The Spirit of the Absent

  • An Essay on Time and Sight in the  Photo Projects of Stephan Kaluza  

Heinz-Norbert Jocks


Picture overview


Whether he photographs rivers like the Rhine or the Thames or, as most recently, the way along the intra-urban Berlin Wall after its fall, when only meagre remains or emblematic evidence bear witness to it, for Stephan Kaluza the act of photographing is connected to travel, or better yet to the exertion of being en route, and therefore also to the application of his own physicality. His photographic perception presumes a comprehensible movement of the object he approaches on foot from its beginning to its end. To all intents and purposes the motif here is also an afore-dictated alignment, insofar as it cannot, in entirety, be experienced from a single pos- ition, and even less from a standstill. However, it has less to do with following its course in stages than with condensing the complete visual appearance into a single overview without omissions and exclusions, and in such a way that it is not subject to any preconceived meaning. In short, Kaluza’s entire effort is directed towards a sight that is largely freed from formative influences, which aims for a totality encompassing all details. But the question of how this should be possible looms within one’s mind. With all this, the thing that matters to Kaluza is the stalemate of time, a nunc stans: that is to say, an eternity in the moment, and with it ultimately also a subtle aesthetic of continuity. Thereby he asks himself what we are actually seeing of the river which we stand before, or of the wall which once partitioned east from west, and of course he realizes that our object-oriented sight is a priori an incomplete and therefore not a full one. Yes, an infinite sight without borders, which embraces every tiny detail, sparing and excluding nothing, appears to be impossible, indeed even utopian under human conditions. As we can never remain everywhere concurrently, and while, in addition, we can only absorb as much in us as our eye is capable of capturing here and now, we can achieve no adequate overall picture of the phenomena which, thanks to their size or their dimensions, or due to their complexity, stretch far beyond our limited range of vision; we can always gain only partial impressions. Nevertheless, for us, quickly trans- lating images into ideas, they constitute the whole.  Apparently it is not granted to us to see everything in front of us at once, spread out like a complete portrait. Inevitably, a breakdown of the world into segments occurs, which we regard as completely natural. Yes, we tend, without being completely aware of it, towards a momentous reduction of complexity and, with it, a reduction or fragmentation, yes, a complete unsealing of the visible. This happens in light of what is actually present as well as when the real resides on the threshold of disappearance. If, for example, we were to guide a tourist who had never before seen the Berlin Wall past and along its last remnants and ruined remains, the still visible part scanned by his eyes would indeed refer to the absent, but without evoking its appearance for him. The speaker is silent. Altogether, as the phenomenologist of cognition Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes, sight is “nothing more than holding something at distance” and is insofar a silent form of capturing the outer world. Whoever sees excises what interests or appeals to him, or what he can somehow relate to from the excess which appears. Yes, he draws upon the visible in such a way that it is more readily dealt with by, and available to, him, so he becomes the centre of the world. Effortlessly, through reduction, he trims it to a manageable size. The rest appears as if extinguished. What we perceive, de facto, is always only limited to a small detail of space within a short episode of time. In order to make a completed image for oneself of what evades us in our spatial expansiveness we must interweave the already seen with what is not directly in front of our eyes. The pure then skips into a synthesizing as well as fantasizing sight. Thereby a connection takes place between inner and outer perception.  The borders of everyday sight shortly marked here also apply to photography in a certain way. Since not everything can be confined to one picture at the same time, as soon as we frame a detail we deconstruct the world into numerous individual parts. In doing so we make them familiar or subject to us, through attaching more attention as well as meaning to what we photograph than to what we mask or ignore in the process. Through this alone photography gains more presence, because we impose upon it our human dimensions. With gentle force, as it were, we constrain it in the unsuitable format of the rectangle. At the same time, the framing emphasizes what sinks outside in the wide sea of all-quantifying indifference. However, what is found beyond the rectangle either falls from view or becomes a victim of neglect. While in the determining details we make a subjective choice, which filters out the essential for us, we rob reality – which ultimately fits in no frame because it is out of proportion to all frames – not only of its context, but also of its infinite density as well as its immense richness. In addition, we confuse the small detail which we look upon with the whole which flees from us. With the aid of photography, which atomises what it has collected, extorting