The Way Beyond Art: Infinite ScreensFebruary 9, 2013
As the fourth and final installment of its exhibition series “The Way Beyond Art: Infinite Screens,” the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts presents Werner Herzog’s Hearsay of the Soul (2012). Continuing the interdisciplinary curatorial approach of past installments with two exhibitions devoted to graphic design (both subtitled Wider White Space, 2011) and one to industrial design (Sunny Memories, 2010), “The Way Beyond Art: Infinite Screens” presents the filmmaker Herzog’s first, and rather awkward, foray into contemporary art. Originally exhibited as part of the 2012 Whitney Biennial, Hearsay of the Soul combines footage of the paintings and prints of the Dutch Golden Age artist Hercules Segers (c. 1589–c. 1638) with a contemporary classical score composed and performed by Ernst Reijseger. Unfortunately, the piece never fully capitalizes on its five-channel setup to explore the vast potential for juxtapositions of imagery and sound. Instead, Herzog’s choices are predictable, fading between footage of Segers’s ethereal landscapes in a fairly traditional manner, the imagery neither enhanced nor contrasted against Reijseger’s emotive score.
While never specifically addressing Dutch landscape painting in his previous films, Herzog has long explored landscapes, from the lush Peruvian jungle of Fitzcarraldo (1982) to the verdant, springtime meadows of Alaska in Grizzly Man (2005). Herzog uses these expansive, often undisturbed, and extreme places to frame the scale of human endeavor as both epic and inconsequential. For example, in Fitzcarraldo, carrying a ship over a mountain is monumental as a human act and is part of the lore of the film’s creation, but it is rather insignificant in relationship to the vastness and complexity of the surrounding jungle. Segers also uses landscape to frame human endeavor, but he renders it rather diminutively; his etchings and paintings frequently privilege the landscape over the minuscule figures or architecture that populate them. While Herzog may appreciate the formal and aesthetic similarities of Segers’s work with his own (in a sense claiming Segers as an art-historical precedent), Hearsay of the Soul refrains from suggesting a truly unique relationship between Herzog and Segers that no other depictions of pastoral landscape could accomplish. Unfortunately, Hearsay of the Soul is more a tribute than an original proposition.
In the first portion of the video, Herzog employs slow pans and dissolves to transition between Segers’s ethereal and monochromatic images, filling each of the five screens with separate footage and at times overlapping the footage between them. Herzog has greatly enlarged Segers’s rather small prints and paintings (some of which measure only about five by seven inches), which transform the delicate images into almost grotesque ones.
With this maneuver, Herzog creates a sense of anticipation that the video will begin a new trajectory, but he fails to further develop any narrative tension. Instead, the video ends with Herzog zooming out from Segers’s pieces, calling attention to them as objects by placing them against a white background, their edges finally visible. They float at differing positions within the projected fields and are closer to, but still enlarged from, their original scale. This transition from close-up to wide shot, to think of it cinematographically, falls flat: Herzog may self-reflexively point out the mechanics of his film, but this reveal adds little additional information or affective charge to the earlier footage of Segers’s cropped and enlarged images.
As he did in Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), here Herzog has paired a set of romantic landscapes with a contemporary classical score by Reijseger. Rather than serving as mere background music, the score’s complex twists in pace and mood make it more fully realized than the video it accompanies. Within the video, Herzog intersperses footage of Reijseger playing cello. With closed eyes and a pained face showing deep concentration, Reijseger’s performance displays an intensely physical devotion to his music. Including this footage suggests that the musician’s physical relationship is part of the narrative; presumably Herzog hoped it would telegraph the same sentiments within the viewer. However, watching Reijseger play never provided enough of a narrative or emotional hook for me to generate a genuine relationship with him or his musical response to Segers.
In a 2012 discussion of Hearsay of the Soul held in conjunction with the Whitney Biennial, Herzog unapologetically criticizes contemporary art for being artificially market-driven, conceptual nonsense riddled with perplexing art-speak and lacking craft.1 While these criticisms are not new, and some may even be defensible, Herzog has not created an artwork that transcends those same problems. Rather than offer an actual alternative approach, Hearsay of the Soul retreats to a conventional Romanticism that is as familiar to Herzog followers as it is aesthetically constraining. However, Herzog’s piece does provoke questions of how we assess artists who venture outside their primary discipline. While artists like Steve McQueen and Matthew Barney have made stand-alone, feature-length films, Herzog appears to have entered the art world with reservations. In his talk at the Whitney, Herzog stated that he initially declined the Whitney’s invitation to participate in the Biennial but, more importantly, he also admitted that he does not frequent museums nor participate in contemporary art. While approaching contemporary art as an outsider may allow him some critical distance, it is clearly not on display in Hearsay of the Soul. What the installation does make clear is that both the Whitney Biennial and the Wattis Institute have relied too heavily upon the relative buzz of interdisciplinarity, Herzog’s celebrity, and his outsider status (which he himself promulgates) as justification to pass off a clever curatorial gesture as an innovative aesthetic experience.
“The Way Beyond Art: Infinite Screens” is on view at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, in San Francisco, through March 30, 2013.