Night over Arcadia
Text: Gerhard Glüher
Do these photographs gain in significance if we know where they have been taken? Does a name help to establish the significance of the location? We first recognize the view of a city by its landmarks. These are well maintained, being intended to convey their visual signature. The non-urban areas for which we have rather feebly coined the terms “landscape” and “nature” are deficient in such symbolism, with the result that we could call them nameless expanses of the world. The mixed forests of Central Europe look the same in France as they do in the Czech Republic, and the deserts of North Africa, though distinguishable from those of Central Asia by geologists, are not so by civilized city-dwellers. If we summarize the history of the cultivation of the wilderness, we regularly encounter battles with the “inhumanity” of nature that end in its exploitation for human purposes. We cannot presuppose an existential dialogue in which civilization and nature are in equilibrium, only a defeat of what was originally there. With the advent of modern times, we also discover the most absurd testimony to civilization’s conquest of its ancient foe—the wilderness—in the shape of so-called landscaped gardens. Baroque parks are testimony to the urbanization of nature, and the English landscaped garden represents a tolerated, artificial wilderness that was tailored to the human being and harbored no dangers of any kind.
In the following pages, let us see what relationship between nature and civilization Gefeller found on Gran Canaria, and how it assumes pictorial form. On this island, nature seems (once more) dangerous. Its potential menace is clearly evident from the alarming frequency with which we encounter cagelike structures and grilles, railings and ramparts—an arsenal of architecture and equipment that would readily fit into any defensive installation or prison. Nature must here be excluded, controlled, and held at bay. It was tamed by means of powerful machinery, steel and concrete, walls and asphalt, until it complied with humanity’s determination to mould it into domesticated golf courses, avenues, or front yards.
Although CIVILIZED NATURE is a term applicable to the essence of the touristic landscape, its inherent contradiction renders it hard to sustain. Despite its patent artificiality, we are dealing not with baroque parks but with grotesque intermediate phases of a structured landscape designed to convey a Mediterranean or subtropical impression—as witness the frequent incidence of agaves and coconut palms. Sometimes, even, the artificial paradise embodies a hint of the desert in the form of cactuses and sand dunes. Our photographic sleuth confronts this situation as a critical observer, not a tourist. His criticism never degenerates into visual cynicism, however, but exposes the artificiality of his locations. Instead of interposing himself between things, he preserves his detachment from them. There are no wild distortions with a wide-angle lens, no spectacular close-ups; instead, it seems that the things are encountering the photographer on his scouting trips and being allowed to preserve their optical character. He himself remains withdrawn and undiscovered—in darkness, at all events.
In the most obtrusive cases nature is allotted only tiny parcels of space, and even this is additionally restricted by being divided into geometrically arranged patterns. Examples of this include the palm trees set in the immaculately-laid paving of the seaside promenade, the sinuous curve of the grassy expanse fringed with rocks that look as if they had “originally been that way,” and the rondel of cactuses. In the last picture, Gefeller has managed to create a metaphor for the impotence of human dealings with nature in the context of a landscape planned on the drawing board. Comparisons with the circus ring come to mind, because human beings are cut off from what is actually happening by iron railings whose sharp points bar access to the “theater of operations.” The artificiality of the scene is apparent, not only from the precisely circular arrangement of the plants and the floodlights inset into the ground, but also, and more especially, by the two chalk-white tree trunks (reminiscent of skeletons) that are lying as if by chance among the cactuses.
But no form of wilderness or disorder, still less chaos, seems to be permitted on the island, with the result that deliberate attempts to look natural soon become ridiculous. It remains to be asked whether visitors to vacation centers also discern this, or whether these “natural” arrangements fit into the grand, overall scenario of the island’s artificiality, and thus become wholly invisible.