a simplification, we transform the perceived into the easily recognizable, into clichés and stereotypes, and therefore into something all too striking, which blinds us inside. Furthermore, it urges us to a judgement or evaluation of what is seen, as if it were thereby arrested or done with. We separate the (for us) impenetrable world of appearances into beautiful and ugly, into central and marginal, into important and unimportant, into that which is heavy with meaning and that which is futile. In the framework of this schematising, which subtracts from the visible, we imagine that we can distil the essence or the quintessence, yes, the nature of what we have captured. On the one hand there are things which brightly appeal to us, and on the other hand those which leave us untouched or indifferent, and furthermore, things which repel us. Our thoroughly anthropocentric perception can apparently be neither deceived nor de-subjectified.  Furthermore, automatically, as if it were not possible otherwise, we subject that of which we do not immediately have an overview to a temporal sequence of succession. Thereby, the now is preceded by a before, so that an after can follow. The concept of a time dynamic becomes effective here. Tearing apart what actually belongs together, it adds together the previously seen picture of the past, the one currently viewed in the present and the following one of the future. Thus the Berlin Wall, which, before its fall into nothingness, drew itself through two social systems as a razor-sharp dividing line, could never have been completely present to us in the same moment, here and now. For everything which does not show itself to us at once only opens up to us a posteriori as a loose addition of moments. In the process, one moment joins another and even before this happens the previously seen already threatens to vanish. Everything but pure visualisation, or sight, passes into memory.  Whoever now wants to see how and where the  45 kilometre long and nearly 3.5 metre high wall once ran, in order to assure themselves of it as an entity, must actually set out the way Stephan Kaluza resolved to do – and did for his project. On the contrary, whoever merely fixes his gaze on a section without moving from the spot misses the rich diversity of the whole. Through the image of the Berlin Wall that he creates for himself, he forgets the fact that what stretches before him is, compared with the whole, only a ridiculously small portion which ultimately imparts a limited, and therefore false, impression of everything, because this section is completely incapable of being representative. He provides the seen with an indication for something which is to be considered visually significantly more complex, varied and differentiated than that which his eye just noticed. Along the way one thing becomes evident: the border, reaching from north to south, furnished with death strips, appears all at once in the photography of Kaluza to have become a more and more built-up, gradually negated inter-space after its destruction. In the middle of the city it appears as a foreign object to which something confusing adheres. Because of this the viewer is initially perplexed, and then arises the unavoidable question: why so many open spaces have been retained or formed in the centre of a metropolis. What may have happened there, where emptiness has broken into the noisy urbanity? Yes, what is the meaning of this eye-catching break between urban fullness and sudden emptiness which is gradually filling up again? There, where it was once closely covered with buildings, is now a deserted area on which occasionally a lone house stands, as if cut out and completely without context and relations; there is a free view on the undisguised landscape. In the face of the photographic work of Kaluza, anyone who knows nothing of German history, nothing of the German partition, will puzzle over the oddity which has apparently occurred here. The half-way historically aware person, in contrast, catches the scent of a concrete trail. Although it is immaterial over far stretches, the absence of something is perceptible there. But what forces this impression upon him? Yes, how indeed is it possible to tap into something no longer really existent with the help of photography – completely dedicated to the visible – so that the no-longer-existent nevertheless addresses us? Multiple aspects intertwine here. On the one hand there is the strong penetration of the view of the photographer, looking
 over from west to east, which either appears to insist there is something there which can be discovered, or, acting as if the wall were still standing, repeats the western view to the east as if asking the question of how the current conditions were over there. On the other hand there is the collective know- ledge of the partition or fragmentation of Germany by the Allies after the war, into zones occupied by the victors, as well as the Wall erected by the Russians which was to become the symbol of German post-war history. That something there has disappeared in or from the landscape is also apparent through the fact that occasionally hoardings, posters with capitalistic messages and hedges, standing at the same height as the former wall, have taken over the role of substitutes. The view of the photographer appears there as if tracking alongside something which has fled into the invisible and nevertheless has settled itself somewhere in between.



