Design Observer

About
Books
Job Board
Newsletters
Archive
Contact



Observatory

About
Resources
Submissions
Contact


Featured Writers

Michael Bierut
William Drenttel
John Foster
Jessica Helfand
Alexandra Lange
Mark Lamster
Paul Polak
Rick Poynor
John Thackara
Rob Walker


Departments

Advertisement
Audio
Books
Collections
Dear Bonnie
Dialogues
Essays
Events
Foster Column
From Our Archive
Gallery
Interviews
Miscellaneous
New Ideas
Opinions
Partner News
Photos
Poetry
Primary Sources
Projects
Report
Reviews
Slideshows
The Academy
Today Column
Unusual Suspects
Video


Topics

Advertising
Architecture
Art
Books
Branding
Business
Cities / Places
Community
Craft
Culture
Design History
Design Practice
Development
Disaster Relief
Ecology
Economy
Education
Energy
Environment
Fashion
Film / Video
Food/Agriculture
Geography
Global / Local
Graphic Design
Health / Safety
History
Housing
Ideas
Illustration
India
Industry
Info Design
Infrastructure
Interaction Design
Internet / Blogs
Journalism
Landscape
Literature
Magazines
Media
Museums
Music
Nature
Obituary
Other
Peace
Philanthropy
Photography
Planning
Poetry
Politics / Policy
Popular Culture
Poverty
Preservation
Product Design
Public / Private
Public Art
Religion
Reputations
Science
Shelter
Social Enterprise
Sports
Sustainability
Technology
Theory/Criticism
Transportation
TV / Radio
Typography
Urbanism
Water


Comments (3) Posted 04.21.11 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Rick Poynor

Wim Wenders' Strange and Quiet Places



Wim Wenders, Moscow Back Yard, C-print, 2006

The German film director
Wim Wenders’ latest exhibition of photographs has an irresistible title — Places, strange and quiet — but I still went along with mixed feelings. In my 20s, I counted films such as Alice in the Cities, Kings of the Road and The American Friend among my favorites. Wenders was the European maestro of the road movie, his postwar generation’s consciousness colonized, as he would often remind us, by American culture. In 1986, at the Pompidou Center in Paris, I saw Wenders’ first exhibition of photographs, Written in the West, American street scenes shot while scouting locations for Paris, Texas, and adored it.

Now I’m better acquainted with the street photographs of color picture pioneers like Stephen Shore and William Eggleston, Wenders’ photos, published as a book in 1987, don’t look quite so special, though his loving shots of run-down movie theaters in Arizona, boarded-up cafes in New Mexico and deserted street corners in Texas retain their interest as documents of what might by now be lost (or renovated) buildings. When the sun pours down like honey, even economic inertia and squalor can look ravishing and cherishable. Meanwhile, and more significantly, Wenders appeared to lose his way as a film-maker, as even the director himself was prepared to acknowledge. It no longer felt as pressing to keep up with his latest projects.

But career comebacks do happen and Wenders’ 3D documentary about the distinguished German choreographer Pina Bausch has been gaining some rapt reviews. The arrival of Places, strange and quiet in the palatial setting of the Haunch of Venison gallery in London, a space once occupied by the Museum of Mankind, adds to the sense that Wenders is experiencing what Sight & Sound magazine calls, in its latest issue, a “third coming.” 


Wim Wenders, Cemetery in the City, Tokyo, C-print, 2008

The exhibition includes some early black-and-white prints that predate Written in the West, but the main event is 34 color pictures mostly taken on Wenders’ travels in the past six years. All of the C-prints are big, which is now routine for art photography, and several of these manifestly cinematic panoramas are huge — 15 feet wide — and easily able to dominate entire walls. Nevertheless, I was only moderately engaged in the early rooms, unable to find any momentous revelation in Wenders’ blank, eventless pictures of Japan, or in his occasional photographs of people (tourists, a rodeo clown, a policeman), usually observed from behind; the shots feel diffident, desultory and under-composed.

These massive pictures work best when they serve Wenders’ painterly eye. So much contemporary color photography is neutrally descriptive, offering a bland, flat, digital obviousness. Intensely expressive color gives Wenders’ most involving images a super-reality that becomes an aspect of their strangeness and quietness. On the roof of a skyscraper in São Paolo, waiting for a helicopter taxi, he notices the spectacularly vivid greens of the air-conditioning units — something soft, green, alien and slightly alarming is growing inside, around one of the rims. In a secluded back yard in Moscow, he chances upon a framed painting of a stag done in orange, green and yellow, which is in curious, almost too perfect harmony with the walls and fallen leaves. In a Hopperesque return to an empty street corner in Butte, Montana, he finds broad strokes of yellow, ochre, brown, pale green and blue; at this inflated, painterly scale, every last brick registers as a lustrous dab of pigment.


