THE INCIDENTAL LANDSCAPE
Photographs from Eric Klemm’s B.C. Project and other Recent Works
(written by Gary Michael Dault for PREFIX PHOTO Magazine - Prefix Institute of Contemporary Art , Toronto)
The first photographs I saw by Eric Klemm were from his Metamorphosis series, exhibited in Toronto last summer, and they were assuredly landscapes-with-incident, determinedly romantic in an operatic way, and steadfastly gothic in mood. The eleven large, chromographic prints that made up the exhibition were all tableaux of what seemed initially to be shadowy passages of the velvety, old-growth forests of Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, forests redolent with the dusky, supersaturated greens you associate with the paintings of Emily Carr (who painted the same country). I proceeded to write enthusiastically and lyrically about them in the Globe & Mail a few days later, pointing out that while the prints appeared at first to be pastoral studies of “the soft counterpane of the underforest”, each of them turned out, upon further examination, to reveal the presence of a derelict automobile, quietly moldering away in the perpetual twilight of the forest floor:
For a photographer as naturally peripatetic as Klemm—who was born in Germany sixty-five years ago and has spent a great part of his life as a globe-encircling photo-journalist—the quiet, focused relentlessness of his searching-out of these fetid, wrecked cars silently oxidizing back into earth, struck me as an act of prolonged and poetic inspection inconsistent, perhaps, with the photographic freneticism of the first half of his career.
For Klemm really got around. He had contributed for years to German mass-market magazines such as Twen, Stern, Zeit-Magazine, Freundin and the German Playboy. Then, having fallen in love with the Maldive Islands (which stretch from the south-western tip of India to the equator) during an early Playboy shoot there, Klemm finally left Germany for good in 1979 to settle on one of the uninhabited islands of the 1196 mostly coral atolls making up the Maldives group called, believe it or not, Cocoa. There, he designed and built an ambitious and, in the end, prestigious resort hotel—which was to be his home for the next fifteen years. About six years ago, he moved to Saltspring Island.
Like his Metamorphosis project, which was completed in 2005, Klemm’s exquisite Labyrinth suite from the year before had also dealt in transformation within the landscape—specifically, in this case, with an indexing of what, at one point in history, was deemed to be the cosmetically ameliorative changes wrought upon the raw landscape within certain formal gardens of France (Versailles) and Germany (the vast garden of Schwetzingen Castle, near Heidelberg) by the impress of a regal will-to-design (most of us know Versailles, but the spectacular rigidities of Schwetzingen—which turns out, by the way, to be the asparagus centre of Germany—were quite unknown to me). Here, in these dark, moody photographs (some in colour, some in black and white), the landscape has been willed into a sort of para-architecture. Stately avenues have thus become vectors in the landscape-as-diagram and—of greater importance to Klemm—the trees have been everywhere shaped, sheared and generally curtailed until they approach the status of columns, pillars and other built structures.
Having assumed a photographic stance and point of view that seemed quite deliberately to echo that of the awed and humbled first-time visitor to a city made of skyscrapers, Klemm shot the geometricized vegetation from below so that, for example, in the Schwetzinger Castle gardens, he was able to show its trees, now carved into pillars, as lacy lifting structures isolated—so we can read their new function as faux-piers—against the weight of the lowering skies. In another spectacularly telling view of Versailles (#822), a tiny pedestrian makes his way along a pearlescent, light-filled roadway that just fronts a stupendously bulwark-like screen of brutally snipped, knife-edged trees—a leafy yet strictured construct so vast, black, dense and impenetrable it now looks like a bulky office building: Versailles manicured into New York. (2)
In general, Klemm’s work from the last half-dozen years seems quieter, more patient, less cursory and far less spectacle-bound than before—perhaps because of his freedom from the wow-factor imperatives of photo-journalism. In two recent bodies of work, his Back Alley photographs, made in Vancouver, and his ongoing B.C. Project photographs, made during treks throughout the province, Klemm has invariably sought out intimacy in immensity, locking his view of things into a geared-down inventory of defining, imagistic moments (3). Informed by a lifetime viewed through the lens and on the fly, Klemm has had to become, in a sense, a perpetual traveler, condemned to freedom. But with this new, later work, he has quite suddenly begun to produce a very different kind of photograph from those made during his photo-mag days. From the Labyrinth suite, through the Metamorphosis works and into the Back Alleys and B.C. Photographs, Klemm has increasingly slowed down and looked hard.
