“Fotografia Metafisica” Observations regarding André Wagner’s photographic composition Thomas Bauer-Friedrich/ english
“… the poetic space of desire is opened”.1 This is how Arne Rautenberg ends his text about the significance of light in André Wagner’s photographs. The following explanations address this specifically, dealing with the “spaces” created by the photographer. “Space” is not only to be understood exclusively in terms of a clearly-defined, physical places but also in terms of the search for a fictional space that André Wager creates with his compositions: mental spaces of action or spaces of associations that underlie certain themes or point to the beyond, enabling onlookers to come to various conclusions. The analysis focuses on works from the past three years, especially his series “Inside View” (2010), “Standby” (2010 / 11), and “Rooms of Silence” (2009–11), as well as single themes from the series “Illuminated Nature” (2009 / 10) and “Sound Rooms” (2010 / 11). The most recent works from “Reflections of India”, “Time Flies” and “Berlin” herald the start of a new stage of development for André Wagner’s works, where the transitory momentum of time steps to the fore and space is no longer explicitly -thematized.
Wagner’s series of landscape images entitled “Romance of Elements” garnered attention in 2008. A selection of these works has already been published in “Authentic Nature”.2 The fact that scenes were created with the help of extensive nocturnal long exposures and the use of various sources of light (static ones and also extremely dynamic ones) encourages an especially associative range of responses to the original title of the series: How authentic is the landscape – as well as the subject – that we see? 3 Until now, photography, as an artistic medium of expression, has been challenged by the supposition that its analogous forms are supposed to be alleged displays of reality – that is, mimetically authentic. The artistic and associative aspects that already appear in this first series of Wagner rely on the fact that, however realistic they may be, we won’t find these landscapes anywhere else. They are mainly themes of nature created with artistic means, which is why “Romance of Elements” opens the associative space that accounts for the content-related quality of the series.
After dealing intensively with natural landscapes, Wagner successively turned towards the cultural landscape of domesticated places of civilization, creating his work and compiling his series from inventories of them. Wagner’s series, however, do not represent cycles in the sense of previously outlined themes in relation to form or content. The artist creates the series afterwards, bearing in mind a substantial or stylistic aspect. Beyond that, the characteristics of his works become observable when considering the works on hand: first, there is the nocturnal long-exposure that is common to all of Wagner’s works and serves as constituting feature of his art. In addition, it is striking that in order for his scenes to have an effect, there is no need for humans as accessories; they only appear when being staged on their own. There are three basic procedures in the compositional setup of the subjects: often his images have a differently defined center around which the whole of the image builds up concentrically. Another principle of composition is the use of horizontal layers in the image space: starting from the foreground, the image composition scales into the depth in several layers, whereas the side rims usually are open, i. e. are not limited, and thus point beyond the subject. The third, and much more rarely used, method is digital composition. These basic elements (nocturnal long-exposure, general omission of human decoration, preferred schemes of composition) – Wagner’s “regulating force of regulating the space” 4 – create the associative mental spaces of his art: “Thus every single moment appears to be loaded with content raising itself beyond the purely aesthetic message”.5 I would like to explore this tension that results from form and content of his works and that provides the special quality of his photographs.
I would like to begin with the natural themes of “Romance of Elements”: Harwood Hole and Rainforest (both 2006) create an image space that, based on its setup, is able to point beyond itself. In the nocturnal thicket of New Zealand’s jungles, it is the indirect light whose origin does not have any natural authenticity that creates a fictive space within the -otherwise unlimited snippet of nature. The enacted place and its intensive colorfulness, appearing unnatural to the European eye, combine with the connotations of the forest, an elemental feature of post-industrial societies, into a whole capable of opening numerous spaces of associations, ranging from the romantic understanding of nature over fairytale-like themes to a modern criticism of civilization and to current film settings.
I would like to contrast another pair of photographs from “Illuminated Nature” with the first one: Electric Wood and Ring Fence (both 2010). They describe the blending of nature cultivated by humans and the urban landscapes in the artist’s work. Both scenes follow a common principle of composition: the horizontal layering of the image into depth. Despite vertical elements, the horizontal aspect of the setup dominates – like a backdrop for a stage. Within it, the trees are active, as well as lanterns, electricity pylons and telephone poles, chimney and fence. The section of a path in the foreground serves both as a dividing and communicating element. Humans are not yet visible in the image as figures, but their activities can be deduced based on the configuration of space: Electric Wood, for instance, is not a naturally grown forest but one that is formed by the impact of civilization, and the constitutive elements in Ring Fence point to the existence of humans. The subject of electricity connects the substance of both themes. With such images, Wagner begins to create his typical tableaus using natural means, resembling stage-like setups and opening a vast space of interpretation.
