Artist: Eve Heller
At first glance, Eve Heller’s photographs and films have a poetic-documentary quality to them. They are about observing, viewing, even visually exploring reality, whereby the imagery always retains a temporal, contemplative dimension. It is not a matter of discerning or recognizing what’s being depicted, but about a process of reading the image on a deeper level, where the imagery reveals its associative-semantic and sensual-tactile potential.
The de facto subject of the exhibition IN AND OUT OF TIME is the human portrait; three different ways of approaching this theme can be found in the exhibition. Two filmic works are juxtaposed with a photo series. The portrait is defined here not so much as an individual likeness, but rather, in a broader sense, as a more universal, even existential view of the human being. Heller understands people not only as contextual beings, but also in terms of their having-been as well as their becoming. Employing the medium of experimental film, she thinks in and with images about people, about being human and ultimately about aspects of being such as life, joy, but also suffering and death.
Eve Heller describes her approach to the medium of film as very personal, but also as fragile. Early on, she abandoned the notion of classic authorship—in particular when working with found footage. Heller purposely takes a step back, she sorts and arranges found image material, but also creates a distance to it. This exploration of the relationship between proximity and distance is an essential characteristic of Heller’s aesthetic practice. On the one hand, she employs a tactile, almost haptic way of seeing. She creates closeness, an empathetic connection to what is being viewed. On the other hand, she situates things, places, people at a distance, creates gaps, and works with absences and semantic voids that challenge the viewer to read them actively, thus turning the film itself into an independent sphere of reception-aesthetic activity.
In Eve Heller’s work, the image functions less as a representational medium than as a kind of seeker and seismograph. She explores what is being observed, slows down the process of seeing, interrupts the continuity of the imagery, so as to undermine a clear semantic reading or even an instrumentalization of the gaze. The artist employs an empathetic way of seeing, which has an almost tactile quality. As in her film Singing in Oblivion, she often traces individual lives and personal histories. It is less about factuality, about actual history, than about evoking memories that are only ever approximated and alluded to. The imagery makes it possible to envisage and imagine the life of the past. The artist always considers what is being viewed through different layers of time, so that her imagery is clearly read as heterochronic portraits in which different time periods are interrelated. Individual, contextual time (of life) encounters time per se (in the sense of a medium). Heller creates a time-transcendent, indeed meta-pictorial portrait that is paradoxically both individual as well as universal. Photographic image and film image form a resonating space, one that is mnemically imaginative but also emphatically relational.
In Astor Place, the artist recedes, at least ostensibly, to the role of the observer. The viewer peers for several minutes through a mirrored shop window onto Astor Place, a lively, highly frequented square in New York City. What appears initially as a single continuous sequence is in fact a subtle stringing together of scenes of varying lengths shot with a handheld 16mm camera. People are seen casually walking by. Some, unaware that they are being observed, glance at the camera and then continue on. The camera here, translated metaphorically, seems to capture not just light, but people.
The film almost seems to be capturing itself. Nevertheless, Astor Place does not present an authorless way of seeing. Rather, Heller creates a secondary order of observing where the viewer begins to see themselves observing. Who is seeing whom here, who directs the visibility of whom? In this oscillating between public and private, visible and hidden, the captured proceedings, which appear so immediate at first, are robbed of their innocence. Viewers, very much in the sense of voyeurs, find themselves in an exposed role. From a dispositif-critical perspective, filmic seeing appears here latently authorial. Public space is thus also recognizable as a visually occupied and administered space, which is invariably inscribed with hidden logics of visual access and administration.
Contrary to a purely visual and dispositif-reflective reading, it should be emphasized that Eve Heller purposely slows down the movements. Reality and representation thus exhibit a variance, whereby the apparent fluidity of passers-by takes on a sensual quality of its own. The effect of slowing down not only creates a distance to the goings-on, but also shifts the focus from gaze-theoretical questions onto the people themselves, their individual beings and their own histories. Each passer-by reveals, at least for a brief moment, their own little narrative. In this juxtaposition of simultaneities, in the interference and interweaving of micro-narrative tellings, the human being becomes recognizable as the actual subject of this “choreography of humanity” (Eve Heller).
Astor Place is, in the sense of a meta-film, a reflection on filmic seeing itself. It is also a film-historical homage to the Lumière brothers. Beyond this, however, Heller also asks how filmic seeing is able to shape consciousness. The artist alludes to an independent way of seeing and understanding that is fundamental to her work. A seeing that goes beyond mere recognition and enables a form of pre-intuited and non-linguistic understanding, which also incorporates memory, intuition, and imagination.
For Eve Heller, photography is a medium and instrument that often precedes her filmic thinking. The photographic image exhibits a kind of contemplative kinship with film. “Photographic studies are essential to my film work,” says the artist. “It’s all a part of creating a kind of resonating chamber, magnetizing mindful focus and figuring out my feelings and thoughts.” The photo functions as a means for pre-intuiting a place, but also its time(s). It helps the artist to understand the location in her own way and to form a relationship to it. Heller clearly takes her time with photographic seeing. Her images often seem to be about seeking without a horizon, even without gravity. They slow down perception in subtle ways and unobtrusively juxtapose simultaneities. In this photographic contemplation, Heller seeks less to wrest a purely pictorial, autonomous presence from what is seen and real than to create a kind of ontological, even sensual-epistemic connection to what is seen. Viewed thusly, her images are neither representation nor abstraction, but rather relational tableaus dedicated to establishing a relationship between oneself and the world through the medium of seeing. In her photographs and films, the artist allows places and people to speak aesthetically for themselves, giving them room to have an effect, to evoke mnemic, imaginative spaces. The viewer thus plays a fundamental role in the narrative, in the unfolding of the meaning of the images and their mnemic effect. Semantic couplings and connotations that go far beyond the individual image form an associative and narrative mix that co-constitute an at times highly imaginary film in the eye of the beholder.
