SIGNS IN THE HEAVENS. Michael Ruetz in Berlin
Michael Ruetz’s Attempts at Narratively Capturing Collectivity From Under Cover
“The photographic apparatus (…) allows (…) no freedom from a standpoint when searching for a standpoint.” (Villém Flusser, Kommunikologie)
Michael Ruetz raises the landscape to a generally valid stage of time. Under the title Die absolute Landschaft, he deliberately places the moment the photo is taken at the center of his cosmogony of fatality, which is repeatedly asserted anew and then shines over as an idealization and potency that can be experienced.
In the show at the Museum für Fotografie, Berlin, one can see analogies arising from quick motion, flash-frozen aha moments retracing a never-ending loop of urgency and sublimity. The photos placed in a row without a discernible chronology are something like a best-of selection from several thousand shots. Ruetz calls them “timescapes.” The more than sixty selected standpoints exemplarily display a sort of empirical-methodical quest, a narrowing-down of the expositions.
Ruetz lets the images stand for themselves. There are no descriptions, explanations, or titles. The landscape images so rich in detail, which are captured on various diapositive and negative film types, do not strive for high resolution or reflect perfect photo technology, although the digital prints on view here are partially up to three times one meter large. In comparison to the high-definition prints of a Thomas Ruff or Anselm Adams, the artist chooses a medium standard, underscoring the bold and simple character by not framing the prints but simply mounting them to the wall with pegs. It is neither about the tiniest details nor a high-end presentation. Apart from that, a visual spectacle is staged. The negatives and slide pieces simultaneously displayed in showcases and meant to retrace the working process hardly relativize this gesture. Even if Ruetz occasionally used large format cameras, as one learns. He excessively utilizes the panorama format of the roll film, apparently seeking to expose the beholders to a borderline experience, to physically include them in the enlarged images on display.
The “Reporter” no longer follows the narrative succession of events. The flexibility of being able to repeatedly frequent many standpoints and adjust the angles accordingly enables an empirical-methodical search. In order to limit his range of possibilities, to achieve a higher quotient of objectivity, he casts a net of observer standpoints. Ruetz seeks to realize his intention of making time visible my employing the stylistic device of sequential shots, in the most various light and weather situations, often with the aid of time exposures or multiple exposures. The resulting pictures possess more than one time level. They are partially exposed on top of each other. This takes on showman-like dimensions, as is the case with a New Year’s Eve fireworks, a huge, ghostly, permanently illuminated formation of clouds shining like quicksilver, or an enormous thundery front with many individual bolts of lightning. Layers of light are woven to multi-layered collages, creating hyperreal impressions, excessively ramped up. Beauty? No, it is evidently not the gesture of a humble-contemplative experience of the landscape, of questioning nature. Instead, the landscape is posited as an allegorical vehicle for what can be experienced.
If it is time that speaks from the tableaux, then it is manipulated, accumulated, and arranged time. What generates itself here is a play of photo recordings and the capturing of space intoxicated by witnessing the event that seeks to blast the boundaries of proportionate perception. Ruetz’s technical manipulations appear politically motivated. His intersubjective statements and explanatory attempts in the function of the supposedly apolitical, symbolic medium of the landscape produce “images of concepts of images, or: symbols presenting concepts.” With the aid of the objectively unhistorical gesture of the photographic image, a huge mythological genre-rock is pushed before the eye of the beholder that superficially negates science and politics as is customary in documentary or journalistic photography.
Full Moon Flashes Through the Image
An authenticity coupled with natural chance seems to want to conceal something here. But it cannot dispense with a repeatedly staged punctum, i.e., that certain something—a kind of magic aura. Everything serial and, in the true sense, analogous is subjected to an aesthetic-functional inspection the moment the picture is taken, as if this or that image had a specific message at a certain point in time. In terms of sensory content, this approach to finding the image is not too far away from technological-operative thought, as it indeed prevails in photojournalism: Taking—shooting—what feels like the right picture at the right time. And what’s the difference between the hunter moving through the space-time-continuum and a hunter quietly waiting in the duck blind and pressing the release button as long as it takes for the moon to leave a diagonal trace of light on the picture?
Caspar David Friedrich blasphemously set the landscape, nature as a religious element, in opposition to the catechism of Creation. His spaces were consciously placed mystifications, allegorical-psychological experimental setups that anticipated the interior, metaphysical landscapes of a René Magritte or Max Ernst. This was not the work of a landscape documentarian, as he is still generally viewed today. Friedrich staged landscapes of the soul. Here, in the exhibition space, some of Ruetz’s landscape portraits are clearly reminiscent of Friedrich. For example, when an almost ocher-colored, cloudy sky hovers ominously over the earth’s purple crust; the internal tension generated by this combination of colors is about to burst, barely controllable, an oppressive moment that can be explained in logical physical terms, but by no means psychologically, with the serial-documentary experimental setup. The peacefulness of the landscape is constantly disturbed. Nothing beautiful, nowhere. A bellicose atmosphere prevails: bolts of lightning, traces of light resembling flare bombs brutally traversing the sky and the ground; impenetrable, possibly toxic wafts of mist, deadly frost and snow covering the land like a burial shroud. Stopping and lingering here appears risky, one’s location, any feeling of connectedness, should be urgently checked.
Short commentaries on this in Ruetz’s notebooks: “Thunderstorm, low blanket of clouds, triptych, gray early spring, snowy hills, thaw, dreary day, late summer, glimmer of light after a long rainy day, emerging hurricane ... .” Nowhere can something like “nice morning” be read. It seems as if the photographer were hunting for inner tension, for expectation. He lies in wait for a collective, contemporaneous fear, for inner tension. The drama of the images is compelling, their beauty fueled by ever new, extreme weather, light, and color situations. The whirl that arises when viewing these compressed and accumulated situations of unrest is not abolished or ordered by any Biedermeier-like systematics à la spring-summer-fall-and-winter-tableau. Everything visual is storming and raging, or dying away, keeping the viewer on a roller coaster ride of emotions. A both emotional and visual dismemberment and bewilderment. And I presume that Ruetz himself felt these convulsions speaking from the programming of the apparatuses he used; at least he passes these seismographic recordings of anticipated catastrophes on to me in a palpable way.
Capturing and presenting what is fleeting and indescribable—capturing time—, that is somewhat exaggerated, dripping with pathos. A huge “star picture” made by an observatory camera and shown by Thomas Ruff comes to my mind. But in comparison, this process, this display, was lacking in emotion, it made a deliberately technoid impression and revered science, as it were. In the case of Ruetz, the technical aspects of his shots are subordinated to their psychological and illusionary effects. His early work as a documentarian and portrayer in and of political movements once again shines through in a sublimated form. It reflects a society that is losing the long, contemplative gaze and perceiving political photography in thousandfold copies in an unreflecting and stereotype way. If the landscape is posited as absolute here, then it can indeed be read as a synonym of an oppressed and wounded interior life.
Michael Ruetz. Die absolute Landschaft
July 4 to October 5 2014 at the Museum für Fotografie
Jebensstraße 2, D-10623 Berlin
 Vilém Flusser, Kommunikologie, Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1998.
Michael Ruetz: Timescape 817
© Michael Ruetz
Jörg Gruneberg writes and photographs for the Leipziger music magazine Persona Non Grata, alongside documentary-literary photo projects.