Homogenized privacy and standardized bodies
In relation to everyday life, tourist centers and vacation clubs resemble reservations. Discovering the exotic and unknown without having to expose oneself to the dangers, or at least the uncertainties, posed by traveling in unfamiliar parts of the world—that is what such clubs guarantee. Tourists in vacation centers are outsiders who briefly choose to join a group of fellow outsiders and call it taking a break from the daily round. But recreation implies the organized management of time, not idle relaxation. Horror vacui: the modern dread of being confronted with unplanned time. The great social basis that also sustains club tourism is called the entertainment industry. In their detachment from a functional context, the buildings, roads, and public spaces in Gefeller’s photographs clearly reveal them to be structures and devices belonging to an entertainment scenario.
Closing a deal with a travel agency means tacitly concluding a peculiar social compact. The particular requirements of thousands of like-minded individuals cannot be met, so we could speak of a collective desire for homogenized recreation. The logistics of mass organization, which run parallel to this form of recreation, give rise to machinelike structures whose primary purpose is the fulfilling of functional requirements. Tourist centers throughout the world look more and more alike. The charm of the different and unfamiliar, which once impelled people to travel, has now dwindled to a superficial symbol, a citing of architectural props.
The panoramic view in Fig. 025 is eloquent of this standardized monotony. The management of leisure time and behavior unfolds within identical living units. We can imagine the daily, ritualized, touristic activities that take place in them. The swimming pool becomes exalted into the central cult site, a stage for the body’s self-presentation. The area around the pool is at once a place of sacrifice and a catwalk for what is on show. The balconies and boxes of the surrounding apartments afford a perfect view of the mises en scène of the bodies displayed there. The underlying purpose of these ritualized proceedings is PHYSICAL TRANSFORMATION. Bodies must be transformed during their sojourn at the club in such a way that one can tell their owners are on vacation. The generally accepted sign of this transformation is controlled tanning of the epidermis, of which as much as possible is exposed. Surface and superficiality coincide in this symptom of human behavior, and Gefeller knows how to arrange the body-imprinting accessories in his pictures. Loungers and sun umbrellas constitute the equipment with which regulated doses of sunlight are administered to the body. In Fig. 011 they cluster around the edge of the pool as though only just abandoned, resemble carefully grouped companion pieces in Fig. 024, form the diagonal strip of color that mediates between sea and shore in Fig. 007, and become the sole subject in Fig. 011. We are torn between distaste for the masses of cheap plastic furniture and horror at its interminable uniformity. Do these loungers and apartments, beaches and golf courses homogenize people by compelling them to engage in identical, ritual activities? Gefeller’s photographs suggest an affirmative answer to that question. These apartments are cages (see Fig. 002), and the public spaces are zones for the collective fulfillment of a factitiously created desire for the glamorous semblance of a “recreated” body.
The unconscious void
In 1928 the German photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch titled his now legendary book Die Welt ist schön, but he arranged his hundred photographs of people and things in categories. What his and Aldous Huxley’s books have in common is a bold attempt to express the world’s phenomena in metaphors: the photographer in favorably transfigured images, the writer in dark and ominous words. Have we, at the beginning of the new millennium, discovered a latter-day associate of these two authors in the person of Andreas Gefeller? Is he making a final attempt to hold the mirror of human folly before our eyes? His pictures are neither constructions nor the utopia of a visionary, postnuclear apocalypse—that would be too simple—but they are disturbing enough to engender such thoughts. Whence, therefore, do they derive their disturbing potential?
Observation No. 1:
The pictures are devoid of people, which prompts us to wonder if they have vanished from the real world as well. But what kind of appropriation or reconstruction of reality do these pictures work with? Except in the case of the golf course (Fig. 017), we genuinely discover no people in the buildings or landscapes, but that does not imply the absence of any people in the places photographed. There are two possible solutions to this mystery. Either there really were no people present on the night the photographs were taken, or the photographs have rendered them invisible. These pictures are, in fact, enigmatic images whose code transcends linear readability.
Observation No. 2:
Visible realities such as buildings, landscapes, vegetation, streets, railings, and loungers seem just as bizarre, unreal, and unrelated to the familiar landscapes and things by which we are daily surrounded. This poses another question: What is it that lends the pictures their unfamiliar quality?
