Essays & Interview
DGC interview with Chiara Parisi
Klat Magazine #04, October 2010, pages 46 - 63
Daniel’s work could function as a kind of micro-cosmos of the world. Each individual work is proposing a system, this one system that is the world around us, shifted every time, viewed from a different angle. The complexity only really appears once one comes across several of these works together. Often they give hints of their representative nature, they are circular, arranged in order, take on the appearance of a book. Despite their detachment and closeness, which one is repeatedly confronted with at first, there is a poetic warmth, a sense of “me in my time.”
The works raise questions, or perhaps one asks questions when faced with those works: question on the nature of man, time, memory and one’s own origins.
Chiara: The first time we talked together it was about a picture of a monkey. You tell me that it was a coincidence: you saw the monkey sitting in a spot of light somewhere in the forest. Then, much later, you felt conscious of the situation: a portrait of mother and child. I would like to know how you make a picture. The idea of “previsualization” is quite important in the photographer’s lexicon, but I don’t know if it’s important for you. Do you have to work a long time before you know what you want for the final print or does it appear instantly with intuition?
Daniel: Looking at the image of the monkey now, it feels rather staged, the way the light falls and the posture, although, as you pointed out, it was an unexpected encounter. I guess I can best describe the way I work by outlining two processes. One is obvious: I am talking with friends, missing people that are close to me, enjoying moments and places, and through that ideas for works come up. These ideas are usually quite plain. They might have to do with order, with numbers for example, or rhythm, or personal memories, with loss or joy. Usually I carry them around with me, or I write them down. The second process runs parallel, but often feels almost detached from the first. I am collecting things. Old and unused papers. Wherever I go, I always keep an eye on them. In my storeroom I have some really old ones from Akureyri, a city in Iceland, right next to old school books made for pupils from a Japanese island. Recently I have started collecting postcards of places with identical names. Oxford in New Zealand, Melbourne in the United States. I don’t know if they will ever leave their box really. Certainly, my most extensive archive is that of photographic negatives. I have files in boxes organized on several shelves in my studio. When I am traveling , I photograph a lot. I was working on a project in Yakushima, a small island south of Japan, where I saw the monkey you mentioned sitting nearby. Once the photograph was taken and developed, it found its place in the archive. At times, these two processes meet and a work comes into form. I like to think of these processes as two movements, one coming from the past, memories, ideas or life experience of some sort, while the other is heading toward the future, being an archive of yet unused things that might find their place somewhere one day.
It’s true that I first thought of looking at your work from the viewpoint of your practice of photography, but I’m very happy to consider it through the framework of the archive. Which is also relevant to a conceptual approach in your work, not unlike On Kawara maybe, in Danke for instance.
There is something quite human about archives. I guess every archive has at its center a call for completion, a kind of infinite hole constantly and urgently drawing in all related artifacts.
Next to this stands the certainty of its own failure: however much one tries, an archive is destined to be incomplete, its status “unfulfilled.” I have recently finished a compilation of all
known and defined objects circling around the sun (planets, moons, asteroids, centaurs), categorized according to their distance to the sun. There is a sense of wholeness in this, despite
the knowledge that with new technologies further objects will be discovered in coming years. Estimates of the density, size, materials of distant dwarf planets and asteroids are given, but indisputably lack precision. One is left with numbers and figures offering nothing but uncertainty, yet creating a vague and beautifully simplified image. For me, Danke is as much a book as an emotional gesture, something personal. A large leather book that includes all those people I wanted to express gratitude to, appearing page by page in alphabetical order. For Danke, I was searching for a form, something simple and straight, so I decided to invert the book’s structure and place a part of the colophon at its center. I very much appreciate the work of On Kawara. For me, it is astonishing how he is able to devote his entire life to a more or less single conceptual idea. However he develops, he will live with the burden of not being able to change his mind about the work, as it will only come to a conclusion once his life ends. There is both beauty and harshness in this idea, in the way he positions himself as a mortal being in time. Thinking about my work, I cannot really see it as being driven by concept. Although each work has an inherent logic, which means that logic in itself involves concept, it is not a consideration, but rather an element of the work. The work never serves the concept. The concept is rather a starting point from where I can freely explore the potential that has been laid out. And quite often, the concept is transformed during the process and might end up just as an echo of its own voice. When I make a work I am searching for a vehicle or a space in which an atmosphere or emotion or gesture or a sense of being “here” can be captured. Once this immaterial notion is held by a physical “thing ,” I try to withdraw as much from it as possible: both, myself and parts of the work. In doing so, the indispensible elements that form the work become more distinct and come to light. I guess this is why the works have a sense of being conceptual. The decision to have one painting by itself, or a series of photographs, can also be considered a conceptual move. The process of making a work, for me, overlaps with the urge to simplify it, to push it to its extreme: an extreme I believe I can find in the unspectacular, or perhaps in a certain kind of silence.
Books and all the elements that form them are pivotal in your work, and now I understand better the meaning of your archive of papers and what could be its purposes. In am thinking of the way the book was used in Zurich, at the superb exhibition at the BolteLang gallery, in 2009, for instance. I’d be very curious to know how you planned the display of the books with your Paperworks.
I wanted to show two relatively complex works: the books Mother and Numbers. In an exhibition context they require a lot of space to become active and to establish and hold a conversation. I realized that as soon as something definite entered the exhibition, both of these works suffocated and turned mute. The paperworks are nearly invisible gestures: two papers connected to each other, a decreasing shadow, one sheet of paper hiding another. They create images without being visual works. This blandness seemed necessary for the balance of the construction of this exhibition. For me both, books and paperworks equally, are carriers of images.
From your archive also came the idea for The Infinite Library, a project that you created with Haris Epaminonda. Can you tell me a little more about it and how it is getting on?