The Emptiness in the Midst of Urbanity

In the face of the distinctiveness emanating from the inter-spaces, which cannot be dissolved just like that, it is also striking that the enormous empty lots arising from the demolition of the wall close here more slowly and there more quickly. The empty spaces are built up more rapidly in the centre of Berlin than on the outskirts of the city, and the more one removes oneself from the city centre, the greener and wider the areas become. There, too, where hoardings mark the former course of the Wall, an array of transition zones between centre and periphery predominate. Therefore the design of the fences transformed into advertising media, which have advanced into the place of the Wall as if to refer to it, is more elaborate within the city centre than outside it. Such structural features can indeed be read out of  the ensemble of the photographed with certain unambiguousness. However, the discovery of these empty spaces, which allow the glaring opposition or juxtaposition of obstructed and unobstructed landscapes, is by no means a primary goal of this art, for which, as will  be further elucidated, photography serves as a vehicle for a different understanding of time.  With vehemence, through his concept of a documentary-oriented photography aimed at totality, Kaluza pursues the intention of escaping the determination of perception which can never ever do justice to the entire magnitude of the zigzagging Wall. Realizing what does not work in everyday sight, he prepares himself to become a person who transcends borders, bestowing on us a new vision. The beautiful utopia of an object-totalising perception follows the open course of a conceptual phenomenology. If his interest before was to here capture a river from its source  to its mouth and there a once-surrounded island, so completely that nothing is suppressed or omitted and neither is anything particularly emphasized; rather everything is documented with as equal care as possible, so that the sought-after object of his photographic vision of existing reality was truly in the world, and therefore, truly present. Already in these early works he did not leave it at presenting one photo after the other (that is, consecutively) in order to document the time-consuming journey along a motif. Instead, he fused all of them together so that the numerous photos became one picture and the countless moments a single one. Thereby the transition between the individual photos was blurred or refined so that nothing refers anymore to the process of making, and to the fact that in reality  it has to do not with a moment captured in standing, but rather with a travelled period, which, compressed into a single picture, now acts on us like a frozen present. Yes, the seamless reproduction of the appearance on the photographic paper leads one to forget that a mountain of photos arose parallel to the total length of the river. Even if shot one after each other, they were subsequently collaged together into a single harmonic image, and in such a way that it led neither to a tightening nor a reduction of space. From the outset, Kaluza was concerned with the production of a picture which would present one’s eyes with the Rhine from beginning to end: that is, in its entirety, and thereby create something which is actually impossible for the human eye to perceive, yet is realisable in a digital way. As if it were the most matter-of-fact thing on earth and not at all unusual, the river and island appear there in their uncurtailed extension on a continually drifting horizontal line. The picture which stretches before us horizontally, shortened only through the fact that the motif has been reduced to the scale of the photograph, contains absolutely everything sighted during the march along the Rhine. Nothing is missing and everything appears as present, as is only possible in photography. Neither retouching nor embellishments were undertaken, nor was any aestheticisation carried out. No, what is noticeable there is the cool and the demure – better yet, the soberness of an unstoppable will to an ultimately still impossible objectification of sight, which always maintains the same distance to its subject. A zooming in is just as much out of question here as a displacement further away there. This stubbornly held distance to the motif ensures that the impression is never imposed upon us that something is in opposition to something else placed in the picture with a specific intention, or preconceived with increased attention, especially emphasized or pushed aside into insignificance. No, the vision does not accept any preferences. As far as it can be possible, Kaluza behaves equally attentively towards everything. Now virtually everything which has been said here about the Rhine project can also be unreservedly applied to the Wall project, with the small difference that the evocation concerns absence. All in all, one could hold that Kaluza does everything he can to suspend that which Roland Barthes labelled “punctum”. For, with him, there is nothing which lingers on to the extent that it could be singled out, and therefore there is also no search for a detail or for something which calls to us at the edges of our mind like an unintentional memory. A reading of the “punctum” which, despite all its directness, only reveals itself in retrospect, and which is ultimately an addition of the observer which the photo nevertheless contains, seems to become meaningless in a certain way. Nor is an indication of something particular, which should imprint itself on our memory, apparent anywhere. The field of that which can be seen is quantitatively so broad that an enumeration of the things to be seen would proliferate into the inflationary. It would also be impossible to tackle it linguistically. Yes, from the start this photography appears not to be made, so that we search for something in it which could be decoded. One only sees what one sees. There, nothing more, and also nothing less, is up for debate.

