this issue contains
>> Interview: Stan Douglas
>> Select Eclecticism: Karen Kilimnik
>> Elegiac Landscapes: Elger Esser
>> Drowning in Décor: Adriana Czernin

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Remembrance of Things Past
Elger Esser's Melancholy Landscapes

Elger Esser, Ameland-Pier X
Courtesy Elger Esser © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2008

A seemingly unending horizon blending sea and sky: Elger Esser's stark photograph of a North Sea pier can be seen in the exhibition True North at the Deutsche Guggenheim. The works of the German photographer evoke the sublimity of romantic landscape painting and old picture postcards. Yet Esser is uninterested in sentimental nostalgia. An essay by Alexander Pühringer.

Elger Esser, 75 Saint-Jean de Luz, 2004
Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac Salzburg/Paris

The Romantic era is an epochal syndrome of culture that reverberates to this day. Particularly in Germany's intellectual history, it anchored itself on the borderline between a southbound longing for antiquity in the Idealism of Winckelmann, Goethe, and Schiller and the perilous sublimity of the ice and everlasting night of the European North. In his landscape images, the German artist Elger Esser repeatedly examines the duration and endurance of a concept of nature that points beyond the sublimity of mental experience, opening the pictorial plane to reveal a boundlessness that embodies Schleiermacher's definition of religion as a "sense and taste of the infinite."

Elger Esser, Piriac sur Mer, Frankreich, 2006
Deutsche Bank Collection

As the founding Romanticists Clemens Brentano, Achim von Arnim, and Joseph Görres saw it, at least in the high phase, the experience of nature was an initiation game of the gods. The desire was to discover unknown landscapes, which then served as catalysts for entire volumes of books. The world's maps were still being drawn, the forests, seas, and rivers still contained secrets, some of them terrible, that called out to be revealed.

Elger Esser, 11, Ault, 2004
Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac Salzburg/Paris

Elger Esser's studies of idylls offer a corollary to the wish to be cradled in a whole, intact world. Traces of civilization, partially identifiable, enter the pictures quietly and are not artificially retouched. A vague sense of the world's beginnings inhabits these blurry, familiar images of a longing for a world not yet caught up in the process of destruction and decay, when the human quest for civilization was still at one with nature’s cycles.

Elger Esser, 268 Le Havre II, 2006
Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac Salzburg/Paris

Just as the Romanticists once collected poems for Des Knaben Wunderhorn (literally, The Youth's Magic Horn) to preserve their cultural tradition, Elger Esser has amassed thousands of postcards over many years in order to grasp a disappearing world—even if only as a catalogue of panoramic views. His work does not shy away from depicting nature's terrors and their superiority over humankind; his hand-colored large-scale formats of the surging foam of stormy seas or a series of shipwrecks battered against the shoreline visually record an attempt to draw nearer to times past.

Elger Esser, 4027 Biarritz, 2005
Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac Salzburg/Paris

Similarly to Torquato Tasso, who at the end of Goethe's drama compares the artist's existence to the eternally stranded ship that nonetheless, unerringly, sets for sea only to be swept ashore again, Elger Esser's artistic work explores the rapture of the human experience of nature. This is something we are losing more and more in the face of the individual's dissolution into virtual worlds of simulation that Jean Baudrillard equated with symbolic exchange and death. Despite this, Esser, who grew up as the son of a photographer and poet in Rome, is not a nostalgic Romantic; rather, he seeks out its traces in the existing. He does not see basic aesthetic parameters like resolution, dissolution of boundaries, and endlessness as Caspar David Friedrich did—as an artistic means of deciphering the world—but acts as someone wandering, traveling, and thinking along existing footsteps.

Elger Esser, 2007, Frankreich, 2007
Courtesy Elger Esser

Restorative theories of society are as little responsible for his vedutae and landscapes as are the pseudo-religious, substitute fantasies of today's lost individual. The melancholy inscribed into many of his images recalls a loss of memory, a realization that much has been irrevocably lost and will never again return. In all the theories concerning the infinity of the universe, the limitations of time within a life always remain a given. This is what constitutes their magic, their seduction, and their beauty. Rilke defined it as the beautiful that always borders on the horrible; Elger Esser's pictures are not the formulations of romantic kitsch, but aim for the aesthetic expression of sadness and the conscious experience of loss. In this respect, his aesthetic project clearly correlates with the longing for antiquity in German Idealism and the need to call its gods archaic.

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