Elger Esser and Nature’s Second Virginity
Show closed in February
Depending on your poetic temperament, Elger Esser’s photographs might be hard to believe in. He finds stillness and beauty in the most unlikely places – an abandoned barge, a polluted canal, a field of wrecked cars, a burnt out or decomposing dock. The light is soft and milky, often a pale scrim of green which showers the world in an ethereal fog. Esser often focuses on ruins or on remnants of things past and the result is something that feels other worldly but isn’t, seems manipulated by the photographic process but is actually a scene that Esser labored to find.
I like how Eric Gero, studio manager of Lapis Press and recent project manager and assistant to Esser, put it when he said, “these are places where humans have been.” What I find important in Gero’s statement is that though humans have touched the nature presented, Esser still finds resonance in the scene, not by being cynical about human presence but by believing that we can still see things for the first time. Nature and light pervades back into the scene and over the remnants of humanity. This pervasion of nature into and through culture is then something new, something seen for the first time -- even though we’ve been there, we need not fabricate something to be surprised. The real, the givens behind things, can emerge and be seen.
Ponte A Tressa II (2002), for example, shows a series of flowing hills, populated by (not punctuated by) stripped cars and power lines. The scene is not beautiful, I would argue, despite these cars and power lines but beautiful with these elements. The viewer finds the beauty (that instant aesthetic desire to know the object) all at once. The same happens in the brilliant Cutting Warf 1, 2008, and again it is power lines that record the human touch on landscape. Esser again does not draw attention to the touch (perhaps as some people do to condemn it) but shows the touch now naturally as part of the scene. This is not eternal nature but nature that has evolved into culture and is now different. Just because we can’t go back to untouched nature, that does not make our new reality any less desirable or beautiful. Esser is neither a poet of authenticity (Wordsworth wanting to return to nature before humans) nor an environment poet (Like Robert Haas who condemns man’s destruction of nature). Maybe, we will call him a poet of co-existence.
These are not apocalyptic images. Though strange in appearance, Esser is not projecting an idea of a future but instead he is finding the present. Esser’s are not photographs of spectacle, they are photographs that acknowledge that though we can be melodramatic about our technology and our lot, that silence and stillness and a centered vision of reality still exists, still fills up around us, and invite us to dwell. We can’t go back to the ancient times, we are not innocent, but neither are we lost to the silence that has been there all along. Esser seems to believe in a sort of second virginity for nature, virginity found by belief rather than granted by an essence. These are wise photographs.
This vision, it seems to me, comes from Esser’s unique interpretation of the project of Bernd and Hilla Becher, those late typographies where the Bechers, through a straightforward presentation of industrial buildings (by just comparing them) observed poetry and meaning filling the scene, that the act of looking and making meaning can never be separated, ever. Like the Bechers, Esser depends on the documentary nature of the photographic process (light from nature onto paper) but knows that the fundamental truth of the photographic index (the imprint or trace of reality) can hardly contain everything, meaning comes in from all sides and informs the image, adds to the image. Again like the Bechers, Esser believes in reality and that reality provides its own wonders.
This is a far cry from Andreas Gursky, who constructs his photographs from dozens of base images in photoshop. Whereas with Esser, we get the weirdness first (we can’t believe that what he is seeing was actually how that moment in time was for his camera), Gursky’s photographs initially strike a viewer as impressive but real. With Esser, we slowly come to understand that the photographer is not trying to trick us, that he is showing us a moment as he sees it, a moment that is bound in the photograph. With Gursky, it is only after careful viewing do we realize that something is amiss, that a cow has been repeated several times, that the ceiling and rows of products in the store are arranged and resorted, that the lighting is theatrical. With Gursky and his constructed reality, the understanding of the image as constructed and inauthentic comes later.
So who do we believe here, Gursky or Esser? Who is more conducive to our present moment? I consider this to be a very important question on many fronts, maybe even concerning the biggest questions of our time. If I go with Gursky, I acknowledge that part of us that assembles from the fragments of our senses and makes reality up as it goes along. If I go with Esser, I depend on that part of us that believes that though we add to nature, that nature still has a certain reality behind it.
To try and answer this question, I will start with a theory that I heard presented by Matthew Biro of the University of Michigan in the recent CAA conference, basically that Gursky’s presentation of images is more real, a closer metaphor to our reality that the indexical beliefs of the Bechers. I guess that one could extend the argument to Esser.
Biro reasoned that Gursky’s constructed images are closer to our reality because Gursky’s process (assembling appearances from separate sources) is a metaphor for how we regard ourselves these days, as an accumulation of images, as construction of surfaces that can be rearranged at will. This is the Oscar Wilde view of the self -- as our representations shift, so does our reality, that our only reality is our representations. This self has no center, form is separate from function, our world is a world of translations and shifting.
Again, as we’ve seen time and again on this blog, this is the status quo vision of the self offered by the present art theories, the vogue theories that fill Artforum and the like. In other words, the self apparently once was thought of to have a center and had images which corresponded to that understanding and now we apparently have a new understanding of self and also have images to match – this is how Gursky, according to people like Biro, can be more of the moment than the Bechers and Esser.
But to give all of reality to the flow of images and the rearrangement of images seems tyrannical to me, this giving over everything we are to what we have made for ourselves, our interpretations of nature and self. In my view, the need of this theory to overcome limiting positivism (the idea that we can rationally interpret the function and will of nature) leaves us fundamentally alienated from the fact that there are givens, that there is reality not shaped by us but found by us, that prevails upon us rather than the other way around.
So ultimately, I side with Esser because he acknowledges our impact on things and that our representations of things shape how we see things. However (and this is a big however) the reality is still there, it still emerges (especially when we forget about it or get melodramatic about it). I love that in this world where constructed images reign (at the moment I hope rather than forever) that someone like Esser can show us the dazzling font of reality mixed with human vision. I like this photography of co-existence. I like its prospect, I like that the real is now emerging as something forgotten, something buried, something uncanny. I like that reality can still surprise us.