The video work of German-born New Yorker Wolfgang Staehle is marked by philosophical sweep, existential sharpness, startling slowness, and elegiac beauty. "A Matter of Time," his latest show at Postmasters Gallery, continues his investigation into landscape, architecture, networked imagery and the place of the sublime in a wired world.
Indicating the show's epic ambitions, a wall-mounted monitor in the entryway displays a passage from Nietzsche's The Gay Science (1882) that addresses the concept of eternal return: "What if a demon were to creep after you . . . in your loneliest loneliness, and say, ‘This life which you live and have lived must be lived again by you, and innumerable times more.'" Would it be a blessing or a curse, Nietzsche asks?
In a cycle of four projected videos in the gallery's front room, Staehle offers the rise and fall of global powers as an analogue for eternal recurrence. All the videos are 24-hour-long archived versions of streaming webcam footage shot by Staehle in America and Europe over the last eight years and are shown synchronized with New York time. The pictures change every several seconds, resulting in an uneasy hybrid of still and moving imagery. Each work is attractive and weighty in itself, but as an ensemble, according to press materials, they refer to American painter Thomas Cole's iconic five-painting series "The Course of Empire" (1834-36), which illustrated the sobering proposition that any empire's rise would inevitably be followed by decline.
Two projections show empire in ascent. Umbria (August 30, 2006) shows a peaceful, sun-kissed, agrarian Mediterranean landscape -- the pastoral setting Cole depicted as ideal. Manhattan (September 10, 2001) is a panoramic view of the lower part of the island that stands for empire at its height, the day before 9/11/2001, Trade Center towers intact. (The same view was included in Staehle's 2001 show, also at Postmasters, and, incidentally, this is the one day that was archived before the terrorist attack.) In striking contrast to the clarity of the following day, clouds and fog dominate as boats make their jumpy way along the Hudson.
The gradual decay begins with Berlin, Palast der Republik (November 29, 2006), which shows a rainy day on the grand boulevard Unter den Linden. In the distance, giant yellow cranes loom over the demolition of the Palace of the Republic, which once housed the East German parliament. A symbol of Socialist ideology falls, even as a fair's Ferris wheel spins in the middle ground. Finally, echoing countless romantic paintings of ruins, Forum Romanum (September 15, 2007) shows the seat of power of the Roman Empire, where tourists stroll among broken columns and architectural fragments.
As a whole, the group of works may be a bit dependent on the press release, and thus might remain obscure for some viewers. But even the casual visitor can appreciate Staehle's update of the tradition of landscape painting and photography, and his eye for dynamic composition. And with a little knowledge, Staehle's project becomes particularly satisfying, beginning with the shiver-inducing reminder that the very city where the viewer stands is all too vulnerable and mortal, and that its rise and fall are hardly unique. In light of the artist's biography, his casting of his countries of birth and residence in major roles in this allegory is darkly comical. And more than that, the combination of landscapes effectively evokes the awesome span of history, while also, by synchronizing these far-flung sites, seeming to collapse it.
The gallery's back room shows the 45-minute video Watoriki, House of the Mountain of the Wind (2003-09). This piece uses footage the artist shot in the Amazon while staying among the Yanomami people in 2003, using a solar cell and a car battery to power his equipment. It documents the people and the surrounding forest in takes lasting several minutes, many of them breathtaking: A young girl engages in a close-up staring contest with the camera. A shaman in red gym shorts conducts a ritual in which he asks permission (as the artist explained it to me) for Staehle and his crew to climb a nearby hill where spirits abide. One stunning shot studies this "mountain of the wind," topped with mist that seems to flow down its sides, and one presents a view from atop it of the Yanomami's tent habitat.
In counterpoint to the "course of empire" works, Watoriki depicts one of the last truly pre-industrial civilizations on Earth -- one that has lived on in the forest while nations have waxed and waned. But it is far from a naive celebration of some primitive ideal (an extended study of a bird of prey dismantling its victim counters any sentimental romance), just as the "empire" works don't necessarily espouse a dark view, even as they speak of inevitable decline. While the gallery visitor may take grim pleasure in the prospect of modern empires going the way of Rome, the artist's presentation seems chillingly neutral, almost mechanically impassive, perhaps something like a demon that would come to you in your loneliest loneliness.
[From the top: Wolfgang Staehle, Umbria (August 30, 2006), 2006, 14090 digital photographs, 24 hour cycle unique, synchronized with real time; Manhattan (September 10, 2001), 2001, 40223 digital photographs, 24 hour cycle unique, synchronized with real time. All images courtesy the artist and Postmasters Gallery.]