We first started collaborating at college. The Infinite Library came together very naturally, ideas were bouncing back and forth. We both believe in and are always concerned with images. We have been talking for years about their mystery and power. The Library started with simple experiments of dismantling and reorganizing pages of books, placing them next to each other and observing the shifts that took place. The crucial moment was the recreation of a book: the violent act of terminating the internal cosmos that gave birth to a new one. These books reveal the elements involved in making the original books. It was important for us to preserve the sources, the original books, so that, when turning from page to page, one would experience both the original material and the transformed unity. There are so many unexpected overlaps and similarities, forms repeat patterns and themes throughout all visual documents: birds, archeology, flowers, houses, architecture. The structures of original order and reasoning have been disrupted. When going through one of those recreated books, one starts wondering about the practice of the photographer himself, who created the images years back, how the paper was produced, where it was printed, what were the initial intentions of the publisher. We have a room filled with books. Each book of the Infinite Library follows a different internal logic, sometimes inverting the original book. I believe the library has to a certain extent the possibility of bringing pictures of the world together, out of order, into chaos, yet into some strange harmony as well. The name is taken from Borges’ fantastic story of men entering a library of infinite hexagonal rooms searching for the one room that has the books of all knowledge. Our project in a sense inverts this movement. As the
title suggests, we haven’t come to a final conclusion yet.
Bruno Munari was the enfant terrible of Italian art and design for most of the last century. By questioning the nature and usefulness of books, he began a general discussion of books’ form and content and devoted part of his work to this matter. “Progress is when things get simpler, not more complicated.” Between 1956 and 1958 he produced the R.T.O.I., an acronym that in Italian stands for Theoretical Reconstructions of Imaginary Objects, on the basis of surviving fragments of uncertain origin and serving an unknown purpose. In my view, there is something similar between your works and Munari’s. In fact, I’d really like to know what are the fundamental artworks for you. The ones that have touched, fed and influenced your work. And also, which artist of the past would you like to meet?
My knowledge of Munari’s practice is rather fragmented. What I have seen so far I like very much. By posing in a light and often humorous way questions about the origin of things, of shapes,
their function and meaning , he manages to deconstruct the world around us and order it anew. You are asking me about the works that have moved me and influenced my work. First of all there is music. For many years Will Oldham has been someone I have paid a lot of attention to. He can say simple things as if they were being said for the first time. His connection to his roots, to traditional American country and folk music, songwriting , the guitar and his ability to reduce, refine and reinvent are one of a kind. Jeffrey Lewis has some moments that have struck me, and certainly Gareth Dickson. There is a video recording of him singing together with Juana Molina: one of the funniest things I have seen recently. In a very different way, I am drawn to electronic music. Listening to minimal techno or house positions one right here, in this time, no past, no future. It’s almost like a time machine that has lost its gravity. Despite its ephemeral character, this music constantly deals with its own tradition and identity (Detroit, Chicago, Kraftwerk, Kompakt) and touches at the same time on the roots of human experience: rhythm, repetition, tribal trance. There are some books sitting on my shelf that have to stay there. The first to mention are Rilke’s Orpheus, Marguerite Duras’ Writing, Maurice Blanchot’s The Space of Literature. And I love film: Sokurov’s Elegy of a Voyage, Bresson’s Balthazar, Kinoshita’s Twenty-Four Eyes, all of Ozu’s movies. I would love to go on...
Emphasis on landscape, nature and wildlife seems to me to be something very important in your work. Maybe I’m more sensitive to this theme because of my position at the Centre international d’art et du paysage de l’île de Vassivière.
It’s true, I am thinking a lot about nature. Unfortunately I spend far too little time outside. As we are somehow so far away from it, an animal living in its natural habitat feels abstract, reminding me of something that is not of my world or maybe a faint memory of a time long past. In a strange way this detached gaze opens a back door into the nonhuman world, turning us into distant relatives. It is even more the case as works are not about landscape or nature, but images of it. A picture of nature relates to an origin, something from a different time. We come from nature, then through technology are disconnected from it and ultimately are willing to destroy it. I just talked with a beekeeper in the Spreewald near Berlin about the disappearance of bee populations in relation to genetically manipulated crops. These days I probably spend an hour a day researching on YouTube and other sources into what is happening in the Gulf of Mexico right now. The worst thing ,
next to all the fatalities in the animal world, is that BP is not questioned or criticized. The media accepts things as they are. And I am sitting there, with a cup of tea in my hand, in front of my screen, passively taking it all in. But you were asking about my relation to nature as part of the work. Using photography to document nature as an abstractum is working so well, because the medium connects us with what we can see with our own eyes and, at the same time, it excludes a part of reality, the one that remains outside the picture. Therefore, nature presents itself as real and abstract.
All of us on the art circuit travel a lot, but it is a great pleasure for me to talk with you. I am sure that during all these travels you always keep in mind some particular places or instants. Where do you like to spend time?
Perhaps our times bring the pleasure of endlessly setting sail and returning in all kinds of ways. Though this state keeps us in a way distant from life. I often find myself in the role of an observer, not belonging here or there, looking at things with a certain neutrality. Jonas Mekas describes in one of his diary films the state of the tourist, the one who passes a shop window, stops, looks inside, wonders, stares at his own image in the glass, then again at the shoes on display, wanders off or maybe returns some minutes later... Travelling offers exactly this. I feel most connected to life around me when I am detached from it.I remember sitting in a train drifting through the countryside passing village upon village filled with houses, gardens, cars, windows, each one evidence of a personal story, of suffering and joy, memories, hopes, all swallowed up by the ones next-door, and village upon village. In the book In Praise of Blandness François Jullien describes the development of the paintings of the Chinese artist Ni Zan ( fourteenth century), who throughout his life painted the same landscape unfolding in front of his studio. He did so not to express his attachment to his surrounding , but the very opposite, his growing detachment. I have just opened the door to our apartment in Berlin, sat down and prepared a cup of Shinsha. Shinsha is the first sencha crop of the year. We have it sent over from a farm near Kyoto. I visited Japan and since then have taken drinking green tea a bit too seriously. I have returned home, to my bed, my desk and my memories of a mountain covered with cedar trees somewhere near Kii Katsuura.
