Stephan Reusse 2003-1983
In rendering visible what refuses to be caught by visibility, Art has always been able to get off the ground, no matter whether it was serving the purposes of society or experimenting with horizons of its own choosing. Even when Art ran through a phase labelled as „naturalism“ or „realism“, only a few artists would identify with Hippolyte Taine’s, the famous historian’s, postulate that in describing empirical reality, the narrator ought to deny his own existence. To analyse and to apply the laws of visual perception for their own ends was their ambition. They were not content to simulate the visible on a plain surface. In earlier epochs of Western culture they exalted the ideal appearance of the human body in both a physical and a metaphysical sense. In the Middle ages they represented the heavenly salvation of the virtuous and the torments of hell inflicted on the damned in luminous colours and in the most graphic manner. At that, the description of hell produced in many cases the more convincing results; probably because the empirical experience of the times acted as a stimulant on the artist’s imagination. Only when rulers sent ambassadors to sound possibilities of marriage did they enjoin it on the painter accompanying them that he was to represent the prospective bride as close to nature as possible and under no circumstances after the usual manner of court portraits. In such cases, the ruler wished to arrive at his own well-founded judgment. Such simulacra were not considered in terms of artistic value, and only few have survived. Nonetheless, the question of the difference between image and simulacrum laid the ground for the polemic, carefully sustained far into the post-modern era, which concerns the question whether or not artistic value should be conceded to photography – although modernism had started when photography had added a technological variant to and extended the spectrum of traditional worlds of imagery.
The remark that Stephan Reusse, in his more often than not large-scaled images, is crossing the borders of the visible, entering regions that have so far been closed to the visual sense, gets close to the point; but it means more or less the same as saying that an athlete possesses a particularly well-developed set of muscles. It is no less banal to note that the artist uses the most recent technology available to achieve his purpose, in this case the most advanced kind of thermography, a medium which captures the thermal impulses of living bodies through several relays, transposing them into the repertory of the Visual. As a matter of fact, practically all through the history of art the right technology was always at the artists‘ disposal when it was needed; they adapted it to their handiwork, so to speak, shaping it according to their intentions. Many modern technologies are the fruit of war and belong to the kind of technological breakthroughs that it usually engenders, and many found their most important destiny only in wartime, like photography. Video and the internet were technologies that belonged at first and exclusively to the military machinery. Thermography directs surgeons before and during difficult operations, but it directs flying bombs to their precise targets as well. And in earlier times, victors in battle were described as masters in the Art of War.
Reusse’s images are almost entirely free of such bellicistic desires. But the possibilities that are made accessible by the immanent aims alone, of the technologies he employs, are playing a dominating role in his art – or rather, they are the real object of his extensive experiments with technological and electronic media, while the themes of his images often serve as a pretext to make these aims appear. His manner of treating visual media is neither without premises nor naive. Both his special way of appropriating them and the choice of the models represented lead the eye towards the salient point, towards the specificity of the medium employed, that is. All this has a decisive influence on what is shown in his images and is of consequence for their content and substance, illuminating the artistic purpose as well for which it is used. It may have been a considerable stimulus to Reusse’s artistic thinking that he studied at Kassel (1981 to 1986) at the time when the „Fotoforum Kassel“, the circle around Floris Neusüss and Renate Heyne, provided a critical appreciation of the images of modern mass communication and their consequences for society, involving a continually changing number of national and foreign artists, photographers and scientists.
A significant part of the manner in which photography makes its appearance is the fact that loss is its unrelinquishable theme, that it inescapably fixes something that is past in the guise of an apparent presence, that presently-absent things are given a definite and tangible reality. The photographic image is testimony, document only in that it gives credibility to this paradoxical relationship. Stephan Reusse carries this „Noema“ (Roland Barthes) of photography to an extreme by allowing the photographic medium to represent circumstances which cannot be represented by the means of photography alone. The photographic image of an empty bed represents nothing but an empty bed, and only the crumpled sheets provide an indication of the fact that someone has stayed there some time before, while there is no means of delimiting the time-span more closely – provided that the scene has not been arranged for the benefit of photography in any case. In the artist’s thermographies, however, the shape of the body becomes visible which has been lying in the bed, and the more quickly the image is made after it has got up from the bed, the more pregnant are its traces. In the image a sort of shadow remains although the „real“ shadow has long been gone. Real? The cloudy shadow in the thermographic image is no less real (or unreal) as the shadow in a photographic image – or the shadow thrown by a body in strong light.