At the beginning of the black and white film Singing in Oblivion, Eve Heller portrays the Jewish part of Währing cemetery in Vienna in ten quiet and haunting sequences. The cemetery, closed in 1880, was publicly accessible until the Nazis came to power, but has not been reopened to the public since the post-war period due to increasing structural deterioration and hazards. It is not only an historical jewel of a cemetery in the Biedermeier style and a special nature reserve, but is, as a place itself, a memorial to missing, displaced, and extinguished generations of Jewish life.
In Heller’s work, the cemetery initially seems to oscillate between pristine natural environment and historical site. Like a still life, the artist surveys the ruinous landscape of toppled and overgrown tombstones in high-resolution black and white footage. However, the sequences are presented slowed down and are thus slightly alienated, quickly creating a distance to what is being viewed. The gentle swaying of the leaves and grass not only allows the seemingly still images to be recognized as moving images, they also create a latently eerie effect. Underlying Heller’s imagery is an ever-so-slightly altered sound continuum of gentle, lively birdsongs, which contradicts and is at odds with the slowed-down movements of the leaves and grass hanging over the graves, thus dismantling more and more the sequences’ initial poetic-documentary impression.
Heller’s work is characterized by a dialectic of the visible. Her film is about a fleeting form of visibility, but also about a form of invisibility that strives toward and demands visibility. The still- and photograph-like sequences at the beginning of Singing in Oblivion thus come across as an attempt to capture and preserve that place from decay and fleetingness. On the one hand, Heller alludes to the referential, indexical power of the photographic image, to the inscribing of reality as a photochemical trace or imprint. On the other hand, from the middle of the film onward, the artist allows a decidedly kinetic dimension to insert itself into the filmic proceedings. The connection between reality and image seems increasingly decoupled. Heller no longer uses images to depict something, but facilitates in making their inherent rhythm and interference visible. Images begin to detach from one another, to appear in rapid sequence, even to fall into one another. Non-images and dark sequences throw the gaze back at the viewer. As if the filmic were modeled out of the dark, the viewer encounters grass, leaves, but also a pulsating combination of objects such as chains and fabrics, only to quickly slip away from view again. In the second half of the film, however, Heller not only opens up a more abstract space clearly defined by the language of the material, she also embeds found glass negatives into the filmic occurrences, which show people and family scenes of undetermined provenance, evoking potential past moments of Jewish life. In some sequences the protagonists even seem to make eye contact. At the end of the film, where an alternation of light and dark almost creates the impression of the film breathing, a man and a woman appear looking lovingly at a (their) baby. And then, in the final image, one sees an (that) infant who, in an almost Brechtian sense, looks directly out of the film at the viewer—in a questioning, challenging, even accusatory manner.
The objects and textures embedded in the film by means of contact sheets appear in their object-like status to counteract the increasingly abstract and material-language filmic sequences in the sense of ontological anchors. In this alternation of abstraction and figuration, the representational and the pictorial encounter one another on a similar level, while at the same time the signifier and the signified are seemingly distancing themselves from another. Here, Heller opens up a filmic space that leaves the individual image far behind and presents film in an essentially structural manner, as an assembly and mix of images whose semanticization occurs in the synthesizing of imagery, in the cognitive apparatus of the viewer. Heller brings into play here the gaze-reflective and meta-filmic dimension that was also the subject of Astor Place. Of interest in this case is not just what I see, but how I see and how I perceive and think through and with the image. The artist thus generates a semi-abstract mnemic space whose “indexicality” or referential power is not based on the factual, the documentary, but on the interpretive and condensing-synthesizing reading of the viewer. What is directly represented and depicted recedes in favor of an autonomous filmic seeing where time and duration are the essential materials. However, this “generated indexicality,” so to speak, of what is potentially in the past is in no way based on or ends in arbitrariness. Rather, Heller deconstructs the phantasm of a given history that simply exists and ultimately assigns the responsibility to viewers themselves. She directs the focus toward the system of observation, in a medial, apparatus-based, ultimately political manner. This is where the two films in the exhibition IN AND OUT OF TIME merge together in terms of thematic content: the gaze-theoretical, Foucaultian approach in Astor Place poses the opening question, while Singing in Oblivion takes up and continues it anthropologically and existentially.
In her work, Heller moves between time, temporalization, and timelessness. Her films and images are about being, about being in time, but also about becoming, about the continuum of time and its passing. This temporal-philosophical dimension forms a reoccurring motif, a kind of incessant tone in Heller’s work. The image is not a means of recording or capturing, but a medium that transcends the real in myriad ways. A medium in the sense of a mediator between the present and the past, more precisely, an imagined-past. In underscoring this evocative potential of the image, an idea of the past is revealed that does not seek what’s concluded, preserved, factual, but understands the past as something that is essentially constituted out of the present (out of contemplation). Seen thusly, Singing in Oblivion depicts a place that ultimately seeks to understand and transcend the limitations of being itself. The cemetery portrayed here appears as a place that not only connects the individual and the collective, but also alludes to a dimension of the future in its oscillation between past and present.
In the opposition between the individual and society, Eve Heller searches for the image of man himself. Images of everyday life (Astor Place) can thus confront the tragedy of absent images and missing history (Singing in Oblivion) without relativizing each other. In her films and photographs, the artist evokes a space of subtle relationships that owe themselves to a contemplative, empathetic seeing. The image functions as a tableau of empathetic resonance, forming a medium of relationality—across time.
Text: David Komary
Translation: Erik Smith