation, so that in the end it becomes possible to avoid the aesthetic look, with everything actively seen and actively selected. This is not about ‘highlights’ or a storyline. Any hierarchy must be banished from the process of looking; the aim is to achieve an unprejudiced, disinterested view. Ultimately Johannesma films the final version in a single take, almost casually. The length of a work varies from a few minutes to half an hour.

There is a strange relationship between space and time in the perception of the observer viewing the completed work. The time in which movement takes place in the work does not correspond with the time in which it is observed. This movement differs from one video to another: it may be slow or faster, it may jump and jerk or, by contrast, flow smoothly. For example, the lens of the video camera may at one time be immediately over the photograph. Then the lens moves away, extremely slowly, and yet the movement seems to be accelerated, because what the video records is not the space in the landscape itself but an image of the space in the landscape. This means that perspective distortions can occur, at the edges of the picture or when the camera is taking an aerial view of the picture. Sometimes there is a moment at which the position of the video camera corresponds with the place from which the photo was taken, allowing the observer to identify with the photo.

Johannesma tries to see the photographic image as something substantial. What he wants is to give it a surface, a skin. Sometimes the camera is too close to the photo so that all he films is the grain. The picture becomes blurred, the image is lost. The camera tries to get the picture back into focus, a process much like searching for a memory.

Johannesma uses a landscape because it is beautiful; he wants to seduce the observer, to entice him into the work. The striking thing is that however uncultivated these landscapes may be in reality (for example a volcanic landscape in Arizona), they inevitably become cultivated by the photographer. They look like European landscapes, transformed as they are by the photographer’s eye. The way the photographer sees it is, in turn, determined by western culture and the history of western art. The photographed landscapes remind one for example of landscapes of Albrecht Altdorfer and Albrecht Dürer, painted around 1500, when landscape art was first seen as an independent genre instead of merely providing a setting for a story. And these photographs naturally fit in with the traditions of landscape photography.

Yet Johannesma has to be constantly on the lookout for landscapes that are unknown to him, for places that are strange to him. Involvement with the subject has to be avoided. His only involvement is with the picture, and that must be as unprejudiced as possible. For the same reason he excludes Dutch landscapes as material for video works: they are too emotionally charged, too familiar. For a similar reason photos of things like interiors and towns are also unusable. In fact Johannesma does photograph towns and interiors, but so far he has not been able to use any of them, with the exception of an ivy clad wall in Bayreuth. There are too many layers of significance in them, too much noise. There are no people in his landscapes, the purity of the image is maintained. The searching video camera itself functions as a human being, as an observer.

In traditional landscape painting there is a great difference between landscapes in which one or more people are present (however insignificant or minor they may be), and landscapes that are 'empty'. In the first case the people are always the real subject. The picture deals with their relationship to the world, the role they play in it. As the figures make clear, nature derives its significance from being perceived by human beings. Things are very different in the case of the huge unspoiled landscapes, totally without people, by artists like Kaspar David Friedrich, such as his paintings of the Riesengebirge dating from around 1830. Here the dominant features are silence and emptiness. There is no human dimension. Nature is supreme, indifferent to mankind. Its indifference, its anonymity, makes these paintings look unheimisch.

Johannesma's video works seem to be an attempt to redetermine the position of mankind in relation to nature and in respect of the world. Or perhaps it is not an attempt, but rather a question: what is the role of mankind in the world, what is the nature of its responsibility? Where can one find the meaning, the sense, of human existence?

In his famous essay ‘Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit’ [The work of art in the age of technical reproduction] (1935) Benjamin bemoans the fact that the work of art is losing its 'aura' because of modern techniques of reproduction. He puts it like this: 'In an artistic image uniqueness and permanence are as closely linked as are transitoriness and reproducibility in the reproduction'. As he sees it, ‘the whole sphere of authenticity’, i.e. of uniqueness and physical proximity, remains outside the scope of technical reproducibility. Technical reproduction leads to the depreciation of the existence of the work of art in the here and now. The object is stripped of its shell, its aura is destroyed. The amount of technical reproduction can only increase, swallowing up, as it were, the work of art. This, says Benjamin, is a consequence of the acquisitiveness of the masses, who long 'to bring things "closer", spatially and humanly', and when they see that this is impossible are only too eager to exchange the one-off character of something for a reproduction.

Benjamin observed the increasing power of the masses – the political aspect of this phenomenon made him very alert to it. He also saw it as leading to the beginning of the existence of the consumer society. But Benjamin was still aware from his own experience of the authenticity of the one-off, its unique presence, its nearness. It was something he had grown up with. For Johannesma this sort of authenticity is distant history. In our postmodern age, short-lived virtual apparitions have taken the place of physical presence, as shown by the development of art in past decades. Authenticity is something from paradise lost. It is as if Johannesma stands relative to Benjamin at the end of this development in the depreciation of experience and authenticity, and as if, stubbornly and against his better judgment, he is trying to find a way back. His aim is to refill the empty shell, to recharge it with meaning, with 'aura', so he uses his video camera to explore the relationship between mankind and the world.

Benjamin illustrates the meaning of the word 'aura' by reference to a landscape, a one-off apparition of something 'distant, however close it may be’. According to him, if a hiker, while resting on a summer afternoon, follows with his eyes a mountain range on the horizon, or a branch which casts its shadow on him, he experiences 'the aura of these mountains, of that branch'. Bringing close something distant, following the shadow of the branch - this, almost literally, is the way that Johannesma works, using all the technical means available to him, constantly searching for the farthest boundary, the boundary of optimal delay, the continuum from the brightest light to the darkest shadow.

By looking 'in the third degree' – at a landscape that has been seen, photographed and finally filmed – Johannesma brings the observer into contact with the origin of what he is looking at, ‘the first degree’. He turns the observer back on himself. With his video works he makes it possible to see that reality has been destroyed, swallowed up by the constant advance of reproduction techniques, leaving behind the observer as the only unique reality. Despite, or thanks to, his completely artificial images, he returns the observer to the present, to his own world, to the here and now.





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