These different shadows are the result of different physical processes, in this case: of the different wavelenghts of light and warmth. Reusse uses an apparature for his thermographies that is capable of transposing invisible thermal rays into visible forms and to describe them in a colour scheme reaching from white to blue. Warmth is represented by red and cold as blue, according to the sensual values that painting had already associated with these colours. The extremes, this comes as no surprise, are white and black. „Infra-red emissions of warm bodies the temperature of which amounts to less than 300 degrees Celsius must first be transformed into visible light by means of an electronic image processor before they can be registered on photographic materials“.1 This necessitates a corresponding sensor. The transformation of phenomena, which are inaccessible to the human senses without mediating mechanisms, is one of the most significant achievements of modernism. At that, a tendency increasingly takes shape that privileges the sense of vision over the other senses. To arrive at a precise differentiation of voices, their resonances are transformed into graphic sequences as well. Termography translates sensations into optical signals – at least in principle since what it describes goes beyond the capacity of the sense of touch. „We see what we did not feel by touching it“.2
In a thermographic video about nocturnal football games, the participants of which want to play in the dark and not under strong floodlights as in commercial sports, the double shadows of the players appear as moving elements in the image. The thermographic one stays behind while the other, the photographic one, has already left its position. At moments of rest, the thermal shadow caches up with it. While the moment of the absently-present in photographic images is a conceptual problem, and while it is imaginable only because the absent, each time it is looked at, is actualized once more, although it takes the form of the figure in the image, the absently-present in thermographic images is realized as difference. In both cases, however, it arrives in the arrested state of „it-has-been“ (Barthes). Time is watched at work. “ The thermograph registers difference in a special way. Only through the transformation into a photographic image, however, the visualized data registered by the sensor become a sensation once more.“ 3 The thermal image extends the reach of photography to a territory which was hidden before. „A mediatic process of translation is made accessible to the eye which as a rule is reserved as a privilege to perception through skin, sensation and touch“.4 On the other hand, however, the bodies and objects evolving in Reusse’s thermographic images via the optical optimization of thermal data, are lacking a precision of detail that is a matter of course wih genuinely photographic images. Instead of an almost overwhelming mass of details, vibrating silhouettes are seen, spectral appearances without any fixed place on the image’s surface, without even the slightest trace of plastic substance. The artist himself convincingly alludes to his works as „thermovisions“. Through this term he conjures up a magical dimension, kindling concepts of magical imagery which find an even greater resonance in he imagination of the viewer, no matter how little they are justified by the technological process generating the image, in that they touch areas of subconscious memory.
In „Wolves“, a particularly impressive series of his works, Reusse tightens the knot between conscious and subconscious vision even more closely than elsewhere. At the same time, he sheds light on the hidden mediatic involvement of his art, with a thoroughness that is disturbing. In the collective memory of cultures living with the presence of wolves, their appearance excites fear. Menacing beasts of prey that at night will break into the pens of domestic animals to shed their blood. One of a few exceptions to this rule is the founding myth of the Roman empire. The legendary ancestors of the city, Romulus and Remus, were described as orphans saved from death by a she-wolf by which they were nourished. In Christian mythology, wolves are the primary embodiment of evil. Take Matthew 7,15, for instance: „Beware of false prophets that come to you clothed as sheep but are like rapacious wolves inside.“ The wolf is a symbol of the devil. „In the cycle of virtues and vices, the wolf is associated with rapacity and insubordination.“5 Not a good hand for a profitable game of existence. To eradicate the wolfen population was the pragmatic consequence, motivated more strongly by a demonization which turned reality into myth. On the other hand there is a certain ambivalence. Adolf Hitler liked to be called „Uncle Wolf“ by children, and his military headquarters bore names that linked them to the wolf-myth, „Wolfsschanze“ for instance. In the meantime, wolves have themselves become a menaced species, and turning up in places where they were no longer believed to live, they are welcomed rather than killed at sight. Most people living in modern countries know wolves only from zoological gardens or game preserves.