The Will to Totalisation

Even when the quality of the photography is not consistently good, because the body of the photographer, not being a machine, suffers symptoms of fatigue along the way which lead to varying degrees of concentration, nevertheless the artist’s eye follows the paradoxical concept of an all-integrating totalisation with unending stubbornness. The dependence of photography on the state of the body which subjects itself to exertions is expressed in the stronger concentration here, and the weaker there. However, this body-dependent oscillation between cursoriness and concentration does not lead to any real favouritism or qualification of things within the picture. This is also not intentional. In contrast, the subjectivity has less to do with the display and interpretation of the details upon which meanings are foisted than with the construction of another view, which struggles for “totality, to capture a complex setting or a complex object”.1 There, neither pretty views nor absurd angles of something are to be isolated or removed from the whole. The only thing that counts is the organic synopsis, which has more weight than the mass of details which ultimately compose the whole. This total view, fixed to nothing, touching upon everything, begins to test the receptiveness of the observer in the moment that he strikes out on an examination of details. At the same time, everything is captured in the picture with the greatest possible objectivity, so that everything small is retained in the larger whole and has found its regular place there. The renunciation of a recovery or designation of details is inscribed on this project in a certain way. While whoever wants to can occupy himself scanning the complete surface, the artwork itself neither advises this nor makes it a duty.  In addition, the digital editing of photos, as well as the falsity of adding things to reality, was taboo. The special, the general, the particular, the specific, the unusual, the typical, the other or the ideal are also cat- egories to which this photography is not constrained. Here, what we have visually before us is just that which Kaluza came across while photographing. Therefore he neither waited for the moment when the light was the best for the sake of perfection, nor did he remove any hindrances which disturbed the view. He also did not search for the best location from where the motif would be illuminated as more beautiful, more inviting, more interesting, odder, more unusual or more significant. And passersby were no more prevented from entering the picture than things were removed which obstructed the view. Everything was left as it was at the moment the photograph was taken. Instead of capturing the similarity of everything, the sight of the photographer approached the wide scale of diversity and difference
 in as unbiased a way as possible. And random objects which found their way before the lens appear less as incidental decorations welcomed into the picture than as oblique things at its edge. Like something unavoidable blown into the picture, they confirm our suppos- ition that the photographer encounters what he espies along the Wall’s path with calm indifference, or better yet with a certain lack of excitement, as if that which stands opposite him does not change in the least that which he is envisioning. Absolutely nothing has importance, in the sense that one thing would be more important than another. Everything is an equally suitable image, because it is there, part of reality as it presented itself to the photographer at the moment when he decided to press the button. He takes no pleasure in a hierarchisation of individual components which combine into a unit in the picture. Yes, people who suddenly pass into the picture are even cut out in such a way as if the photographer had shot blindly and without fear of awkward cuts. In doing so the artist only maintained his temporal rhythm in the photographing of the Wall, which had the result that, for example, heads, arms or legs of passersby were simply shaved off. Through this the total photograph receives the character of a snapshot in contrast to a styled look. Surprisingly, it is apparent that as soon as the heterogeneous becomes part of the picture, it gains its own aesthetic. It is the experience of Kaluza that even ugly, boring, repellent or uninviting stretches of way, which insult the eye, as it were, receive a kind of attractiveness contrary to expectations in the luminous moment in which they become a picture. The images of reality, which provide us with more misery than beauty, are transformed in their look and feel through the fact that they are conceptually framed.  