BUILD YOUR CITIES ON THE SLOPES OF VISUVIUS!
Dieter Roelstraete - 2011
Ever since “the lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire,” as it is said in Genesis 19, sulfur (as brimstone is now more commonly called) has been associated with infernal wrath – as much a divine attribute, then, as a symbol of hell. [Or an olfactory warning that the gates of hell have been swung open.] Why sulfur, of all chemical elements, has become so strongly identified with Satan’s realm is not a question that this text aspires to answer, but the historical association certainly lends some spiritual weight to the experience of viewing Outward-bound, a new triple-screen video installation in which Wim Catrysse attempts to capture something of the volcanic yellow haze’s apocalyptic aura.
Outward-bound was shot over a twelve-day period in September 2010 which Catrysse spent on the flanks of the Kawah Ijen, a volcano in eastern Java that is known locally as a site of sulfur mining – an ancient industry that, somewhat inexplicably, has become a tourist attraction of sorts. The video triptych, featuring mirroring images that have been ingenuously welded together to increase the immersive panoramic effect, opens with a view of a bellowing mass of smoke blowing over a body of water – a lake inside the volcano’s active crater. This ominous scene is set to an eerie soundtrack which inevitably invokes memories of the music of Györgi Ligeti that was used to such stunning effect in Stanley Kubrick’s epochal 2001: A Space Odyssey – a reference which reflects the artist’s long-standing interest in science-fiction, an element that was already overwhelmingly present in an earlier video installation titled Dusking. (This work, made in 2009, was based on a 4-second clip, set in a similarly gaseous landscape, that Catrysse had seen in yet another sci-fi classic, namely Alien. As its title already suggests, Dusking was a tenebrous affair – which begs the question: why is the future science fiction so often talks about always so freakin’ nocturnal?) Then human figures start to appear, some wearing gas masks, some holding little more than a rag in front of their mouths as they brave the oppressively thick, toxic yellow smoke; they are holding long sticks in their hands with which they poke into the volcano’s belching pores: the primitive tools of their trade – the everyday business of exploiting the earth in one of the world’s least worldly environments.
Looking at the surreal spectacle of sulfur mining in remote Eastern Java, one inevitably starts wondering what sulfur is actually mined for (other than the heads of matchbox matches), and although Catrysse is not so much interested in documenting an economic process, this is nonetheless where Steve McQueen’s simultaneously clinical and sensuous film Gravesend from 2007 comes to mind, which portrays the mining of Coltan in the far-flung eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Catrysse certainly shares McQueen’s passion for a thoroughly embodied cinema of quasi-haptic viewing experiences – that, I assume, which led my colleague Anselm Franke to single out vertigo as the common thread running through all of the artist’s work. Franke’s interpretation could be specified more still by naming the vertiginous movement in Catrysse’s films centrifugal (rather than centripetal), in that this vertiginous movement is indeed often “outward bound”: the artist can often be found braving extreme circumstances, searching out life’s (or the earth’s) margins, feeling his way along frontiers, boundaries and borderlines of all kinds – and one frontier in particular he has long been interested in exploring, with an eye on seeing it implode precisely, is that between science and fiction.
There is of course a certain romantic quality (in the critical, philosophical sense of that oft-abused term) at work in the outlier’s search for extremes and extremities, for the out-of-bounds and out-of-reach, and it is hard not to think of the arch-romantic aesthetic category of the sublime when finding oneself transfixed by the awesome natural spectacle “documented” in Outward-bound. I would therefore like to conclude by again comparing Catrysse’s most recent work to its predecessor, Dusking, as both works seem to relate to each other in much the same way like two famous paintings by Romanticism’s most famous painter, Caspar David Friedrich. One is titled Das Eismeer (1824), the other Der Wanderer über das Nebelmeer (1818), and it is the iconic second painting in particular that my mind inevitably wandered off to after having seen Outward-bound at the artist’s studio a couple of weeks before the work’s premiere. The oft-reproduced Wanderer depicts a solitary male figure seen from the back, atop a mountain, imperiously looking down upon the “sea of clouds” at his feet: his is the optical equivalent of that transitional moment in European history when the lucid spirit of the Enlightenment, tiring of the clarity of its own thought, starts to long again for its submersion in the proverbial “clouds of unknowing.” Friedrich’s Olympian viewpoint has of course long become an epistemological (if not ontological) impossibility: we are no longer above the sea of clouds, but always already submerged in them – in fact, we probably never emerged from the fumes of becoming in the first place. The tremendous roaring and spewing of noxious, foul-smelling smoke that accompanies the moment the earth’s innards meet our atmosphere may appear infernal (and therefore otherworldly) indeed, but capturing it may well be the best way to characterize one elemental aspect of the human condition – something that has to do with man’s strange desire to “live dangerously”, in Friedrich Nietzsche’s celebrated words: “build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius!”
By Dieter Roelstraete – October 2011