Why at all take wolves as protagonists of a series of his works? Stephan Reusse vaguely explains this by saying that to him, they seem to be the „bad conscience of Man“. His knowledge about them gets its urgency from talking about wolves rather than from actually looking at them. This could be the reason why many images of the „wolves“-series, which are sometimes linked in combinations of two or three, are echoing with references that have drifted into the spheres of the imaginary or the subconscious. At the dead of night, the artist tracks the elusive animal, and it is the view-finder of his camera that tells him when a wolf is getting close. He is unable to see it with his naked eye alone. This requires absolute quiet on his part since the beast would otherwise take notice of him and flee immediately. Reusse’s places of observation are game preserves. Zoological gardens were of no use since the wolves there did hardly ever move, and he had no intention to do „portraits“ of them. Curiosity, of course, impels him to hunt wolves by means of a thermocamera, as well as a desire to capture an image of such an extraordinarily wary creature which in its own habitat, at daylight and without precaution could hardly ever be tracked. But in his work, curiosity in itself is more urgent than the object providing these images with a particularly double-edged intensity.
In these large-scale images, thermography expresses a characteristic of photography which is of secondary importance in all cases of stage photography, but is nonetheless part of its mediatic structure: the secret vison, to see without being seen. Inside the dark space of the „Camera obscura“, the precursor of the photographic camera which functions after its principle even now, the voyeur was protected against discovery, while the elongated tubes of their telephoto lenses provided the „paparazzi“ (Federico Fellini) with the necessary distance for hunting their „prey“, the so-called VIPs of the glamour world, without being recognized and in a way like snipers. Thermography once again covers the hunter with a veil of darkness, while in the viewfinder of his infrared-camera, it simultaneously brings light to this darkness so that the night no longer protects the targeted objects, and he is enabled to catch his prey without difficulty.
The metaphors of hunting, at times with a positive, at others with a negative connotation, accompany photography from the time that „fast cameras“ were put on the market and „snapshots“ permitted to break into the continuity of time. Stephan Reusse’s images allow the viewer to participate in this seemingly mysterious action, they become silent accomplices of the hunt, like the readers of the yellow press who are the silent accomplices of the paparazzi which they condemn in their bigotted self-righteousness at the moment that they actually finish off their victim. In a way, Reusse psychologizes the camera and its images. Susan Sontag’s reproach, made with a tongue in her cheek, that the photographer taking the picture of a man being shot could have prevent the execution if he had intervened, provides fresh nourishment for thermography in its practical (and non-artistic) application in war. Reusse’s fascinating series of wolf images contains one which might be regarded as a key-image. Apart from a light spot, nothing is seen. Obviously, this is an abstract photograph. But the spot signals a prolongated presence of a wolf that stayed there before it moved on. Its visible shadow is gone, but the shadow cast by its bodily warmth testifies to its former presence and gives the hunt for the animal its immediate occasion.