In your work Trilogy, which you started in 2003 (Woodland, Underwater and Mountain), above the landscapes that you photograph (woods, oceans, mountains), above the inalterability of nature, there are notions and questions that evoke magic, eternity, the mysteries of life passing through us.
I understand that these notions are evoked by these series. When I am working on nature I am mainly concerned with composition and color. In the case of these photographs, I believe a frontal, direct view transforms nature. It is inviting , maybe like a gate, and troubling at the same time, rather like images of faces or eyes. Even though photography is a flat, twodimensional medium, it offers a sense of depth. I like to look at those images as a kind of negative sculpture, imagining a void
outlined by foliage and rocks. The camera seems the perfect medium to relate visually to nature. It brings with it a technical neutrality, recording what is there, while actually being a tool of exclusion. I remember vaguely a sentence of Simone Weill that I read some years ago about the experience of being in nature: “How beautiful and perfect must this place be without me being here.” Photography can to some extent place the viewer somewhere, inside an image, where he can exist without his or her own physical presence.
Mountains, oceans, forests in a state of lack of differentiation; shapes and colors whose location and history are unknown to us; places that seem remote, inaccessible; all this makes me think of the subjects in Morandi’s work.
I have a great passion for Morandi’s work. There was a time during my studies when I used to have two almost identical prints of his later still lifes above my bed. In a way, landscape photographs are as much about repetition, differentiation, composition and the visual architecture of spaces as they are about nature, twigs and fog. Morandi’s still life paintings are on the surface about vases and pots, but then they are just as much or maybe much more about essential questions of transience, of composition, of repetition, color, time; and they are also evidence of the daily experiences of his life with his sisters, of light falling through the window into his studio, and much else.
The Loch Ness project appears to link all these notions: a conceptual approach, the archive, images, landscape, books. How do you link this project, that you started in 2002, with the rest of your career?
Several years ago I stumbled over a photograph of a murder scene in the Metro newspaper on the London tube. I kept this image and must still have it somewhere. Instead of showing the scene, the victim or anything which might give any kind of information or evidence to the reader, one was left with this: the reporter arrives at the scene, but he is too late. Three policemen have just finished installing a piece of white cloth to block the path which leads to the location of the murder scene, so as to prevent access and keep it out of sight. The photograph printed in the newspaper shows this scene I have described: the screen at its center framed by the policemen and a bit of greenery and nature around. And it succeeds. The white cloth turns into a kind of projection screen. The person who is not allowed to see, imagines. And in the case of this murder, imagination has to create the scene from scratch: the blood, the knife, body parts. The magic of Loch Ness in Scotland is its surface. A gigantic monotonous, horizontal screen lying flat in the landscape.
Hours upon hours have been spent by pairs of eyes looking onto it, scanning it over and over again. It is dark, and it is deep. The loch isn’t just a screen, but also a huge container of memories and images. The loch can be seen as a portrayal of the relation between man and imagination, man and nature. The project is fragmented in smaller parts which all circle around these ideas. For example, when I stayed at the loch last time, in February 2009, I found out about a sheep that fell
off a cliff into the loch, survived, managed to get to the nearest beach and stayed there. When it was found two months later, it vehemently fought off the farmer who tried to carry it into the boat. I learned that this happened about eight years ago and that the sheep was still alive, living on the beach surrounded by greenery on both sides and the loch right in front: a real Robinson Crusoe! It is said that the sheep’s wool grew to a length about double the size of the sheep. I also have been collecting etchings, drawings and postcards of the area.
I love this story of the sheep living alone on the beach. I am sure that you know many more stories about animals. It reminds me of this incredible sheep in New Zealand: a Merino sheep that evaded the shearer for six years by hiding out on rocky mountain tops on New Zealand’s South Island. You are really fascinated by animals. I would like to know if this comes from your childhood or from your travels around the world.
I didn’t know of the Merino sheep, it sounds great! Animals are so different from us. We hardly understand their ways of communication, their habits and minds, the way they look, walk and act. Yet, in many aspects they are so similar. When I was a child I tried to convince my parents and brother that I did not want us to have a dog , as I was afraid I would fall in love with him, knowing I would have to face his death – and I did. Whenever I move to a new studio, his collar is one of the first things I install. It’s now hanging on the window handle in front of me.
From all this, it seems that the idea of “ongoing” things is really the one that matters.
Yes, in the works there are different kinds of “ongoing.” There are several series that are still continuing today, among them the Trilogy, Paperworks and Tales. Thinking about it, I haven’t managed to finish one so far. Other works have a circular movement, like Calendar, or in another way the book Objects. For me, it is really satisfying to experience a work that connects to life... how can I put it? It’s like when you are lying in a field, holding hands with the one you love, and
you look up to the sky where the stars shine from far away. You wouldn’t be able to really pin down what that feeling is you have for the one next to you, and you can be assured you will never understand what it is your eyes can see, tiny dots representing gigantic unseen worlds. So, you are lying there and everything you relate to is out of reach, abstract. Yet you feel deeply connected to it all, part of life. Art can do that as well. Especially music and poetry, but the visual arts just as much. The notion of ongoing relates to the archives as well. The project is incomplete and open, what has left traces as a work confirms a direction and intention but the total is yet to be
formed. An essential part of the Trilogy, a series of landscape photographs (woodlands, mountains and underwater), is to comprise scapes all over the world. I cannot see an end to this project, it needs to expand further, horizontally and in time. Much of what we are doing as artists is what we have been doing all our lives I guess. I remember very well when I was still fairly young how I would climb through a gap in a fence into the neighbor’s garden. There, I would hide behind a bush near the terrace and watch my neighbor sitting and reading a book. I remember how excited I got whenever he turned a page, concealed behind the bush. At times, I would even hide behind the bush with no one on the terrace, staring at the curtains and waiting for them to move. Later, when I managed to climb onto the roof, I spent time looking down into the neighbors’ gardens. They came across as being theater stages, with flowers, chairs and other props arranged around the people living near us and playing at daily life: cutting the grass, sleeping in the armchair, playing cards. It was marvelous. For some reason I never felt like an intruder, more like a neutral observer, without judgment. For ten years now I have been going back to this early passion: observing people in their environment. Somehow, I find in them the blandness and the great tragedy
of life. This work, Tales, if you like, has been “ongoing” since childhood...
