Having a Point of View
Archives are one of the most-used elements in art these days. Artists seek to reconstitute the past (whether their own or that of a community or place, or even a country), and historicize the present to give us a sharper image of it. Clemens von Wedemeyer uses multiple and crisscrossing points of view and temporalities by using a diversity of video and film procedures. Is he challenging the subjectivity of the artist—he refuses to take a position—or is this simply a recognition that some questions have no answer? The exhibition P.O.V. (Point of View) at the Jocelyn Wolff gallery late last year sheds some light on this question.
Documenta 13 (2012) was undoubtedly a turning point in Clemens von Wedemeyer’s career. There he presented Muster/Rushes, a video installation simultaneously telling three stories in the form of “docufictions,” each on one screen, projected onto a large triangular structure that prevented viewers from seeing all three screens at the same time. The three narratives were filmed in the same place, the Benedictine monastery in Breitenau (Hesse, Germany, not far from Kassel), but the stories take place in 1945, 1970 and 1994, respectively. In 1945 the monastery served as a labor camp, in 1970, a boarding school for girls, and in 1994, a memorial. Three moments in time, three generations. The connecting thread is German history, from the fall of the Third Reich—Wedemeyer’s chosen scene is the liberation of the camp—to the terrorist attacks of the Red Army Fraction, the protest movements of later decades and today’s reunited, relatively calm Germany seeking to preserve its memory. Instead of differentiating between these three time frames, Wedemeyer seeks to connect them by inviting visitors to move around the three screens.
POLYPHONY This supposed unification takes place on many different levels. Through the unity of place, the monastery and the exhibition site; the actors, who in some cases appear in different segments; the interlocking of the sound tracks, making up a polyphony that allows us to hear snatches of what’s happening on the screen or screens we can’t see (we can only watch two at once, and even that with difficulty). Yet even though this polyphony holds it all together to some degree, we can never really put the three stories together. The fragments of conversations that reach us from the other side interfere with what we’re supposed to follow on the side we can see. Thus the sound track forces us to weave our own narrative as we move around. The most Cartesian visitors pass methodically from one screen to the next, trying to respect the chronology; while
others opt for a more disorganized and intuitive approach, hopping back and forth between screens trying to catch the dialogue, even though this generates misunderstandings and incomprehension, disconnects and holes, thanks to Wedemeyer’s triangular installation. He deliberately chose that mode of presentation instead of one making it possible to see and hear the successive episodes in order, so as to put responsibility in the hands of those to whom his films are addressed. To have them adopt a point of view. This question of viewpoint is at the heart of his filmic enterprise
RESISTANCE The viewpoint of the artist, from where the camera operators (not necessarily Wedemeyer) are located, of the actors and possible commentators and meta-commentators, and consequently of us, the viewers. Often this point of view is accompanied by an interrogation of the conditions and contexts (movie house, open-air projection, etc.) of the projection of the three films ( Von Gegenüber, 2007 and Sun Cinema, 2010). Viewers can take the chance of missing the possible “content” of these films, which is, really, the only way to not miss the essence of this work. At a time of total information overload, Wedemeyer often plays the card of disappointment, failure or deliberately leaving things obscure, as in the Basler Podest seen for the first time at the Basel art fair in 2006 and remounted several times since, notably at this artist’s recent retrospective at the Hamburger Kunsthalle. The piece is a busted-up recording studio with, among other things, an overturned chair, splattered blood and footprints, clues to an improbable and disturbing scenario. As to what happened, we are left in suspense; the clues don’t clearly add up, pieces of the puzzle are missing and we can’t quite figure out what it all means. There is a dimension of mystery that emanates from Wedemeyer’s work. Whether deconstructed, put into perspective or reflexively commenting and endowed with copious notes for that purpose, nevertheless it resists all attempts and temptations to box it in too tightly. This contradiction particularly marked the show initially presented at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein that the Jocelyn Wolff reprised at the end of 2016.
DECONSTRUCTION Entitled P.O.V. (Point of View), the show uses as its raw material several archival films from 1938-42. They were made by the amateur filmmaker and Freiherr Harald von Vietinghoff-Riesch. At the front, but from a certain distance, and despite the restrictions on image-making imposed by the German authorities, he incessantly filmed mainly trivial episodes without the kind of spectacular imagery you would expect from amember of Wehrmacht. Clearly he cared more about the fate of horses (Vietinghoff-Riesch was a Rittmeister, a cavalry captain) than the human victims of Nazi barbarism. P.O.V. is a trap, insofar as we are tempted to see these films from an autobiographical angle. Harald von Vietinghoff-Riesch was, in fact, Wedemeyer’s grandfather, but this family tie turns out to be as incidental as most of the footage shot by his forebear. Deceased during the 1950s, the latter represents a different history, even though that history is something very present to all Germans of the generation of this artist born in 1974. True, Vietinghoff-Riesch’s films were shown at family gatherings when Wedemeyer was a child, but did they really influence his career as an artist? He took his grandfather’s films from the Bundesfilmarchiv, not the family archives. Perhaps he found it necessary that they be in the public domain before repurposing them. What do these films tell us? Absolutely nothing of substance. At first sight, one would have trouble finding a range of meanings and consistent messages. Like the Basler Podest, these modest homemovies concern events that happened before or after Nazi crimes, and with only a few exceptions have little to do with them directly. Of course, it is exactly this unfocused, sometimes almost in-
sufferably insouciant tone, unburdened by what was happening figuratively and literally out of camera range, that led Wedemeyer to make his multiple variations. Variations not, or at least not only, on these films as such but on film in general, seeking in this way, as he has in his other work, to deconstruct both the artifice of cinema and this medium’s relationship with history, or, more precisely, histories in the plural, relying on the complementarity of cross-generational gazes conjugated and superimposed on one another. In these variations, Wedemeyer inserted commentaries and metacommentaries into his grandfather’s raw material, added documentation, re-edited the short sequences (never more than two and a half minutes long due to technical constraints back then), accelerated the rhythm, exacerbated the aberrations produced by defective film stock, stuck in words, and called in other protagonists and “specialists” to shed light on what we see and also on what’s not shown. In the end he asked a video game developer to invent a virtual environment inspired by the original images, once again bringing to the fore the question of the point of view of the filmer and the filmed.