This is a fictitious hunt; a hunt furthermore that takes place on artificial ground, on a terrain that has been created by man as a replacement for the „wilderness“, where the original living conditions of animals are simulated without renouncing to control being exercized over them. Stage and technology of these images correspond, and in these „thermovisions“, the animals encounter the viewer as spectres. Digital elaboration enhances the artificial effect of the images. When warmth fills the natural ambiance, from spring into the autumn, there is less contrast, at the high time of summer they disappear almost completely, and the spectral reflexes of wolves melt into their surroundings. The animals become almost invisible again. Sometimes only their eyes pierce through the shadow. The same happens at daylight. Cold and darkness are the appropriate companions of the thermograph. It is not at all unnatural that cold and darkness are the appropriate background for ghost stories as well, paradoxically heating up the imagination. Earlier on, the artist has been busy with „ghost photography“, a genre which explodes all borders of photographic-esthetic reflection although it is well-founded in the „alchemy“ of photographic image development. The monster of Loch Ness can be rationally explained as an error in the photographic emulsion, but it is visibly present as an apparition in the photographic image. Reusse has extensively experimented with the components of the developing process, for instance with the latent image which the photographic plate or film contains after exposure, and which it does not reveal bfore it is dipped in the developing bath. He developed the latent image after the usual procedure, making it disappear afterwards, to finally reactivate it again. In another series of works, he replaced the developer by urine, making appear images by means of his own and other artist colleagues‘ body fluid, and together with the sculptor Harry Kramer he created „Pissflowers“, images resembling musty botanic illustrations from the early stages of the history of photography. By means of the infra-red camera he has taken photographs of empty rooms, rooms in which he had passed a time before the image was taken or from which he had taken chairs or mysterious boxes, one, two, three minutes later, where he discovers strange coagulations of form or form structures as in the paintings of Mark Rothko, and he has frozen into a fixed simulacrum such an intangible matter as breath.
By means of various machines – thermocamera, computer, photographic laboratory – Stephan Reusse realizes spectacular images; they have won a territory for the visual which earlier on remained closed, where vision and feeling are united on a plane of vivid perception and the continuity of the monocausal flow of time is blended with the discontinuity of complex movements. It could also be claimed that the artist has succeeded in representing that mysterious fluid which Walter Benjamin has described as being both far away and close at hand: Aura. A third image of bodies and things after the factual presence has passed away just as is shadow. However reduced the formal repertory of these images may appear, their visual structure is of an astonishing variety. The dimension of plasticity shows several degrees. In the works of Stephan Reusse, images are consciously alluded to images that escape visual evidence. In those photographic works that result from the collaboration with other artists, his ideas are crossed over with theirs in the guise of ironically accentuated projections: the conceptual painter Rune Mields inside the goalposts of a football field; Rosemarie Trockel and Marcel Odenbach, in whose artwork the reality of media images are explored, having a picnic on the green; the painter Rob Schulte, who after an atrocious accident was forced to have his legs amputated, at the check-in counter of an airline with suitcase and shoes set in front of it; Jürgen Klauke as a mischievious poltergeist … While every photographic image is already the result of stage directions in that its frame produces a chosen situation, this effect is multiplied in the „artist portraits“ where photography itself, the initiator and the protagonists are all involved. Such monumental images, on the other hand, like the one in which a considerable crowd is assembled on a rock, are „reproduced images that I have seen“6 (Reusse) and must therefore be understood as document of the staging of souvenir images.
„The specific quality of the photographic work of Stephan Reusse originates from dialogic processes of aperture“.7 His images tell us that the photographic material does not represent reality, contrary to what is usually assumed, but forms it, creating a phantastic plane of projection for the power of the imagination. After all, „camera obscura“ and „laterna magica“ function after the same mechanic principle. The presumptive „government of truth“ (John Tagg) of photography is revealed in his „phantastic“ images as the screen for a vagabond kind of imagination.
- Hugo Schöttle. DuMont’s Lexikon der Fotografie, Cologne 1978, p. 285.
- Wolfgang Hahn. Vom Urknall zur Aura, in: Cat. Stephan Reusse, Munich 1996, p. 25.
- Siegfried Zielinski. Wolfsbilder, in: Cat. Stephan Reusse. Leaving Shadows, Vienna 2002.
- Op. Cit.
- Lexikon Christliche Kunst, Freiburg im Breisgau 1980, p. 338.
- Stephan Reusse, during a conversation with the author.
- Marietta Franke. Dialogische Öffnungsprozesse. Zu Fotoarbeiten von Stephan Reusse, in: Cat. Stephan Reusse, Munich 1996, p. 4.