2016: Issue 3: Artist’s Books: Wim Wenders: Places Strange and Quiet

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Ferris Wheel (Reverse Angle), Armenia, 2008. Wim Wenders. Places Strange and Quiet. Zeppelinstrasse: Hatje Cantz.

Highgate Continental, what used to be Apropos provisional, is Perth’s own Printed Matter: a bookstore and record store dedicated to photography and artist’s books and independent music releases. Artist’s books don’t have a huge market, but can be some of the most impressive things made in the book form. Though their relationship to coffee-table tomes sometimes weighs them down, there are frequently innovative and exciting works printed on paper and bound. After all, the book remains, despite its predicted death, one of the most potent articles of idea transmission–so why not transmit visual ideas as well as linguistic ones? It is a language that is both new and old–books have long been full of images, but did not have the recognition of a complete artistic creation, intended and considered, until the rise of conceptual art (earlier expressionist and constructivist (and futurist) books, and even comic books, existed before, but they were typically understood as illustration–though there are several notable earlier examples). Ed Ruscha, often cited as one of the most influential users of the form (Though it is worth questioning his originary status in art criticism, his legacy is undeniable), was precisely interested in the banality of mass reproducibility in the book form. Though the glamour of history is attached to his books now, his infamous 26 gas stations is a testament to the utter blandness of American highway driving and book printing. His later bookworks, 13 swimming pools and a broken glass and various small fires and milk, are stranger and more puzzling, but remain tied to, much like the rest of his practice, the sublime boredom of America’s desert utopia–Los Angeles. Ed Ruscha seems like an appropriate introduction as Wim Wenders, also a master of the very everyday subject matter, and American Highway driving, seems to call on Ruscha’s books for guidance. They are a similar format, with similarly undramatic choices in image placement. Wender’s work is also obsessed with the movement of people – in road movies, or his own travels – and the everyday spaces of his images seems to reciprocate with Ruscha’s investigations – particularly in 26 gas stations. Yet whereas Ruscha’s books were often self-referentially about their status as reproducible objects, whilst maintaining the aura of unfazed calm of the American dream, Wender’s book is traversed by the same issues that underpin his impressive filmography. The possibility of peace against war, the poetic pull of the estranged – and road movies. Wenders is a much more cosmopolitan and political artist of books than Ruscha, and the commercial and reproducible appeal of the books that attracted Ruscha, here gives way to their possibility of transferring and transporting us.

There is a telling similarity in both artists’ works however, in that their early and important contributions faded away or self-destructed in the critical sphere in their later life. Wenders later films are works of nostalgia, and so, in a way, is this book. It is a romance of the road, like many of his films, but mostly of a small-town America that has faded away. Wenders, it appears, has constructed an edifice of the retrospective rather than the progressive. The criticisms against Wenders also often centre on the apathetic characterisation and narratives of his work – some of which are needlessly romantic or boring. Wenders is not interested though, I suspect, in providing a narrative or drama. Paris, Texas goes out of its way to avoid or diffuse confrontations, even though the characters know they are meant to, at some point, do what they should, they go about it in circuitous ways that are more poetic and real than the typical kind of dramatization of human activity. This propensity to avoid conflict allows his work to pass by, often without offending people – some of whom probably need to be offended. Wenders himself claims that it is the desire among audiences to be cynical that resulted in the critical failure of some of his work. There can be little doubt that Wenders travels a relatively difficult path in trying to make movies in which there is very little conflict – and in some cases, as in Paris, Texas, a very clear attempt to avoid it. Everything about the film should lead to it being rather boring: a mute protagonist, long silences, landscape shots, but it is extremely successful despite all of this. In a similar way, Places strange and quiet is imbued with the majesty and also the banality that in combination make Paris, Texas so special. It is a globe-trotting book, with a similar emphasis on limited dialogue (though unlike many photo books, it does contain short epithets to its images), but it has at its heart the sense of a voyage, and seems like something of a road movie in book form.

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The Sea near Naoshima, 2005. Wim Wenders. Places Strange and Quiet. Zeppelinstrasse: Hatje Cantz.

Though his photographs, at their worst, occasionally resemble those of Stuart Klipper and other such panoramic photographers, Wenders often also imbues his more successful images with something that these photographers often fail to recognise: the human, mundane and political world that is as much a part of a landscape as its physical features. In particular, the presence of armed police, protestors, old warships that have been rendered into film sets, and bullet holes that riddle the walls of his birth country, Germany’s, capital, display a (still somewhat indistinct but none-the-less) political undertow to his work in photography. Wenders is not a photographer with a particularly strong political agenda (it is frequently overtaken by a mystical one), except perhaps as a pacifist, and his work is similarly not engaged in conflict, despite its willingness to address it – leaving the inclusion of the more violent matters ambiguous and uncertain. Wenders is not one for agonism or antagonism, he is, like the author/philosopher character in his extraordinary feature The Wings Of Desire, an advocate of peace. Yet perhaps his fondness for landscape over human subjects is not surprising.

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The Old Jewish Quarter, Berlin, 1992. Wim Wenders. Places Strange and Quiet. Zeppelinstrasse: Hatje Cantz.

Some of the most powerful of Wender’s images are of the radiation-affected zone around Fukushima nuclear power station. The film was affected by the radiation, and effectively destroyed, a sine wave moves over each grainy image he took of the site. There is the vague outline of a landscape beyond the surface of the film. The unintended results of the chemical process are fascinating, but also an ominous overlay. The destroyed images, of scenes that look perfectly neutral, by the strange wave of radiation, is a powerful reminder of things lying just below the threshold of perceptibility.

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Fukushima III. 2011. Wim Wenders. Places Strange and Quiet. Zeppelinstrasse: Hatje Cantz.

This book is also rather beautiful – though it is thankfully not filled with full-page spreads of landscape photos. It uses the aesthetic tropes of Wender’s films, with rich detail and flat horizons and stunning panoramic views. Yet there is also something that takes this book away from being another coffee table tome. It is, firstly, much more diminutive, more restrained. It secondly struggles with the possibility of peace against war, and the continued presence of violence and aggression in the world. Wender’s images are filled with an optimism that might be as misplaced as it sometimes appears in his films, yet that remains captivating for his belief in, and dedication to, it. Wender’s desire to construct an epic of peace is not done yet, and perhaps never will be done – but that is the nature of a narrative that has no victory, no conclusion. Wender’s explorations in photography look to the past, undoubtedly, but they are not the wholly conservative art one might expect because of this. Though they do not struggle, perhaps their unwillingness to fight against oppression and violence should not be mistaken for an unwillingness to address it nor undo its powerful hold. There is something tantalising about the possibilities Wenders presents in this tome, which infects us with his mystical hope.

by Graham Mathwin.

with thanks to Ian and Jack Wansbrough.