When is a landscape not a landscape?
by Brian Dillon
In 1714, the Irish philosopher George Berkeley crossed Mount Cenis on horseback, and found the view distinctly unedifying – he was, he later wrote, ‘put out of humour by the most horribleprecipices’. (Perhaps he consoled himself, in proper Idealist fashion, by concluding that the hideous crags existed only at the instant that he perceived them.) As Robert Macfarlane points out in his history of the modern obsession with uplands, Mountains of the Mind (2003), such a reaction was not unusual in an era for which mountains had not yet acquired sublime or picturesque significance. Wealthy travellers, it is said, even had themselves blindfolded before being led over the Alps, so as not to have to look at the monstrous peaks. Mountains were in a sense invisible to the pre-Romantic imagination: they were deserts of rock, vacant horrors before which the mind shrank.
But blanks have a habit of being filled in, and although later aesthetic enthusiasts of altitude and ice may have affected to value exactly this emptiness itself, they also wrestled with the paradox of having to describe structures so novel and alien that they could hardly be grasped. Consequently, in their accounts of them, mountains always looked like something else; to the Romantic eye, they were oddly incapable of being themselves and so became bare screens on which to project a prodigious array of metaphors. In part, the problem was their sheer strangeness: Jean-Jacques Rousseau spoke of ‘the pleasure of seeing only totally new things’, but these unprecedented wonders seem almost invariably to have been translated into the language of the known. Mountains looked like waves, glaciers like frozen oceans, clouds like floating boulders. It is as if, above a certain height, the landscape only became visible at the moment one mistook it for something else.
It would be naïve at best to insinuate that the photographs of Daniel Gustav Cramer exist in some direct – or, actually, even ironized – relation to the Romantic art that first tried to frame the edgeless atmosphere of this upper world. The briefest mental flicker-book tally of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich is enough to dispel the comparison: Cramer quite disposes of the icy expansive vista, the dark punctum of the heroic subject set against the scene, all the familiar stage machinery of the muscular German sublime.
And yet: he shares something, a certain interest in the limits of the visible as such, with the most rigorous formulations of that aesthetic. And like the first writers to record their impressions of the higher reaches of air, rock and water, his photographs can often confuse one space or substance with another, substitute one stratum of the representable world for its apparent double. Forests appear drowned or pelagic, the actual ocean bed looks like an aerial view of rainforest at night or resembles mountains scurfed by snowdrifts that are actually seaweed.
Cramer’s three ongoing series of medium-format photographs – Woodland, Mountain and Underwater – are linked by their precise absence of aspect. The ‘view’ vanishes in a kind of uncanny middle distance: not far enough away from the mountain peaks to compose a bracing vista, not close enough to the undergrowth to seem forensic or hyper-real. Nor is there much sense of narrative or scenography.
It is only in the earliest of the Woodland images, for example, that Cramer allows a certain melodrama to intrude: a foreground of rain-jewelled vegetation is sharply in focus, while the blurred background looks like a badly painted stage flat. The whole scene might be awaiting a rehearsal of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, such is its air of stalled magic.
Though the depth and darkness are still there in later additions to the series, everything also exists on a single plane: no foreground, no horizon, just a square expanse of foliage without any route in or out.
Cramer’s ‘landscapes’, in other words, are really no such thing, which is not the same as saying that they have nothing to say about landscape. They are more like photographic non-sites, subtle displacements of the territories in which they (though we could name them: a forest in Scotland, the Dolomites, the coast of Cyprus) whose specificities are perhaps irrelevant to the project as a whole. Mountain is the most conceptually vertiginous of the three series in this respect, and one image in particular embodies the various paradoxes involved. It depicts Mont Blanc: a ‘mountain of the mind’ that seems not to match in reality the chilled abstraction of its idea -- William Wordsworth, on first seeing it, ‘grieved to have a soulless image on the eye which had usurped a living thought’. Cramer’s Mont Blanc, brittle and beclouded, has lost all sense of scale, so that it might as easily be a model sculpted in the studio or a CGI approximation of the ‘black drizzling crags’.
In the 1850s, a craze for views of and visits to Mont Blanc broke out in Britain. For those disinclined to Alpine travel, stereoscopic views and panoramic entertainments supplied the necessary vaporous whiff of the sublime, just as Victorian aquaria preserved under glass and water a glimpse of the deep time of fossil life alongside living creatures.
If Cramer’s photographs show us something like a post-Romantic, post-environmental view of nature, they do it by acknowledging that nature now is a kind of science fiction. In that sense, the closest analogues to these photographs – and they seem, like the peaks scaled by the first mountaineers, to continually gull us into seeing them for what they are not – are cinematic, not photographic.
The clouds that shroud Cramer’s mountains recall the veil of fog around the dreaming planet in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris; his woodlands are like the eerily overgrown portions of the Zone in Stalker, where one might happen upon the ruins of the future. One has the sense – and here the filmic exemplar would have to be Predator – that something at once visible and invisible is moving among the leaves.