Sometimes, as in the Back Alley works, he has looked so hard he has somehow found himself admitting to the photographs—just by the sheer pressure, I think, of his being so profoundly present, hyper-present, as it were, at each of his selected sites—a certain small, thin, loose-cannon moment of distinct and yet contextless oddness: a solitary little girl.
Klemm’s Back Alleys are, of course, rather odd in the first place—odd to me, anyhow, in that nowhere do they trade in the shadowy inverseness to the city that I associate with the alleyways of Toronto (4). And odd, therefore, in that rather than being dark and furtive, they are concrete-hard, diamond-bright, more or less fully laid bare by force of full sunlight, and capped by a firmament of gem-hard blue. “The images have been inspired by some Salvador Dali paintings”, Klemm admitted in an email to me. “I wanted the photographs to be realistic in bright colours, with blue sky”. I was never entirely certain I understood what he meant by “realistic”. Hyper-realistic, maybe. Of course Vancouver’s realistic is more or less Toronto’s idealistic.
But what is decidedly more Dali-esque than realistic in the Back Alley photos, beyond the sharp, planar, high-noon shadows that everywhere define Klemm’s reading of the laneways, is the troubling presence, in many of them, of this aforementioned little girl. She isn’t in all of the photos, but when she does appear, she seems to be neither playing, nor waiting, nor lost. In one of the photos, she sits calmly on the edge of a red dump-bin, vaguely watching the progress down the alley towards her, of a dark car with its headlights burning like a cat’s eyes. In another, she gazes out at the viewer after having apparently wedged herself into the space between two close-leaning hydro poles. “This child, this white/pink mini-apparition, this micro-angel, is so profoundly unlikely in such settings”, I wrote in the Gallery Jones catalogue, “that, real or not, she becomes pure symbol.”
But of what? She is certainly Our Lady of Sudden Imposition. She is consequently a charming Embodiment of Disruption. And a visual irritant. And distancing device. In the Gallery Jones essay, I let myself be completely carried away and suggested she was a sort of photo-muse, Eric Klemm’s version of the Spirit of Photography: which was fanciful, but pleasing.
The B.C. Project—which is ongoing and various in its photographic valences—represents an epic engagement by the artist with the varieties of rural British Columbia experience. In every one of these photos—these incidental landscapes—the social has somehow or other extended itself into the theatre of the formerly unspoiled: the rich and multifarious B.C. wilderness, in Klemm’s reading of it, is everywhere compromised by intrusion.
What is rather odd about these photographs is that unlike, say, the vast-eyed, ubi sunt giganticism of the landscapes of a photographer such as Ed Burtynsky, who trades in a heroically-scaled and often theatrical lament for a polluted, tainted, irresponsible planet, the Eric Klemm of the B.C. Photos seems to possess a kind of sardonic objectivity, a wryly and perhaps darkly amused logging of the socially transitory—almost as the source of a kind of visual irritation.
It is instructive to compare one of Burtynsky’s Railcuts photographs (for example Railcuts #6, near Highway 8, Spences Bridge, British Columbia, 1985) (5) with Klemm’s photo of a disintegrating wooden bridge threaded like a needle through the crumbling mountainscape and falling away from that landscape the way a scab dries up and falls off the body. The Burtynsky is about a species of industrial hubris: it embodies a sense of awe, riddled with the forces of human arrogance writ large and pointless. The Klemm, by contrast, is a coffee-hued, colour-coordinated intimation of mortality, in which the disintegrating bridge comes off not as a demonstration of a thesis, but rather as visual stroke of luck, a photographic find, a remotely located emblem of…well, of what? Of the condition to which time brings all things?