Additionally, this is also about a search for truth from the perspective of an artist who wants to resist the pull of the black hole of his own subjectivity by binding the what and how of photography more to the object of his choice than to his personal vision. Through the fact that, in the case of the Rhine as well as the Berlin Wall, he employs clichés to single out disguised motives, yes, everyday German myths, he increases the degree of difficulty of satisfying his desire for a totality of seeing. Yet how does he manage to photograph the Rhine or the Wall in such a way that among viewers there are no flashes of those déjà-vus which can put an end to art? No doubt because he focuses on the diversity of that which the sight of the Wall or the Rhine offers as a whole. By placing the so-called highlights back from where they were originally plucked, rather than sprucing them up, he mixes them together with the less striking and the (in many ways) withered. In a certain manner a neutralisation occurs which is incidentally far removed from homogenisation, and thereby also another view which eludes clichés. One could say that the things there have been robbed of the signal effect which draws the gaze towards them. For it is as if one were avoiding those perceptions which have always prompted a concrete image and therefore provoked something like a narrowing of vision. Thus, because a large amount of photographs have here been transformed into a single one, not only one central perspective which provides an order of appearances is effective, but also a whole series of central perspectives, which prevent a clear regulation of our gaze. David Hockney already appropriated this trick in his pictures of the Grand Canyon, put together as a puzzle of thousands of Polaroids. With neither the Englishman nor with Kaluza do we feel ourselves drawn into a periphery-bounded centre, but rather we are encouraged to an infinite sight which coincides with another definition of time. With his decision to make the Berlin Wall – which went down in history as the symbol of a divided Germany – the object of his art after its demolition, Kaluza radicalizes his concept of a different notion of time and space. In this concrete case his attention is not directed at any real appearance, nor at remains or traces which testify to “before”. Unlike Hilla and Bernd Becher, instead of undertaking the detective’s task of securing evidence, aimed at immortalizing something which will soon no longer exist, instead of feeling obligated to such a serial form of melancholic memory preservation, he aspires to something which, in a certain way, photography contradicts. More like a painter than a photographer, with the spirit of the absent Wall, Kaluza wants to capture something not visible. As he says, he wants to prove “that the principle of compression of something complex is not just applicable to landscape phenomena, but also transferable to purely spiritual things.”2 If photography is programmed to endlessly reproduce something which once existed, and if it is also capable of making things which no longer exist and people who are no longer alive, that is, something absent, visually as present as if it were still there, then Kaluza also has confidence that this medium can furthermore eternalize not only something physical or material. He is also convinced it can supply the spirit of the absent with an invisible presence. We have already indicated how he succeeds at this.  What is now still missing at the end of this essay  is a link to the usage of time in Kaluza’s photographic projects. For him there is no progress in time, nothing which comes from the future, and certainly no past. At heart, he constructs an external time completely arrested in the present, with the help of his own or individual time. By amalgamating all photographic moments so that they appear as a single one, he creates the grandest “illusion of a snapshot”.3 He makes concurrent what in reality was not concurrent. Since individual sections of the Wall were photographed in different seasons, and because this is also obviously reflected in the light conditions of the exposures which he arranges together in a single picture, an eternal standstill of a time-stream accompanying all four seasons is achieved. As the image no longer exhibits any edges, it could continue endlessly to the right as well as to the left. The beginning and the end are only determined through the fact the Wall has its own boundaries. One could say that the length of a river or the Wall is completely documented, thanks to the time the photographer has summoned up for it. The compression of the spatial complex without loss of space, this totalisation accumulated in one image, runs parallel to the visualisation of the course of a year in the form of leaps in time. Of course, this sight is a construct, but one which functions so well on the visual level that it simultaneously sets our thought processes in motion, and contains something of a utopia which appears so believable in the image that it causes our sense of time to waver. The present, which knows neither period nor comma, pours itself into the infinite and in doing so loses its melancholic streak. Yet behind it lurks the artist’s fear of a time not used well enough.  1–3 Stephan Kaluza in a conversation with the author, May 2009.


Walking the Line

By David Galloway