Brian Dillon, Canterbury, 2007
Art Review, issue 13,
July & August 2007, pages 102 - 104
This is a word that made the Greek shiver and they uttered it with veneration as they were discovering the world while floating along the almost inexistent line, along the film-like threshold that separates the negative infinity of the water and the positive infinity of the sky. It was then and it was there that the predictable overrunning of the great rivers was for them for ever bygone and nothing was left but the perception of nature as an overwhelming force, the intuition of an obscure cycle from behind the visible, from beyond the blue skyline and red sun; they have perceived the power of the ultramarine horizon. Oltremare: a fabulously intuitive world, namely because it is placed far off the chromatic specter.
This is the sort of perception that the images of Daniel Gustav Cramer speak about. Despite his young age – or maybe it is precisely because of it – he sees the world with the eyes of the prophets and painters of the Far East: he sees it painted in ashes and ink, in symmetry, therefore reversible, in the manner that it might have been once and as it is going to be again one day, when prophecies accomplish. His world is placed out of ours, the one of time and space, his world is immemorial and utopian, and that’s why nothing ever occurs in it – namely nothing that our eyes can see. And this is due to the fact that with our senses we cannot grasp time, eternity, silence and others of the sort. We could have the intuition of them, we could lodge within them, but they are forever out of the sight of the third eye, the one which is blind to the outer world. Paul Celan would use a resplendent metaphor to describe the world that is seen as a result of blindness, the realm of the great Nobody: „Die Niemands Rose”.
Celan’s poetry and Cramer’s landscapes remind us – by means of German, which is probably not by mere chance - that we inhabit a foreign country, which is to be understood that we are living in an exile that we have condemned ourselves to. In fact, these cross intersections should come as no surprise. It is exactly the same mechanism that leads poets to the intuition of the silence’s abyss from beyond words, the one that makes the poets perceive the opened precipice which exceeds both margins of the chromatic specter. That’s to say they sense the eternal present which emerges from the infrared line, encircles the whole galaxy (to say the least!) and closes instantly on the ultraviolet border. It is exactly the case of several photographers that regard the world of occurrences as uninteresting, sterile, over exceeded with sounds and colorings, and therefore they turn to what happens off the limits of these blatant and trivial brackets. The world they open belongs to the infra- and ultra- landscape. A realm seen in the mirror, in which the flint summits of the air have as their counterpart the watery summits of the ocean deep. The Himalayas are mirrored in the rift of the Pacific, for we are moving within a world fashioned along axes and symmetries. Amidst these, like a fragrance of heaven, like a sauce spiced with subtlety, the gentle swarm of fabulous woods is pervading, who only sets a step back at times to make way to the clearings: the light patches are the only presences that echo the beauty of the human nature, whose only strength lies in its ineffable weakness.
Ramona Novicov, art critic, Bucuresti, Romania
Daniel Gustav Cramer
A question that strikes me as I write this is: what would it mean to be a German landscapist in the 21st century? On the face of it, the answer is simple: it would entail being German and making landscapes. On both counts, Daniel Gustav Cramer scores well. Born in Neuss, near Bonn, in 1975 and working largely in Berlin, Cramer’s national credentials are impeccable. On top of that, his exhibited work has been given over to images of woods, mountains and the sea. If there is a better claimant to the title of German landscapist, it is difficult to think who it might be. But the question is harder than that. First, “German landscapist” isn’t a coincidental term involving an accident of birth and choice of subject. To practise as one would be to sign up to a tradition with roots going back to that other threenamed artist, Caspar David Friedrich. Second, to be a German landscapist would be to make German landscapes, with a narrative closely tied to place. On both these counts, Cramer scores less well.
The curious truth about his pictures is that they are neither landscapes nor German. This seems a perverse thing to say, since his work actively invites both of those readings. What could be more traditional than a Friedrich-ish wood, its snowbound solitude a metaphor for the soul of Young Werther? If images of seas and mountains are not landscapes, then what are they?
These questions are as central to Cramer’s work as the one that opens this text. There is a vogue just now in contemporary art for what might loosely be called Neo-Romanticism, and these woodlands and seascapes seem to buy into it freely. Yet Cramer’s images invite us – no, compel us – to read them as Romantic only to point out that this is precisely what they are not. Here is an easy way to approach us, they say: we are landscapes, Friedrich-ish, traditional. And yet they are they none of those things, nor are they prone to easy answers.
Perhaps the most useful way of looking at Cramer’s pictures is, in fact, as abstracts – a deeply perverse thing to say, given that they offer so much information, so many ways of reading. One is as a photographic equivalent of Action Painting, where the work’s making becomes its own subject. I am looking at an image of path of ground elder, which required Cramer to sit in a rain-soaked wood for weeks until the precise moment of light and colour he’d been waiting for arrived. This hardship pales beside those of his mountain shots, which involved long exposures in barren places. And these in turn seem cushy next to his seascapes, made underwater rather than on top of it, in poor light and buffeting currents. Yet Cramer insists that these are not “extreme sports photographs”, that, on the contrary, the story of their making has nothing to do with what they are; that the image itself is prime, and just happened to be found on the top of a mountain or the bottom of the sea. Equally, given their propensity to be read as landscapes, one imagines Cramer’s photographs to be descriptive, locative and German. And yet this rain-soaked wood was in Scotland, that sea floor off the coast of Cyprus, this mountain in Caiifornia.
