The Lichtbildner of the 21st century – Mindaugas Kavaliauskas /english


The Lichtbildner
of the 21st century

Mindaugas Kavaliauskas

The simplicity of André Wagner’s “Romance of Elements” meets a certain complexity when considering the work within the context of contemporary photography. At first glance, this series exhibits the style of a placid landscape. But given the particular interaction between the landscape and the element of fire, we often observe an incandescent action, that of a virtual and temporary terrestrial art that rendered visible through the medium of photography. The effect of portraying non-existent shapes, contours and figures through long-term exposure was described in the 1930s by one of the fathers of photographic constructivism, László Moholy-Nagy, who was the Bauhaus director at that time. In his own way, André Wagner disregards the technical possibilities of post-production, and chooses to create his images using the method of photographing a landscape mostly with a one-man performance at night. The artist himself admits that the “Romance of Elements” is a series of attempts to contemplate the metaphysical energy of fire by photographing himself moving through the landscape in the sense of self-portraits. This results in contemplative landscape, land art, performance, and self-portraiture. This ambivalence of the -“Romance of Elements” contains conflicts between the mystical and the obvious, between simplicity and deep meaning, between spirituality and, possibly, kitsch.
Most, if not all, images of the “Romance of Elements” invite us to meditate on the views and symbols of distant or exotic worlds that remain as yet unexplored. A fire spiral leading up the steps towards a sanctuary on top of a mountain in India hints at the quest for Oriental wisdom and spiritual perfection. Long traces of the stars in the sky suggest the elapsed time with its dimension of the journey in time and the great amount of human patience needed in attaining our goals. In another picture, a rocky forest landscape in New Zealand wakes up in light, as if opening its eyes back to the distant Maori culture. This landscape is somehow similar to one shot in Lithuania, where the tip of a fallen tree is set up in light, giving rebirth to the memory of the longest surviving Pagan culture of Europe, with holy forests and fire as its sacred legacy. Such interpretations of “Romance of Elements” will sound reasonable for those seeking higher meaning. Pictures by André Wagner featuring modern-day landscapes are more ambiguous. There’s no denying an element of kitsch; -however, it is accompanied by mild irony. Looking at a picture with the German Autobahn under construction, I feel helpless when attempting to apply traditional approaches to the search for spirituality. But admitting that the car is the primary cult object these days, it becomes possible to contemplate everything that surrounds this deity of motion, which has been the real “Zeitgeist” of Germany for more than a hundred years.
Within the photographic community, there are those who find André Wagner’s work appealing only if they know what form of fire was applied in what image. After finding it out they tend to think that once the method is unveiled, it is easy to reshoot similar images “at home”. And they would surely imagine improving the technique by using digital instead of middle format film, and creating digital drawings instead of performances with real fire. André Wagner regards photography as something without the “undo” option, where being authentic is more important than being one of many. He chooses the more difficult, less foolproof paths towards the realization of his pieces of art. Slowly, far from home, in situations that are often precarious, he browses the nights with a torch, seeking to visualize the power of the light, accepting the possible imperfection and experiencing the elements of the chosen place. For me, one of the paramount images of the “Romance of Elements” is the dried-out river in New Zealand. The photographer filled up the bed of the missing river with a spiral beam stretching several miles, and substituted one element with another. It took him a great deal of effort and discipline to keep on dancing down the valley of the river with the huge torch in order to carry out a fire performance for the land, air, space and the missing water. This picture required almost a full night to walk the several miles until the next day dawned and the last drop of kerosene was used up.

In the German language, unlike in many other languages, there is a local translation of what in the English-speaking world is called a photograph (“phos” – light and “graphos” – drawing, writing). The German word Lichtbild (“Licht” – light and “Bild” – image) stands for photograph. Strangely enough, today it is quite unusual to hear a Fotograf (photographer) being called Lichtbildner. First of all, it sounds old-fashioned. But more importantly, I guess, is that there are not many photographers who consider the fire as primary source of creation and light, as it once was, and the essential tool for creating the photograph, the one that refers to the drawing with light. And this is where André Wagner is different. Among the millions of professional and amateur photographers in Germany who take pictures on a regular basis, he continues to be a Lichtbildner in the 21st century.