stalker material - hajo schiff - going behind the images /review

going behind the images /by hajo schiff

Everything starts with an image – and it will also end with this image. What expands in between to a 39-minute 7-channel video projection is a stream of associations, interpretations and effects derived from it. An extremely subjective world of images carries you off, not unlike its cinematic model, Tarkovsky’s Stalker, after a train journey into a ZONE which can never be exactly comprehended behind the image and between the images. And there everything is not just what it appears to be. Strange explanations, rapid tracking shots and many quite, often idyllic moments carry us off into a world where the resigned weariness of knowing the score, of always having seen everything before is no longer valid, Because perception becomes questionable. What is it that is to be seen there?

In our totally informed but not therefore better oriented society all images, even the latest ones, are also always memories. Everything that is seen has already been typecast, is a recognized symbol for a story that has already been determined, sometimes even the logo of itself. Billions of photos, both existing and newly taken every day, ubiquitous advertising, the pictorial tradition of painting, but above all the pictorial power of the cinema determine every perception, no matter how new it appears to be, in permanent presence, sometimes stronger, sometimes less strong, but always oscillating out of focus. Whether an artist is aware of it or not, nothing new has been produced ab ovo for a long time. Everything has to assert itself for producers and recipients in ever more complex reference systems which can only be controlled with difficulty.
In the latest work by Ulrich Polster the reference to a film by Andrey Tarkovsky is set with the title: Stalker/Material. That seduces one in the first place to write pages and pages about the great work of the Russian director – almost everybody who has seen the film has been deeply impressed by it – but that would be just as obvious as it it false. Reference systems are not references. Here somebody appreciates the Russian master director, takes a bow before his impressive work – and then with a few quotations goes on his own way. Already in 1985 after seeing the film Stalker, Ulrich Polster himself made film experiments with romantic ruins on Super-8 in derelict buildings on deserted properties near his home town Hainichen. Decades later he discovers the original locations for Stalker near Tallinn and meets the former camera assistant for the film, the director Arvo Iho. His nostalgic guided tour of the area along with the current changes have been documented separately by Ulrich Polster. For Stalker/Material it then becomes the reason his own trip into the reality of Tarkovsky’s ZONE, which is not only occupied with cinematic historical myths.
Ulrich Polster does not stop at making a tribute to Takovsky’s film work. The documentary material and the short quotations become the occasion for an exploration of possible effects. On his own subjective journey he leaves the former locations of the Russian master and arrives in the zone that every person possesses, the half-awake zone daydreams about happiness and idylls, about adventure and danger. Again it is all about the real, the old sense of journey: journey as departure into the unknown, as necessary movement on the twisting path between birth and death…

Relieved of their concrete function, the ruin seduces one to play. For the video artist is can even be a material counterpart to multi-channel projection. Because both are constantly inscribed with various vistas, various narratives. That begins already with the surroundings, with the landscape shaped by the ruin. Since Petrarch’s essay letter about his ascent of Mont Ventoux on 26 April 1336 at the latest it has been taken that the landscape between the work of God, threatening nature and the Garden of Eden is always a construction of thought about the position of the human being in the external world. For human activity itself, however, the ruin is the best metaphor.
Once built for an explicit function, it now stimulates conjectures about the old purposes of the visible forms and leads to speculations about alternative achievements. Its intermediate state between organised structure and inevitable decay, between romantic aestheticisation and the planning of newer, more beautiful futures tells of the arduous pursuit of lasting solutions captured in stone and of its failure. The fundamental tendency of human activity to create ruins can only be denied from behind ideological glasses. If you takes them off, your eyes will be opened for the plural visions of the individual and collective new. The walls erected in the desire for security in explicitness and perfection become ruins. Windows that have become opaque and broken let through the wind of change. What had become stuck in the past now allows the constant flow of new procedures and processes.
The word “flow” points to another large life metaphor that also defines Ulrich Polster’s work in many variants: water. The bed of the stream as the original idyll of childhood. The branching flow, braked by resistant dams, as an image of biography. The waterfalls as apparently solid forms created from constant, foaming movement. Rain filling a photographically still view with an intense feeling of time…