So, images shot through with story and place, but which demand we ignore both place and story. This is what we are, they say, but what are we? Without the statement, there would be no question. Cramer owns up to a fondness for Morandi and it’s easy to see why. If we couldn’t read
Morandis as bottles on a shelf, we wouldn’t see that the last thing they are is shelves of bottles. Unless we recognise in Cramer’s photographs all the things they might be, we can not begin to see what they are. You might say this was true of photography itself. Cameras may not lie, but photography informs by withholding information; or, if you prefer, by lying. In three dimensions, in real life, the eye works differently. As our gaze travels into a wood, it records infinite degrees of truth, of facts more or less revealed by light and distance. In the flattened perspective of a photograph, the world divides in two: the lit and the unlit, the hidden and the seen. The unvaryingly deep perspective of Cramer’s woodland shots invites us in even as their patchwork surface – light and dark, insistently flat – repels us. His work finds the photographic equivalent of sculptural contrapposto, a moment of balance that would be lost if it moved an inch either way.
A touch more narrative, mehr Licht, a hint of the author and we would be looking at Neo-Romantic landscapes. A touch less and we would be faced with a bucolic Neo-Geo, the natural world resolved into abstraction. And as with photography, so with Cramer. For the white branches of his woods to read as white branches, they have to be seen against darkness. There is no truth without the withholding of truth, no revelation without obscurity.
All this is to suggest that we should approach Daniel Gustav Cramer as a formalist, although that isn’t quite right either. His body of work does have a subject, and that subject is photography. As I have said, his images tease us by offering, always and at once, a pair of equally plausible choices: abstraction or representation, depth or flatness, a human author or a mechanical one. Behind all these answers lies a question: were these images made by a man or a camera? And there are new doubts, too, born in an era of visual manipulation. I’m holding Cramer’s shot of snow-dusted mountains, a picture that looks oddly like Friedrich’s Sea of Ice. it strikes me that we have no way of knowing whether his crags are real. They could be modelled or copied, or they could be a metre tall and shot in close-up. For all their clinical particularity, they could be computergenerated.
That philosophical crisis of faith lies at the heart of 21st century photography, separates it from the hundred and fifty years of practice that went before. And that same doubt makes Daniel Gustav Cramer a very modern photographer. For all their studied sameness, each of his images is entirely different from the others.
All are shot head-on, four square, receding into depth. They ask us to see them as alike, identical. And yet each image will have been made under different conditions, more or less slowly, have called for a greater or lesser degree of effort on the artist’s part, have been taken at the archetypal extremes of human existence: on the tops of mountains, the bottoms of seas, the depths of woods. They are paradoxical things, landscapes without a land, abstract representations. They are full of stories and have no stories at all, revel in telling us that they have nothing to tell.
Charles Darwent, Paris, April 2007
Force of Nature
Daniel Gustav Cramer’s photography sheds a new darkness on getting back to the land.
If you lose interest in people’s faces, the German photographer Wolfgang Tilmans once said, something is wrong with you. Daniel Gustav Cramer - compatriot of Tilmans and rising star on the international art scene - takes pictures of forests, coral reefs, and mountain landscapes. In the world Cramer sees through his lens, there are no wrinkles, dimples, and no laugh lines, only subterranean caves, arboreal clearings, and wet leaves. So what, exactly is wrong with Daniel Gustav Cramer?
In person, Cramer is very much the urban hipster: multilingual, enthusiastic about German minimal techno, and very particular about his coffee beans. The 30-year-old’s artistic career took off in London: Born and raised in Germany, he embarked on a postgraduate course at the prestigious Royal College of Art in 2001, winning the Jerwood Photography Award in 2005 for his series ‘Woodland’.
His latest show ‘Underwater’ opened this spring to rave reviews at the domobaal
gallery, in Bloomsbury, London.
Despite his cosmopolitan persona, the unifying theme in his work is the flight from the hectic bustle of the city. Forests, oceans, and mountains appear as remote mythical places, one can still get utterly lost. Not incidentally, Cramer now lives and works in Berlin, “I need London, but sometimes it just offers too many opportunities”, he says. “You end up running from one place to the next without ever achieving much. Berlin is very different in that respect: its a huge city, but it moves at the pace of a village.”
The forest pervades the history of German art - less as an actual place than a state of mind, from the ecstatic landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich to Jürgen Teller’s nude self-portraits in pine-tree surroundings. Yet Cramer’s photographs seem to have a universal appeal: “I deliberately don’t title my images I had taken in Germany, for example, I got someone from Wales coming up to me at one of my shows who was convinced that I had photographed around the corner from where he was born.”
Cramer heavily manipulates his photographs in the darkroom: he will intensify dark spots in the undergrowth and emphasize rays of light falling through the water. In effect, each of his images develops an emotional life: They don’t pull at our heartstrings as violently as the dramatic landscapes of the Romantic painters, but instead work their melancholy magic slowly, softly. He insists that his strong and simple human desires and fantasies: “I am interested in secrets,” in particular, he explains, he is interested in the black areas in his images, because unlike those in real life, they can never be illuminated.
There are no faces in Cramer’s pictures, and yet there is sadness and joy. “Many nature photographs are like fashion photos,” the author John Berger once wrote. “They record and admit pleasure.” There is nothing wrong with Daniel Gustav Cramer. He just likes to see the forest for the trees.
Nylon, Summer 2006, New York, page 60.
Daniel Gustav Cramer´s Trilogy
The boys dreams were alive... he could feel them, they were real... the magic was still there, the man inside him that wanted to come was still out there, somewhere in the distance, still out there before the dawn and so, the dreams were still real. The Earth could speak and the tree's would tell him stories, speaking to his heart. The Woodlands would tell him to come, to enter, to step softly on to the green, to lay down in the moistsure, to fear not the dark shadows... let us shelter you, it is okay. The ocean, The Underwater would whisper and the whisper would become a roar... the deep would call out and say, "I am eternal", I am here to give you life... you are part of me and I am part of you... I will sustain you, you will sustain me... we are one. The Mountains, they would echo their sounds across the rock, the air would dance with the peaks... the towering cloud shapes would tell the boy, your dreams... they are your hope, your thoughts... they are your essence, your mind... it is one with your body... and your body is also the earth. We are in you and you in are us... we are from you and you are from us. Everything around you is yours... you can fly, you can soar... you can swim, you can walk. You can dream, you are free... you are us, and we are you.