The themes of the “Urban Landscapes” (2010 / 11) series are taken exclusively from urban contexts. It presents us not only with streets and architectural close-ups but the insides of individual buildings – devoid of humans. They emanate a tension-charged silence arising from two elements: The works gain their force from the interaction of composition and color. Thus, the confusing chaos of flights of stairs and pedestrian underpasses (Underground House, Red Floor, Entry 702), the tangles of installations on a construction site (Underground) or the pipe of a hydropower plant (Pipes and Street) become graphic constituents of the image that are atmospherically charged by the colorfulness and the characteristic light resulting from the nocturnal long-exposure. Another feature of these works is the excellent quality of the subjects, the linearity and symmetry of their composition. There is the slight danger that this could come off as unexciting or flat, but the opposite is true with Wagner’s pictures. In Posters, a tremendously aesthetic image space emerges which first is to be interpreted in its location: the scene appears floating and unreal, provoking numerous questions and interpretations. Underground House and Entry 702, contradicting their positively connoted aesthetic quality, imbibe a feeling of solitude, menace, of being lost, originating in the artist’s choice of image details and thus stemming from the pictorial worlds he’s created. In particular, this contradiction between formal beauty and substance forms the quality of this series’ works.
Fullmoon in Manhattan combines “Urban Landscapes” and “Inside View” (2010). We rediscover the same view of a nightly metropolis with slight changes in Coming Down. Both works were done 2010 in New York. Even though the beholder is familiar with the place, the former work evinces peace and silence but also emptiness, loneliness and disorientation when looking into the seemingly endless abyss of Lexington Avenue. The latter’s perspective looks out onto the roof of a hotel that comprises the lower half of the picture so that the image space is compressed. Here, a young woman sits alone – almost distracting from the aesthetics and stillness of the architectural elements – with her look directed internally: Inside View. The momentum of her meditation connects the beauty of the staged location with the person. Both seem to have no connection with each other and still they enter into one, with her and the illuminated tip of the Chrysler Building as the only elements of the composition reflecting in the water puddle on the roof. In this way they enter into a dialogue and transcend the concrete environment that constitutes the pictorial space of the scene. The previously empty, cold place is charged by the introspective, meditating human. In the themes of this series, which essentially have the same setup, individual humans are confronted by their counterpart, the anonymous mass of human civilization, in the form of a constructed urban space. The individual is always at the center of the pictorial world, i. e. amidst the society intrinsic to the images, though he or she always gives the impression of isolation and loneliness. The space around the person absorbed in meditation is open on all sides; the individual is not isolated from the compositional point-of-view, and still a -separate auratic space arises around the individual, -forming the basis for the appeal of the scenes.
A tension emerges, feeding on experiences of the individual in modern societies.
The series “Standby” (2010 / 11) is an almost logical continuation, turning away from urban spaces towards human living and working spaces. These nocturnal interiors develop their “life” explicitly from the absence of humans, which is only indirect. In the meticulously organized, abandoned rooms, only the light of electric devices or the rooms’ basic illumination is reminiscent of human existence, which at first sight seems to be only temporarily absent. When looking at the subjects for a longer time, however, their setup becomes clear: They are put on standby – the passive state of low energy consumption, ensuring the basic energy level necessary to the system’s continued function and guaranteeing a possible restoration of active “life” at any time. In these works, we are overtly confronted with our restless, high-voltage lives, our readiness for action at any conceivable time. Beyond that, some of the subjects have a special compositional force. Wagner seems to have formally transferred his nocturnal aesthetics of New Zealand (Harwood Hole, Rainforest) to the urban human housing (Blue). The more you are “exposed” to the subjects, the more their inherent aggressiveness reveals itself. In Green Chat it results from the colorfulness on which the title is based and the confrontational image setup. The arrangement of the remote controls lets us fill in the speakers, whose indirect presence forms the basis of the thematic effect, using technology to emphasize especially what is emotionally disagreeable. We see a similar situation with Hot Wish and Shortly After. In the former, we find the characteristic strictness of Wagner’s composition created by linearity and symmetry. The interior is formally led to the exterior. However, the television’s light seems to constitute an atmosphere of the interior which is able to halt or even suppress the immanent movement towards the window and the outside world without any real physical obstacle being present. Vice versa in Shortly After. Here, the exterior, breaking in from two sides, impinges menacingly on the interior, and any absent human form seems to hide vicariously in the television’s light from the menace from outside, as if in a dead angle between both windows.
In a different way, the works of the “Rooms of Silence” (2009–11) series address the “inner and outer phenomena of a situation.” 6 Cat sets the scheme: The scene shows a detail of the wall of a ruinous, abandoned interior – traces of civilization. On the wall hangs the picture of a cat. At a closer look, the irony of the composition reveals itself: the picture is a mere poster which is framed with a surrounding edging attached to it. As decorative element it adorns, like a couch cushion, the wall and its patterned wallpaper.