Photographs taken at night do, of themselves, generate an unusual mood for two reasons. In the first place, the human apparatus of perception is attuned to daylight, and even twilight dislocates perception in a way that hampers certainty of judgment. We become insecure at night, because darkness harbors the danger of latent horrors—in other words, of the uncanny. Why? Because we cannot tell precisely what confronts us. In the second place, film material and the camera are capable of “collecting” light and accumulating it in the photosensitive emulsion. Saturation proceeds until this repository of light fills up and overflows. A light source’s continuous emission floods the surrounding areas, which drown in a superabundance of luminous information. The film now becomes subject to the same phenomenon that occurs in human perception, but the other way around. In the latter case an absence of light swallows up the surrounding world, whereas in the former (the photograph) an EXCESS of light dissolves it into a white VOID. Perception of reality reposes, as ever, in a tolerable intermediate field, a photographic temperate zone of perception as sensitive as the thin integument of human skin: pervious, but resistant to potent stimuli.
In Aldous Huxley’s book, “soma” is the drug permanently available to the human cattle in his “brave new world” as an aid to escaping the arousal of self-awareness. It is the agent that reduces the masses to an anonymous IT, keeps them in a state of unawareness, and simultaneously precludes them from noticing their enforced conformity. Disagreeable emotions and sensations—sorrow, pain, death—no longer exist. All are maintained in a youthful condition until systematically exterminated in “hospitals for the dying.” The drug induces a euphoric or somnolent condition which the masters of the new world describe as “taking a vacation.” It could be conjectured that these states of intoxication, of vacationing, of absence from consciousness and immersion in a sphere of illusory, ideal make-believe, are what also underlie Gefeller’s photographs, which so patently depict places that seem to be not of this world. But this conjecture needs revising. Gefeller generally keeps his pictorial compositions hovering midway between rational documentation and emotionality. He does not construct his world of images from dominant chromatic and formal elements in such a way that we succumb to their deceptive arts of seduction and become photographically intoxicated. But even if that were so, it would hardly impair our consciousness—nor, indeed, would it be lethal.
Absolutely nothing happens in Gefeller’s pictures, according to the classical criteria of narratology, yet they defy inclusion in the traditional canon of photographic documentation. The only thing this kind of photography really documents is the erstwhile presence of a photographer in the particular locations captured by his camera. Although we must soberly postulate this minimal photographic consensus, it will not suffice for a philosophical debate. Gefeller the photographer is undiscoverable in his pictures where other “photographic visionaries” advertise their presence, for instance in their perspectives, their low or elevated horizons, their dramatic diagonals, or in clearly displaying the theory of a mediatization of the world through photography. Gefeller was naturally present at the places he photographs, but he absorbed himself into the subject and the light by means of long exposure times. Depending on the photographic conditions prevailing at night, the second can extend to ten minutes or more. Photosensitive emulsion calls for speedy conclusions. It is an instantaneous medium that behaves unpredictably when the moment is prolonged. Gefeller’s kind of exposure enables the emulsion to develop a life of its own, thereby giving free rein to one of photography’s age-old, alchemistic characteristics. The domain of photography is the thousandth of a second, not the half-hour, because delay causes it to approximate to drawing and engage in a hazardous gamble with loss of authority. The photographer accepts this, and his medium is grateful for his tolerance. These pictures are too precisionistic to be painting and, at the same time, too “cameratic” to become drawing. They do, however, hint at the pigmentary in their impastolike coloration, the depth and substance of their color treatment, and their silicone finish. Our gaze effortlessly penetrates the Plexiglas sheet, only to encounter a positively soft ground of color that can scarcely be termed a surface.
All of these characteristics encourage me to describe Gefeller’s pictures as “heavy” and “slow.” I do not, however, construe those qualities in a negative sense; indeed, their material presence is an incentive to close examination. The time the photographer has spent in front of his subject transmits itself to the beholder. He thus becomes, imperceptibly, a co-observer incorporated in the picture. What predominates is an immobilized time that is also of long duration. We are confronted by a paradox whose probable explanation is the pictures’ unreal luminous atmosphere. Nothing has occurred in the picture space during the photograph’s DEPICTED TIME, but the MANUFACTURED TIME of the long exposure engenders an aesthetic of its own. The cool precision of the depth of focus is intensified in the rich coloration of the plane surfaces, which comabine to create an impression of complete artificiality.