This body of work from Daniel Gustav Cramer, The Trilogy, is the story of the human, the story of the boy, the story of the earth and the story of the elements. It is the ingredients that lie in the boy's dreams, it is the magic and the notions of the eternal - it is the feeling in your soul that you get when you try to grasp at the deeper mysteries of existence. It is the questions that come... how can something always exist? What is something? What is nothing? What is forever? What came before the start? What is the start if there was always something? It is the story of existence itself and what it means to be. Through a giant square window, and through prints of epic proportion, a whisper is put forth and you can feel it. It resonates and you can hear the silence, you can sense the majesty and feel the time fade away, sharply and into obscurity. For time is nothing against the eternal... time itself simply ceases to exist, the eternal is pulled forth in its place. To do this, to create this feeling requires control and calculation... it is made from a very sensitive touch, to the undertones and the rhythym... to the elemental and to the pulse. In the silence and the subtle, in the vastness and the complex... Daniel has brought something that is not a forest, not an ocean, not a mountain, not a landscape but instead, it is harmony, the eternal... the universal and it's pulse.
Doug Rickard, American Suburbx, 2009
Photographer Daniel Gustav Cramer has plunged from dark uncanny forests to submarine seascapes. But, says Charles Darwent, his work is still concerned with themes of concealment, where what is shown in the light may be more baffling than what lurks in the darkness. Fingers on your buzzers, your starter for 10. Name the German artist best known for his fascination with the anderswo, that ‘elsewhere’ of dark woods and mountains beyond the human realm; who described his happiest moment as getting lost in a forest as night fell; who tussled with the aesthetics of the Sublime, and offered as the greatest influences on his work the operas of Richard Wagner and The Island of The Dead by Arnold Böcklin Ready? Caspar David Friedrich? No, sorry: the correct answer is Daniel Gustav Cramer.
If you’ve never heard of Cramer, that’s entirely forgivable. Just turned 30, the young German only graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2003. If you do know his name, it’s probably because he won the 2005 Jerwood Photography Award last November with Woodland, the first part of a trilogy of what might loosely be called landscapes: large, square-format photographs of deep woods, dark, empty and Friedrich-ish.
What business does a young photographer have messing with German High Romanticism? The answer is something like this. First, Cramer is by no means exclusively rooted in the 19th century. Along with Wagner, his favourite music is Cologne techno and the alternative country ballads of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. A fogeyish choice this is not. Another measure of Cramer’s modernity is, of course, that he is a photographer, and that his attitude to photography is fiercely of its day. His pictures share the Düsseldorf School’s extremely up-to-date preoccupation with self-doubt.
For 150 years, the presumed genius of photography lay in its ability to reveal objective truth. In the past 20 years, though, this belief has become a dead letter in art photography. Contemporary camera-based artists are neurotically fixated with their medium’s capacity to lie; indeed, with its inability to do anything but. At first glance, Cramer’s Woodland images seem obsessively exact, concerned with scientific attention to detail: they hould come from a textbook on sustainable forestry. Their complete lack of narrative, straight-on viewpoint, deep focus and square format suggest the pursuit of empirical truth. But a quick stroll through Cramer’s woods reveals a rather different quality to his art.
The word that suggests itself is ‘uncanny’, a sense that pervades the works from the roots up. The question that nags at you as you walk through Cramer’s sylvan woods is: why? Why here? Why this tree? And the realisation dawns on you that these photographs aren’t just about revelation but equally about concealment.
They focus not just on things seen – leaves, sunlight, twigs – but on things unseen; the unexplained, the shadows between.
The real story of photography is that the medium has always been as good at hiding as revealing. Cramer’s images find a precise balance between the two, and that balance is scary. They tell you everything you need to know, and nothing, ask just as many questions as they answer.
And they do this by finding an equivalence between the anderswo of German High Romanticism and the Elsewhere of photography: that shadowland which is the flipside of the revealed world. Look into the real wood and your eye makes a distinction between grades of darkness, depth of field. Sight demystifies.
The Romantic forest, the Caspar Friedrich glade, is less a visual placed than a Jungean, prowling with archetypal wolves. By contrast, the photograph of a wood flattens depth and shade into a single field, creates a two-dimensional mystery where none exists in three. Light becomes a black hole, swallowing up information instead of giving it: Jung made photographic.
If Cramer’s woods bear shades of Friedrich, then his latest work – Part Two of the Trilogy, on show at London’s Baal gallery – echoes Turner. In this new series, Cramer has abandoned the Friedrichean landscape for the Turneresque seascape, though, typically, his sally into marine photography takes place underwater rather than over it.
Untitled (Underwater) is a contemporary take on Turner lashing himself with the mask in Ramsgate harbour. To shoot the photographs in this series, Cramer had to dive down 24 metres off the coast of Cyprus and, buffeted by currents, work with the agonisingly slow exposures required by the lack of light at that depth.
Keeping his tripod steady called for vast endurance: like a good Romantic hero, the young German, made his art while wrestling with nature.
You sense this battle in the work, and air of preternatural calm expensively won. And, as with the Woodland pictures, these find that exact balance between opposing things at which photography excels.
The Underwater shots record exactly what they see, but, given the lack of familiar context, they puzzle us mightily by doing so. (Is that rocky outcrop a mountain or a molehill? Is it a foot high or a mile, close up or far off?) For every revelation there is an equal and opposite concealment, down to the elemental question of whether we are looking at earth or water. Cramer’s work is hugely clever, but it is hugely heartfelt too: a pairing you don’t much see in contemporary photography. A genuinely new Sublime.