Wim Wenders, Street Corner in Butte, Montana, C-print, 2003

Wenders prefers to shoot in the open air, taking in the whole scene and generally avoiding close-ups. In the only recent shot of an interior, other than a cavernous submarine factory, he again displays his subtle feeling for color. In the corner of a room, four shelves of Beanie Babies in a glass cabinet, the only strongly colored elements in the picture, face four elegant, black-and-white photos of Audrey Hepburn mounted neatly on a door. Each class of object is confined to its own sector, structurally separated within the composition by a white wooden door frame. The effect of this peculiar juxtaposition is one of profound visual incongruity, as well as humor, obliging us to assume that these cultural phenomena — children’s soft toys and a glamorous Hollywood star — are unselfconsciously indulged aspects of the same adult individual’s taste.

The most remarkable image, another vast panorama, is also the most recent. I have never seen a photograph quite like it. Wenders took the picture in a disused railroad tunnel in Wuppertal, Germany and it shows a dark, stained wall, like some gargantuan vision of corruption and decay by Anselm Kiefer. This subterranean canvas is daubed with six cartoon people, each standing slightly apart, or in one case lying down. There are also dirty white numbers and a series of cryptic red crosses and circles, some touching the figures. It could be an alternative version of Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, where the prehistoric art chambers of Chauvet are found and tended not by sober archaeologists, but by renegade street artists who venture to add a few choice wall paintings of their own. Wenders visited the tunnel twice, returning the second time with a light and a tripod. Only later, he claims, did he find out that the paintings are by the Brazilian graffiti artists known as Os Gêmeos (The Twins).

His picture is a masterly demonstration of photography’s synthesizing power. It seems that someone has already vandalized the paintings — the red crosses. Wenders takes another team’s art work, plus these unauthorized additions, and then, by adding another layer of visual organization (this is more than appropriation), he transforms the source material into a work of art of his own that surpasses the original conception. “Deep in a Railroad Tunnel #2” is a beautifully composed and truly haunting image, a minatory womb-world, a kind of creation myth for dysfunctional loners lost and seeking solace in the darkness. I wish I could show it here, but even if I had an image, it would be pointless. It’s too dependent on its overwhelming scale to communicate much in miniature. The catalogue does at least have fold-out pages and perhaps the exhibition, which originated in São Paulo, will continue to travel.

Share This Story

RELATED POSTS


Below the Sill Plate: New Orleans East Struggles to Recover


Cities from the Sky


Journeying through the Sacred Profane


Reassessing the Saul Bass and Alfred Hitchcock Collaboration


"We Just Want To Be Tourists"



RSS Subscribe to Comment Feed

Comments (3)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT >>

Neat Rick.

Was one of these the photo mentioned in your last ¶?

VR/
Joe Moran
04.22.11 at 09:06

Thanks, Joe. I couldn't get that link to work when I was putting my post together, but it seems to be OK now. It's the Os Gêmeos website and it shows their own photos of some of the paintings in the tunnel.

The bottom picture shows “Deep in a Railroad Tunnel #1” at the opening in São Paulo — with Wenders looking on. This isn't on display in London, though it is shown, very small, on the Haunch of Venison website (link above).

The photograph I discuss is “Deep in a Railroad Tunnel #2” and it's the stronger image of the pair in my view.
Rick Poynor
04.23.11 at 05:17

Thank you Rick! Really great observation. Had no idea.

Guess we can just hope that Mr. Wenders, or the brothers "Gemeos," will see this and grace us with an image / link to an image.

Really like the "22 | 21" image so far, but would love to see the "Deep … #2" you reference.

Take care.

VR/
Joe Moran
04.23.11 at 11:45



LOG IN TO POST A COMMENT
Don't have an account? Create an account. Forgot your password? Click here.

Email


Password




|
Share This Story



Rick Poynor is a writer, critic, lecturer and curator, specialising in design, media, photography and visual culture. He founded Eye, co-founded Design Observer, and contributes columns to Eye and Print. His latest book is Uncanny: Surrealism and Graphic Design.
More >>

DESIGN OBSERVER JOBS