COUNTER-DRAMA Consequently, what Wedemeyer gives us is a dilatation, reinterpretation, extension and exhaustion of the filmic raw material. The result corresponds to his aesthetics: a superabundance of signs infuses meaning and a density into material that is all but inert and empty of substance, and at the same time neutralizes our ability to assimilate the overwhelming totality of images and sounds, not to mention the prostheses he has grafted onto it. One of the films of which P.O.V. is comprised is symptomatic of this contradiction: the accelerated version Wedemeyer made based on two and a half hours of Vietinghoff-Riesch’s films. Condensed into five minutes and transferred to 16 mm, it lets us see both everything and nothing. The artist says that viewers unafraid of the flicker effect generated by the acceleration “will recognize many things,” but he admits that “physically,” it’s impossible to watch closely.(1) In the “physiological overload” triggered by this fast forward, Bert Rebhandl sees a manifestation of the “moral challenge” ( moralische Herausforderung) confronted by everyone when watching images of the German war of extermination.(2) The fact that these images are inscribed in a genealogical framework is not determinant here. What is more so is the fact that they are, at first sight, “innocent,” even though certain discreet signs here and there inform us about the reality. Such innocence seems to us incompatible with the image we ourselves have formed from these historical facts. Wedemeyer often uses the slow moments as a way to accentuate the dramatic moments in absentia. The malaise distilled by the Basler Podest (at ArtBasel in 2006 the gallerist Wolff had to invent stories to fill the “narrative void” left by the installation) is a metaphor for the driving elements inherent in the sense of counter-drama with which Wedemeyer deliberately infuses his films, even at the risk of boredom. He is fully aware of this disappointment and boredom, as he acknowledges when discussing his piece Die Probe (2008) in a 2009 interview with Rebhandl.(3) The story takes place behind the scenes at a political rally. We hear, but do not see, a maddened crowd spurring on a presidential candidate. At one point the man appears backstage to prepare his speech. We learn that he will renounce his candidacy and quest for power. He goes back onstage and it is exactly at that moment that we realize that the footage is looped and the cheering of the crowd afterward is identical to before. This looping (also used in other Wedemeyer works like Otjesd from 2005 and the 2009 Against Death) upends the narration and our reception of it. Here, too, the question of point of view is reiterated, since the story is not, or is no longer, the same depending on where we come in on the loop, especially since we cannot know what the candidate is telling the public. Has he stuck to his decision? Has he resigned? These are the kinds of questions without answers we are confronted with by this artist who is a past master at demystifying the filmic apparatus. It goes without saying that Wedemeyer never lets media images just go by without saying anything. Our relationship with history and with stories, in the fictional sense of the term, is of course at the heart of the aesthetics and issues at stake in his work. We can guess that the presidential elections of 2016 and 2017 will inspire further interrogations on his part, and that he will know how to properly distance himself, in line with his work of deconstruction.
Translation, L-S Torgoff
(1) Clemens von Wedemeyer, quoted by Bert Rebhandl, “Eine Frage der Perspektive,” Frieze, number 24, summer 2016, p. 103. (2) Ibid. (3) In Freisteller, exhibition catalogue, the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, 2009.
Clemens von Wedemeyer Né en / born 1974 à / in Göttingen Vit et travaille à / lives in Berlin Expositions récentes/ Recent shows: 2010-2011 Project Art Space, Dublin 2011 Galerie Jocelyn Wolff, Paris Kunsthalle Vienne ; Ursula Blickle Video lounge, Vienne ; Galerie Civica, Trente Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhague Frankfurter Kunstverein, Francfort 2012 St Paul Gallery, Auckland Public Art Gallery, Dunedin; Museo do Chiado, Lisbonne; Paço das Artes, São Paulo 2014 Braunschweiger Kunstverein, Braunschweig; MAXXI, Rome 2015 Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago 2016 Galerie Jocelyn Wolff, Paris (21 octobre - 31 décembre); Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, Berlin Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hambourg; Galerie Kow, Berlin
De haut en bas / from top: « Early Morning II » (« Sun Cinema project »). 2011. C-print glued on PVC. 30 x 45 cm. « Against Death + Interview Actors ». 2009 Film 35 mm transféré sur/ transfered to Bluray, 9 min (Interview : vidéo HD, 23 min). Vue de l’exposition à la/ exhibition view at Kunsthalle Charlottenborg. (Ph. A. Sune Berg)
« Die Pferde des Rittmeisters ». 2016 Vidéo HD, noir et blanc, son. HD video, 4:3, black and white, sound