Here, we remain in the room’s interior. The scenes of Family House, Neighbors, Old Windows and Salon – Old Hotel follow the scheme by varying it. In Family House we find a similarly arranged pictorial space. But instead of looking at the poster of a cat, we see a landscape scene that at a first glimpse also looks like a framed poster. But at a closer look, it emerges that it is a window opening and that the subject is the real outside world. During the artistically frozen moment of photography the exterior, nature freezes to become a painting-like image on a wall within the image. Neighbors addresses the window scene even more directly by raising it to the level the pictorial subject. The whole scene is dominated by the cutout of an old segmented window with its lower part opened, uncovering the view of the outside. The ensemble is decoratively framed by a curtain that sags in the middle.
As if looking at the proscenium of a stage, our vision is directed to the set up pictorial space and at the same time out of the room and into nature or onto the roofs of the neighboring houses. With this scene, the relations are clearly visible at once. However, it is the combination of the window detail and the view that disturbs the onlooker’s analysis of this image. This game of deception produces an even stronger effect in Old Windows. We glance into the corner of a ruinous interior whose six pane-less window casements are open, providing a view onto a natural scene that at first makes it hard to tell whether it is real or staged. The artificially lit foreground of the room irritates the beholder and impedes a simple assessment of the scene. Only a thorough analysis offers any certainty. In Salon – Old Hotel, Wagner expedites this play. Where are we as onlookers? What kind of hotel is it? Where is it located? Is it possible that nature forms such an abrupt border to architecture? Aren’t we more prone to feel as if we’re being confronted with a dilapidated train station or a bus stop?
In his works, Wagner plays with what the onlookers are used to seeing and what they expect. We are familiar with such staged image spaces through advertising. There, they are embedded in a narrative context and only have a few seconds to explain themselves; however, when dealing with them in an artistically configured adaptation, we initially have no orientation about how to interpret them. Only through the incremental analysis of the pictorial space is the enigma solved and the artistic quality of the theme emerges. The play with perception and with the situation in the room as well as the conscious thematization of the interior and exterior of real rooms, or unreal, mental rooms, is a known topos of art history, mainly found in the 20th century.
The painters of New Objectivity in the 1920s created their works similar to how -Wagner creates his photographs. In 1925, art historian Franz Roh summarized this phenomenon under the concept of Magical Realism.7 These works are characterized by the focus on rendering tangible reality, the “expression-saturated object” 8, mostly along with the isolation of objects, the sharpness of their plastic modulation and along with statics and a “secret geometry” 9 of image conception. The aim is a documentary character of the image’s message, suggesting authenticity and possibly disguising the creative aspect of what is artistically drawn from the image. Roh called this particular form of realism “magical”, “as it worships the rational organized structure of the world as a miracle” 10. Rooms composed with sophistication and meaning-suffused light effects evoke seemingly demonic, menacing emotional valences. The themes are often related to the current reality of life: technology and machines form a topical point of focus in Magical Realism paintings.
The situation is similar with Wagner. In the artist’s works from 2009 to 2011 discussed here, his interest is focused on the habitat of humans, their natural and urban environment, their housing, their work environment, and the technology constantly accompanying them. Similar to Carl Grossberg’s machine images or Alfred Renger-Patzsch’s photographs from a hundred years ago, Wagner today stages the special aesthetics of our post-modern living space, of gadgetry and urban structures. Beyond that, as a result of the nocturnal long-exposure, the special mood of many of his themes is reminiscent of Franz Radziwill’s paintings, which above all put the magic into the realist painting of the 1920s. Wagner’s works are marked, as are those of the mentioned painters, by an ambiance-laden objectivity, an aestheticization of the world surrounding us, making the beholder contemplate and ask questions. In this sense, I would like to modify a known art history term and designate Wagner’s works as fotografia metafisica.11 The artist seeks to visualize the aesthetics inherent to the objects and the landscape in consciously staged image spaces; at the same time, he manages to build up a basic level of tension, similar to the Magical Realism painters of the 1920s. By means of modern analogous photography, this tension captivates onlookers at an artistically high level, inciting them to critically face up to their environment and their lives. In 2009, when asked about artists that inspire him, Wagner replied: “When art lets you feel reality despite being staged, there should be an interesting person behind the art.” Living up to this standard in his own work is one of the special qualities of Wagner’s photographs.
André Wagner: Twilight Views, ed. by. Andy Lim, with an essay by Arne Rautenberg, Cologne 2010.
André Wagner: Authentic Nature, Berlin, 2008.
Verena Loewenhaupt described this phenomenon as “credibly incredible aesthetics” in the back cover text for Authentic Nature.
Nicole Loeser, review at
www.photopress.de, accessed on Oct 20, 2010.
Franz Roh: Nach-Expressionismus – Magischer Realismus. Probleme der neuesten euro-päischen Malerei, Leipzig, 1925.
8Ibid., p. 48.
9Ibid., p. 56.
10Ibid., p. 68.
Pittura metafisica is the designation for the paintings of -Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carrà between 1913 and 1917. The artists aimed at visualizing the “metaphysics of things”. In their further development, the surrealist de Chirico’s works of the 1920s emerged.