The ZONE is to be conceived as a magical place, the cinema itself is certainly one. What is it that makes a group of trees beautiful, a tree worth looking at, a knothole mysterious, a whole place magical? The magical promise in Stalker was the room that fulfilled wishes. However that can work neither in the film nor in a video installation. But reality is indeed changed a little – at least in perception. It appears that by means of a series of images in a darkened room it is not so much other places that are being shown as time that is being manipulated. When it feels as if for small eternities one’s eyes are being directed to a basket of potatoes that have been germinated for months and changing shadows suggest a time lapse recording, one even thinks one can also see the sprouts growing. But no, it is only expectation that such a development demands in order to certify pictureworthiness to the precise observation of the object at all. Because longer calm inspection without purpose has long become unusual.
If a thing, an ensemble, a moment is given a significance pointing beyond it own essence, the path to magic opens up. The capacity to let oneself be enchanted is here projected as a quality onto the occasion that triggered it. With a world animated in this way beyond all purposes we enter the field of Romanticism in both the colloquial and the cultural-historical sense. Romanticism is more than an attribute of wedding exhibitions or hotel chains. It is a complex – and very German – aesthetic concept: seeking beauty and self-reflective, not omitting the melancholy nocturnal aspect. While the divine may also show itself in nature and light, it is not to be had without its counterpart, the nocturnal threatening aspect. Swathes of mist. Rain in interior space. The dead bridge. Two or three children as figures with their backs to the viewer looking into the landscape. The revelation metaphor of backlight. Above all the gloomy fortress. Gravestones.
Some of these motifs could also be elements of image composition with the Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. His pictures, which appear realistic, are to be understood as emotional landscapes, their scenes, which are precisely painted down to the finest detail, are not a real depiction, rather they are “multi-channel” atmospheric pictures compiled from different elements: ideal grandeur as a simple studio construction. The divine is revealed to the Romantic not only in nature, in the landscape itself, but above all in the enhanced potential of its representative reproduction by the artist. The motif of yearning, which is so formative in Romanticism, draws nourishment from the loss in principle of a unity of human beings with themselves and the world. One knows about the impossibility of recovering this unity and of remaining secure in one single all-embracing idea. But the images of this possibility promise hope at least. In this way it is precisely the political and psychological inner turmoil in the first half of the 19th century in Germany that produces as compensation the beautiful, “Romantic” counter-images, charged with nature worship. What might it mean when Ulrich Polster says of himself that he definitely has a Romantic streak?

The Stalker has a strange tool for determining direction: He throws a nut marked with strip of white gauze and follows the way it falls. The author has recreated this for himself - but without belief that does not work. Now for a successful life path it may not matter what one does or who one follows as long as one continues to do so consistently and simply firmly believes in it to a certain extent. With Ulrich Polster those who do not persevere are the children and the brides. They explore the world and seek out their position in it. Experimentation with the suitable place and the positioning appropriate to the family for the “correct” group photo of the wedding is thus of higher symbolism, just as much as “clambering” on the waterfall. Even the strangely tense relaxation of the picnic groups is just one moment of of pause on the long road, on which Ulrich Polster doesn’t deprive us of a directly religious moment either: In a triptychon-like intensification the church image of the Annunciation to Mary appears briefly. The mystical marriage between time and non-time. But also such deceptive promises will later disappear again in fire and water. Because – to quote with David Lynch, another obsessive film maker on the other side of the Atlantic, a sentence that is murmured again and again in “Twin Peaks” – “The owls are not what they seem.” It is not just the owls that are not.
Any place can always also be a crime scene. That was shown by Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow Up” using the example of photography. And when with Ulrich Polster the fog drifts along the course of the stream, the preset mood of the viewer – and reinforced by the sound – determines whether he thinks of gentle morning mist or a destructive poisonous cloud. As paradoxical as it may sound: Without ambivalence the images gained from the life of the artist would be incomprehensible. Because it is not a question of reproducing his experience, but of constructing one’s own story from the material. The more individually an artist structures his own world, the stronger the challenge to the viewers to counter it with their own perception of the world. The fact that the this appropriation is not easy to determine is inherent in the concept of a pictorial argument coming from seven channels. In this openness, with all the subjectivity offered by an artist not averse to Romanticism, Ulrich Polster creates a celebration of the transitory in itself from biographically moulded material that goes beyond a tribute to a great film maker.

Hajo Schiff © 2015