We are here confronted by pictures that were taken like crime scenes: Eugène Atget refers, except that his views of metropolitan Paris in the late 19th century have been transposed into the anonymity of today’s tourist paradise. Is Gefeller the Atget of the 21st century, and is he, like the latter, in search of the untold tales concealed behind walls, hotel façades, and parking lots? Atget and Gefeller do, in fact, have the same flair for locations and situations that may convey the meaning of interpersonal dramas and stories. We cannot help feeling that there must be more to these pictures than what is visible. They open doors to the world of the imagination, which must add narratives to Gefeller’s picture spaces. For all the clarity and immediacy of the objects photographed, the subjects offer no wealth of perceptions but leave an insipid taste—which is just where their deeper potentialities lie hidden. If human activity were clearly visible, the potential stories would be consummated in a split-second’s exposure. No suspense, no uncertainty, no yearning for the story would be possible. Gefeller sets his pictures’ stories in time; more precisely, in the duration of the long exposures he accords the places he photographs. The beholder must personally INVENT the stories that underlie, antedate, or postdate these pictures, and therein lies their challenge. The artificiality of the scenarios is eclipsed the moment they become pictures. We do not believe that these views exist anywhere real, because the smooth and uncluttered appearance of the buildings and landscapes tempts us to construe their location as a MODEL WORLD. The formal aesthetics of construction are governed by regular, geometrical patterns, and prefabricated concrete components and similar building materials heighten the impression of a miniaturized toy landscape.
The shadow is a phenomenon that vacillates between the extremes of magical and mathematical knowledge. Regarded scientifically, shadows are projections of the absence of light, in other words, products of a material obstruction between the light source and its linear or conical beam. But these physical projections have also, from time immemorial, been spiritual projections that define them as phenomena of weird and magical nature. Shadows are a part of the visible world, and to encounter a shadowless person would be tantamount to a miracle. How do shadows behave in Gefeller’s photographs—are they artifacts or magic?
They often lead a life of their own, become detached from their sources, create shapes that intrude into the real, material world, and may perhaps be the true protagonists of the stories potentially inherent in these pictures. Human beings are absent, but animate shadows stage a ghostly, luminous show as if the nocturnal setting had been specially constructed for their benefit. The artificial suns of the electric lighting conjure up unnatural, bizarre apparitions—as witness the twin shadows cast in Fig. 021 and Fig. 018.
In one of his dialogues, Plato has his shadow, “Skia,” make a remarkable statement that can assist us in examining Gefeller’s shadow pictures: “We shadows are unusual phenomena, because we reside midway between perception and thought. [. . .] Every shadow contains a message which it carefully preserves in its dark integument. We shadows are full of thoughts, but those thoughts are visible to everyone.”
Thoughts that become visible and messages in dark integuments are a way of describing the dichotomy of imagination and representation. Between them comes the picture that belongs to both regions. Gefeller’s link between photographic representations and our thoughts is a well-gauged equilibrium between the presence and absence of light. And this brings us to the counterpart of shadow: light.
The buildings glow from within, not merely through their window apertures, so it seems as if their material substance is the light source itself (see Fig. 014). Unreal LUMINESCENCE OF SUBSTANCES, or symptoms of chronic poisoning by light: a phenomenon which, borrowing from Huxley, we could call “luminous somatization.” Or let us examine the typical nighttime sources of artificial light that stage their own shadow shows. Gefeller not only pursues these shadow scenarios but sometimes transforms them into magically surreal spaces in which they detach themselves from their originators and play cunning tricks on us. We must first agree with Roberto Casati when he states: “Shadows do their utmost to draw our attention to them. Yet they ultimately play only a tiny, subordinate role, being little more than extras on the stage of perception, and we have to take particular notice of them to see them at all.” (Roberto Casati, Die Entdeckung des Schattens, Berlin 2001, p. 286.) Gefeller, however, promotes his shadow extras to the rank of principals, and they repay this honor by staging a wild new show of their own.
