Artist: Johann Lurf
The night sky starts to feel like a surface; sometimes impenetrable, sometimes malleable,
teasing the mind to make whatever tangible associations it can. This allows ★ to become a truly participatory experience, saying as much about our expectations of visual culture as it does the various technological advancements that cinema has used to fuel spectacle.
The solo exhibition In Sequence of Appearance presents a constellation of two films by Austrian artist and filmmaker Johann Lurf. The nearly two-hour feature film entitled ★ presents a succession of starry sky scenes, strictly sequenced according to the release date of the original films, while the short film Capital Cuba takes a structural and quasi-abstract approach to examining the atmosphere and latent dystopian visual impression of the harbor in the Bay of Havana. Despite or perhaps because of their structural rigidity, the films give rise to a highly affective and immersive dimension. In the film ★, the viewer is confronted with a continuum of imposing views of an escapist dimension, which, however, slowly and subtly redirects the viewer’s gaze back toward him/herself, so that the film serves as a medium for reflecting on the history of the gaze and ideas linked to the medium of film, science, and metaphysics.
From a reception-aesthetics point of view, ★ (2017–19) exposes the viewer to a succession of spatial-diegetic ruptures. The film editing is based on the lengths of the particular found-footage film sequences; the sound is simply cut so that the transitions do not link together the successive clips or allow them to merge into one another. This requires the viewer—and simultaneous listener—to radically comprehend all the ruptures. Although the manifestations and representations of the starry sky often differ in entertaining ways, the perceptual and cognitive demands placed on the recipient are even more significant on an acoustic and sound-spatial level than a visual one, since the acoustically evoked spatial scenario—whether conjured by music, voice (s), or noises—fundamentally overlaps and overshadows what is seen, the particular starry sky.
The actual constant is less the starry sky or cosmos than it is the permanent spatial-diegetic shift and jump in time. The occurrences are defined not by coherence (the narrative) and correspondence (of image and image subject matter) but by contextual rupture and dissociation; the viewer is left to confront not the sublime visual “presence” of infinity (space / universe) but the limitations of perceptual apprehension and visual registration.
The “streaming by” of over 580 films turns the viewer into a kind of passenger of film history from 1905 to 2019. But this is not all: analogous to the notion of infinity, new night-sky scenes from current film productions and newly found archival material are continually added to the film every year. Again and again, in the instances of recognizing certain film outtakes, ★ allows us to appreciate the significance of the medium of film’s and its impact on our collective visual memory. While the oldest film sequences still lack sound, the viewer is confronted over the duration of the film with a kind of evolution of media technology. The images gradually become larger, take on color, and increasingly give way to animated and computer-generated imagery in widescreen movie format. Silent at the beginning, the sound evolves from mono to stereo, and finally merges into the immersive over-all quality of surround sound. The film ★ is thus not only characterized by a film-historical, even film-anthropological level, which explores the connections between the history of technology, (popular) science, and metaphysics, it also maps out an iconography of the starry sky. The night sky functions here as a cipher for reflecting on the genesis and state of visual culture today.
Although ★ is ostensibly about forms of appearance and representation, it is immediately apparent that Lurf is more interested in the idea of the starry sky’s visual impression than the starry sky itself. In principle, Lurf takes a strictly conceptual approach. He only uses film sequences showing night skies without any references to human existence, so that the focus shifts to the abstract, such as the conflict between light and dark, the concept of nothingness and the idea of infinity.
Stars cannot be represented on film or only barely so; light intensity and image information are too minimal and fleeting to leave significant traces on film. Thus, film and cinema have always been forced to produce and offer substitutes and simulacra. The starry sky as synonym for the universe, cosmos, being, even creation, would actually stand for something constant and absolute, something that would exist for itself beyond human involvement. However, rather than an image of the absolute, an impossible image in itself, Lurf presents the viewer a nearly endless sequence of surrogates and mimetic illusions. The wonderment, the impression of the luridly beautiful and sublime, is left radically empty-handed.
In ★ we are confronted with a wealth of various attempts to give form to the idea of and particular collected knowledge about the universe. The image of the cosmos has always been based on ideas, projections, and hope. Here the starry sky functions as a semantic field in which knowledge (science), imagination (hope, longing), and metaphysics (belief) meet. The searching look upwards, into the vastness, distance, and darkness, turns the starry sky into a space of aesthetic and epistemic indeterminacy. The image of stars and of space becomes a crucial metaphor for seeing and knowledge per se. Here Lurf’s usage of the supercut technique, the radical montaging of found-footage material, gradually creates a layered image of “stacked illusions” (Danielle Burgos) capable of bringing forth a new and other truth of the film image. With Lurf, the accomplishments of special-effect artists, image regimes and conventions of seeing from technology and science and metaphysical evocations come together in the narrowest of spaces. As such, Lurf’s filmic starry image is not neo-romantic escapism; it does not perpetuate the simple gaze of wonderment out into the distance, but shows the ever-recurring attempt to give perceptible form to what is beyond visibility and comprehensibility. The gaze here is confronted with its own limitations, its inability, but simultaneously with its claims of omnipotence and its authorial self-overestimation. Man sees himself in the mirror here as a thinking, questioning, searching, and knowing being. From this perspective, ★ deals less with modes of representation or with the possibility and impossibility of representation, but rather raises the question of the historical and epistemological, ultimately existential question of one’s existence in relation to being, to beingness per se.