Klemm’s B.C. work is, in fact, an oddly unsettling coming-together of surrealist ad-hoc-ness and a rather carefully controlled lamentation for the effects of time’s passing, or, equally—located within the idea of time’s passing—a prolonged lamentation for ineffectuality.
These are not kind photographs. The artist’s bleakly isolated and clearly failing New and Used Books/Tools shop, for example, comes across as little more than a chromatically intense outwash of stacked chairs, table-tops, birdhouses, and washing machines back-boarding a cracked asphalt lay-by, the whole tacky enterprise plunked down into the middle of an otherwise inarticulate plateau: the triumph of a sudden rush of mock specificity (the useless goods nobody wants) over the pastoral endlessness that is the surrounding landscape. It’s the same with his Garage Sale, where the hefty proprietress has plunked herself before the stand of detritus that makes up her unappetizing muster of wares to chat with a beefy motorcyclist (who is obviously not going to buy anything). A similar kind of wry lamentation haunts Klemm’s chilling little collage-like tableau of a mountain-cradled junkyard, where, in a moment of jarring impropriety (or so it seems to me), two small wrecked airplanes have been added to the conventional jumble of ruined and rusted cars. And it stalks the little gathering of apparently weary, ennui-filled or just plain bummed-out rustic revolutionaries made up of a young man and a young woman who wait passively for the arrival of a third party—now standing over at the right of the photograph—who seems to be bringing them a restorative bottle of ketchup. There is a bright blue, graphically crisp eye painted on a piece of cardboard tacked to a nearby tree that seems more alert than the actual people are. On the tent is emblazoned a crudely lettered sign that reads: “Join Peace Either You’re With Us Or You’re With the Terrorists”—a message that, like the staring eye, shows more vitality in its crude, direct execution than do the real characters in the photograph.
There is very little obvious sadness or regret or pity or compassion or identification on the part of the photographer in these eerily disturbing photographs. Only a kind of wonder at the otherness of the scenes before him—and, more specifically, a troubled distaste (passing, I think, as surrealist amusement) for these modalities of failed aspiration: T.S. Eliot’s “I will show you fear in a handful of dust”. Time and again, in photograph after photograph, within this ongoing B.C. Project, Klemm demonstrates the workings of what French sociologist and photo-theorist Pierre Bourdieu has termed “that attenuated disorientation that leads to the act of looking”. (6)
Nobody talks about alienation anymore, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone away. Given the fact that Klemm’s adult life has most assuredly not been spent in the same environment as his childhood (see Bourdieu, below), his concomitant “attenuated disorientation” leads him continually towards encounters with the world of fallen performance and unredeemable beauty. Travel itself erodes idealism and compromises aspiration (though not, disturbingly enough, the desire for them) (7).
Thus the rough poignancy of Klemm’s photographs of, for example, a desolate set of metal fast-food tables and chairs rusting away in the wilderness (the awful deliciousness of failure, the almost pornographic heat of it!), or a monument-like stack of tires sitting like some formerly significant votive structure—now hierarchically emptied and meaningless—on a golden plane. Such charged photographic vignettes appear to valorize pathos and, perhaps less generously (but more profoundly) bathos.
In our world of increasingly diminished expectations, Klemm’s peripatetic eye feeds tirelessly and often distressingly upon the ways culture clings by its fingernails to nature and on the ways nature inevitably shrugs it off. Initially, his photographs—the photographs of the B.C. Project in particular—appear to incarnate a supreme assurance on the part of the artist, an amused objectivity, an unflappability of vision tinctured with both satire and surrealism. In the end, of course, this rather glacial stance falters and regroups into an ongoing, indeed accelerating sadness—a prolonged meditation on the vanity of human wishes. The high imagistic specificity of his photographs—the isolated airport with the brave painted airplanes, the false heartiness of the “lumber barons” of the Victoria Lumber Mfg. Co. Ltd. Of Chemainus, B.C., the heraldic Japanese kite-face glowering at the approaching skateboarder—masks an all-pervasive sense, in the photographs, of the way the wellspring of our desires is invariably reconfigured by the imperatives of human limitation. Like Lord Byron, Klemm laughs so that he may not weep.
Gary Michael Dault
Toronto, October 11, 2005.