Charles Darwent, Paris. Art Review, volume LXII, March 2006, pages 54 + 55
End Thoughts, part of Double Infidelity
Modernity can be understood as a form of persistence, enduring despite the fact that many of its abstractions have disintegrated. We might circulate within the orbit of these photographs with a sense that we are afforded an image of a continuous universe in the form of the deep reserve of nature, the possibility of contemplative remove, heights, depths and extents, within a world that nonetheless shrinks. A modernist would of course bring a measure of caution against the desire for such release, but then might still offer the possibility anyway as part of a folded moment or passage of perception.
Modernism placed the thought of freedom in the space in which conflicting feeling arose. To negotiate the contrary required the formation of distance. In this respect freedom derives conceptually from the opposition of idea to nature. What, I wonder in this work, are we witness to? Is it the continuity of the power of modernity, or a form of melancholic vestige which understands it’s own movement as a passing over, or descent, a hymn to the reflection of a project that is no longer possible but an acknowledgement of the incapacity to be otherwise? A breath circulating inside the space of the photograph, followed next by a feeling, and with it, the withdrawal of
thought. I would like to be able to make some more mediated or analytical claims about the work but I find that such an enterprise is quickly exhausted which is neither a way of saying that the works lack substance or equally that there is nothing that can be said of analytical value. Through memory I dwell within the images and attempt to record the play of sensibility, understanding or imagination. I am never certain as to whether this is a way of adjusting to the work or letting the work cohere with me. A momentary release from gravity as light touches all things but the trace of shadows contained within the reserve of visibility - in the wake of this momentum, fading also occurs, but only in gradual proportion. We live within a naked universe into which shapes and forms are whispered. Language occurs within the spaces that the rhythm of nature does not occupy, spaces left for naming. At times this essay appears to have assumed a stance of wishing to question the extent to which the Trilogy is Romantic, modernist, post-modernist, or a remainder issuing from those forms. I feel that it is possible to make a case in regard to such categories. The challenge though, for any form of art is whether it can hold the demands made against it in formulating such an argument. In giving an exposition of various scenarios of aesthetic theory I am only attempting to evoke the speculative measure that works of art within the modern period have either had to face or even form radical retreat from. What is centrally important about our present period though is the question of art’s relationship to aesthetics and whether or not it is possible for art to go beyond its absorption into this aesthetic concerns. If such a condition were possible then this would also call into question the autonomy of art alongside art containing its own speculation. The condition of the present can be seen as dismal in light of this.
What we have is a form of institutionally driven aesthetic discourse, which is governed by a nihilistic closure around the capacity of the work of art. On the most simple level this empire of judgement is sketched out around a post-Duchampian remainder, in which all things of the world might qualify as works of art given institutional naming as such. All subjectivities hereby become viable as aesthetic expression (linked to Beuys’ notion that all people are artists).
Educational imperatives should regulate the final conduct of the sphere of art in ways that ensure the interchangeability of democracy, freedom and economic exchange. Art is simply destined to be either product or instruction within this order – denying itself the opportunity for a program of resistance by artists to this situation. The question that can be asked within this essay is related to the extent to which a form of Neo-Romanticism would be capable of such resistance? What is fully at stake is what Giorgio Agamben saw in his book ‘The Man without Content’, as the alignment of modernist art with nihilism.
“The greatest accusation against Romanticism has still not been made: that it plays out the inner truth of human nature. Its excesses, its absurdities and its ability to seduce and move hearts all come from its being the outer representation of what’s deepest in the soul – a concrete, visible representation that would even be possible, if human possibility depended on something besides Fate.” (Giorgio Agamben) Is photography a form of grief issuing from the passage of time? Appearances slipping away, a curse of emptying that defies the momentary grasping which photography offers; we wish to join things together in order to say “world” but equally we are inclined to slump back into an opaque depth. Different photographs in pursuit of the same realm.
Landscape is the façade for this pursuit of an original source of the image which equally doubles as a final image. To figure the trilogy is to figure a circling motion. This traces the impossibility of the equivalence of direct speech. Something fails to move forward even though this or that photograph might achieve orders of difference or marks of distinction. We are neither witnessing a gradual process of construction nor a form of deconstruction. Ultimately we are being probed about the possibility of standing still. The Trilogy must be aiming to be a body of sorts and in becoming a body, lay claim to something, even if that thing stutters toward being the appropriation of its unique journey and its assembly of affects. Does it mean that this body of
work will become a completed project? If this is indeed a possibility it will require that a form of discourse within the work will become self conscious and be able to reflect this operation
within its own limit. Yet at this point we will of course object and ask how such self knowing could be possible, that the work will in fact be the converse of this scenario gradually losing itself as an unconscious power asserts itself within the work. Lacan would say that the unconscious is “knowledge that can’t tolerate one’s knowing that one knows.” Are we talking of fissures, gaps, blind spots, wounds within the fabric of knowledge or the possibility that non-knowledge accrues in equal measure to knowledge? Whatever the condition, the project of the Trilogy is fated, as both the “adventure of insight” and the dark night of dissolution stand as an equal possibility.
Is the photograph a form of scission between expression and the thing?
The first sign of a universalising instance was the flashing blade of the guillotine that delivered the equality of death to all citizens. Democracy and terror formed an intimate bond with this technological apparatus. Death was simplified, uniform and mechanical. The speed of the blade secured a form of invisible interval, life and death divided by an instance. The second sign of this universalising instance is delivered by photography which carries within it the promise of equalising representation.
In the last instance I introduce yet another turn. This is the desire lodged within every artwork that, before the spectator exits, there might be a contrary rhythm of thought that takes
hold, and then lingers within the space of persistence that is found in the promise of the work.