The Reluctant Landscape

[ Steven Humblet - 2017 ]

Between 1964 and 1966 Andy Warhol produced several hundred screen tests (of which 472 still exist). They are short, silent, in black and white filmed portraits of anyone (celebrity or not) who happened to be present at The Factory. For each screen test, Warhol followed a strict procedure: the person to be portrayed was led to an impromptu studio and asked to sit at a table. In front of them one camera, accompanied with one spotlight on the left or right. The person in front of the camera was then asked to stay put for the duration of the filming (which took somewhere between 3 and 5 minutes – the length of one spool of film). There were to be no cuts, no travelling, no movement of the camera, no zooming in or out, just the blank stare of an unwavering machine. Being scrutinized by a technological apparatus for such a (long) period of time led to a certain unease with the subject being filmed. We see them scowling at the camera, squirming on their seats, nervously shifting from one pose into another, anxiously looking for attributes to give themselves something to do while the camera is rolling, getting worked up by this mechanical eye that keeps on staring at them. Somehow, these filmed portraits show the distress (and terror) of being examined by a machine no one is really able to relate to (you cannot seduce a machine, can you?).

In 2012 the visual artist Pierre-Philip Hofmann (°1976) commenced a new body of work, called Portrait of a Landscape. For this project, he turned the lens of his movie camera to the diverse Swiss landscape. To organize this rather vast undertaking, he began by drawing 10 straight lines on a map, each line starting from the border and aiming towards the center. He decided not to drive through the country nor to fly over it, but to traverse it on foot. Walking created a slowness that made him more aware of the environment in which he moved. To decide when to make a filmed portrait of the landscape, he devised a simple but clever protocol. Every kilometer he would put his camera up on a tripod and record for one minute the landscape in front of him. Subjecting himself to this protocol, he freed himself of the necessity to make subjective choices: it was no longer a question of whether the landscape in which he found himself was worth recording or not, it was simply a question of him being on the right spot (meaning: one kilometer removed from the previous view and one from the next). Together, the filmed portraits state nothing more than this: these are the factual landscapes the maker was obliged to record.

The use of a camera on a tripod, enhances the rather cool, detached neutrality Hofmann seems to be aiming for. It’s fixed gaze, straight ahead, doesn’t allow for any narrative tension. Motionless the camera simply records what is there in front of it. Different kinds of landscape emerge, some we would qualify as untouched, natural ones, others as manmade, culturally determined. Most of the time the camera is taking a broad expansive view of the surroundings, only occasionally is it aimed at a telling detail (a lonely flower or an isolated sculpture). Of course, things are bound to happen within the confines of the image – cars are driving by on a faraway bridge, people are doing all kinds of stuff (walking, skiing, fishing or even filming a video clip), leafs are rustling in the wind, etcetera – but nothing of this hubbub really seems to matter. The actions the camera records seem pointless: they never end into something meaningful. They only exacerbate the creepy stillness of the environment in which everything is taking place.

What these filmed portraits ultimately show, is the mere evidence of the landscape, its inescapable presence, its eerie (or should we say sublime?) silence. In forcing us to look for one minute at the landscape right there in front of us, a world which is so tantalizingly close and yet so remote, the filmed portraits awake a sense of loneliness in the viewer. We look, see and recognize, we can itemize and even identify every part of the filmed landscape, but all this information doesn’t add up to something we can relate to. We can categorize the type of landscape, we can enumerate the functions it is supposed to contain, but the landscape itself, in all its brutal materiality, simply eludes us. As such, the quality of this work is not to be found in the sheer number of short films that have been made, nor in the (brave but futile) attempt to give a complete enumeration of the existing Swiss landscape, but in the fact that in every film, this simple truth manifests itself: we don’t feel connected with what we see. Something has happened during this short minute we were watching the landscape. Somehow the immobility of the camera, its absolute photographic stillness, has transformed the viewer into an absent observer. It is this feeling of separation that recalls the existential dread the people in Warhol’s screen tests must have felt when they were being exposed to a similar relentless mechanical gaze.

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