A connection between the film ★ and Capital Cuba (2015), the second film presented in the exhibition, is less easily made based on the depicted location or image subject (starry sky or harbor) than it is on the strict structuralist handling of the moving image. Here, the found-footage sequences are not made up of filmic material but of Lurf’s own recordings, which he made during a long stay in Cuba in 2015. The film is set in the Bay of Havana. Each day Lurf took the ferry route between old Havana and Casa Blanca, there and back. In Capital Cuba, Lurf interleaves shots of moving in opposite directions into a rhythmic image continuum. In a uniform, moderate rhythm, a result of juxtaposing film sequences only of similar duration, the viewer is confronted with a slow, twelve-minute long, vertical camera pan. In the first scene, the camera points all the way down, visible is the water in the port before the ferry’s departure. This sequence is quickly counteracted by a similar shot taken on the return trip. The two images of harbor water differ subtly in color, flow velocity and direction, but also in their noises, their sound. Developed in the first half of the film is an extremely dense, semantic visual structure. The camera, after gradually tilting upward, now aligns with the horizon. Buildings and industrial equipment around the harbor complex are visible; the view alternates between shots of the outward- and inward-bound trips, but also between near and far, recognizable and abstract. While the abstract-poetic, gently rhythmic impression of the water dominates the beginning of the film to a large extent, from the middle of the film onward the filmic edit, the jump cut, begins to assert itself. Various landscapes and routes are seen merging into a topology beyond the documentary and the real, creating a virtually overwhelming diegetic space that incessantly demands of the viewer a “producing of the image,” a suturing or “stitching together” of the frames and frame sequences.
As with ★ and Lurf’s earlier films, Capital Cuba seemingly pursues a kind of cinematic-perceptual borderline experience that owes much to the spatial-temporal and -diegetic possibilities of radical film editing. In Capital Cuba, this filmic-abstract delimitation and referential deconstruction is confronted with an actual local scenario, which in a certain sense is itself about delimitation, uncertainty, and vagueness and is characterized by deconstruction in terms of decay and disintegration. In the port of Cuba water not only meets land, culture (port / industry) meets nature (ocean), but the eroded socialist regime also meets neo-liberal forces, with all their socio-political impacts on port facilities, urban space, and society.
Capital Cuba offers the viewer two possible perceptual modalities, even two interpretations that form a constant interplay: a semi-documentary as well as an abstract, material-aesthetic reading. From a documentary perspective, the film provides an account of the harbor landscape, of the ruinous state of the harbor in the Bay of Havana. It recounts the decline of this once-significant area, indeed of the entire economic sector, but also of the selling off of port facilities to foreign investors. The desolate harbor buildings and cranes seen in the middle of the film, as the camera slowly aligns with the horizon, become a metaphor for a frenzy for progress and feasibility thinking, symbolizing the regime’s failure. The battered lettering “Machina” installed on one of the dilapidated port buildings comes across like a memorial to a failed economic policy that leaves people no other choice but to hope for better times, although previous foreign investments have by no means led to an improved economic situation.
Johann Lurf does not employ, however, simple representational means to portray this sadness and latent hopelessness. In the second, so-to-speak more abstract interpretation, Lurf’s structural approach to the basic characteristics and constituents of the filmic image comes to the fore, in particular in its temporality, its duration. However, this abstract-structuralist level never completely frees and detaches itself from what’s presented, from what’s portrayed. Basic filmic parameters such as time, repetition, rhythm (in this case essentially the sound of the engine) become filmic-abstract, yet simultaneously quite affective agents that play a significant role in the semi-documentary occurrences, co-semanticizing them. Through the structural interleaving of the outbound and return journeys, Lurf succeeds in evoking an aesthetic occurrence that, with its machine-like rhythmic visual impression, unobtrusively forms a perceptual analogue to the state of repeating what’s always identical, to the—in the absence of possible choices—involuntarily ritualized.
Capital Cuba avoids explicit questions; the film provides no political commentary or answers, but creates a kind of transitory space between aesthetic and documentary modes of impact, presenting viewers with both ongoing perceptual and content-specific challenges. The loss of a discernable center of perception and the impossibility of an unambiguous position is ultimately recognizable as fundamental and recurring aesthetic occurrences in the work of Johann Lurf. They function as instruments to keep the film at bay from a valorizing or even the didactic. Capital Cuba succeeds in converting the ambivalence between hope and despondency into a moment of filmic reflection, into a slowing down of the gaze, which situates thinking and recognition opposite and alongside a state of active seeing and perception.
Text: David Komary
Translation: Eric Smith