It seems as if artificial light attacks what little there is of “natural” nature, pouncing on it like a technoid force from which there is no escape. At first sight Fig. 032 shows a sandy landscape as untouched as virgin desert, but this impression is erroneous, because closer examination reveals vestiges of humanity in the form of shadows. The foreground is dappled with countless human footprints; a vehicle’s tires have left parallel lines in the sand; and, lastly, the scene is dominated by lighting of a peculiar kind. The harsh, glancing light from the right, like the dazzling aura of blue-white light beyond the bush, can only emanate from some artificial source. Both, therefore, are testimony to the presence of human civilization.
Fig. 027 justifies one in speaking of “destruction” by artificial light. The thoroughly pristine-looking scenery, with its firs, pines, cactuses, shrubs, and steppe grass, is bathed in dazzling white light. Issuing from the top right, this has already dissolved one tree and will soon have engulfed the whole slope. If this process were complete, nothing would remain but a white sheet of photographic paper saturated with light; it still contains all the objects, but we can no longer see them. Thus the value of the light is relative, being dependent on a calculated use of the potentialities of the material. Gefeller controls the balance, the frontier between the probable image and the nothingness of pure light. What he takes away in one respect, he restores in another: he deprives his images of drama but offsets this with a superabundance of light. We could thus describe the staging of these pictures as a form of LUMINOUS DRAMATURGY.
This procedure is carried to extremes in Fig. 010, a monumental altercation between light and shade. The picture’s only “happening” takes place in the narrow, insignificant strip that occupies its bottom third, but the real theme is an abstract and, strictly speaking, a painterly one (addressed in their panel paintings by Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman). This has not hitherto been done in photography, primarily because Gefeller has incorporated an ironical note in the form of a small dot of golden light in the center of the picture. This minimal contre-jour dot is an allusion to the setting sun on tourist postcards. Gefeller transforms the hackneyed metaphor of kitsch into a deliberate symbol for the technification of the world. The “setting sun” is an electric light, and the insubstantial reflection in the sky derives from the nocturnal illumination of a town in the background.
Passages of text as bridges between images and ideas
In conclusion, let us devote a little thought to the quotations with which the photographer has interspersed his pictures. The narrator and the quotations suggest persons who have experienced everything and written down their life stories for us. They do not really exist; they are witnesses of a past that existed before reality became distorted into unreality. Before Gefeller transformed time into its medial standstill, they were witnesses of reality and utopia. The narrators of the texts resemble museum guides lecturing on collections of biological specimens from the past, their brief summation of the exhibits on display being: “That’s how it was.” But was it really like that, or might it only have turned out that way? What occurs in these photographs is an unreal game whose attempt to return to everyday reality transgresses the borders of insanity. Gefeller postulates the model of a consummated future. SOMA is that model, which is composed of dialogues between the photographs, our own flights of fancy, and the texts. If we bear in mind that Huxley wrote his Brave New World in 1932 and Elias Canetti began his Aufzeichnungen [Sketches] in 1942, we find ourselves in a temporal vortex that wrests us out of today and into many possible projections of the future. Forever compelled to distinguish between a THAT’S HOW IT WAS and a SOMEDAY THIS WILL BE POSSIBLE, we are thus hovering in an intermediate time zone between now and a far-off utopia—seated aboard a time-jet bound for an infinite future. The question embodied in one of the quotations—“Do we really want to see the world?”—becomes doubly absurd, because what does “world” mean, and to what “reality” does the text refer? If this world is real, we probably believe Gefeller’s photographs, but if reality becomes a medial world, our notion of reality is governed by the pictures—and that is very dangerous indeed. The frontiers are only vaguely drawn, and the difference is not determined by seeing alone. Observers situated on a flat surface may see far, but they fail to perceive what lies beneath them.