Surveying the World
Cyrill Lachauer’s Photographic Field Research

No matter whether he explores Berlin, Upper Bavaria, or rural America—Cyrill Lachauer’s photographs and films root out hidden stories inscribed in landscapes. They deal with colonialism, indigenous Americans, and failed hippie utopias. Now Lachauer is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection with his series “-3,54 m.ü.NHN. bis 2962 m.ü.NHN.” Achim Drucks met with Lachauer at Berlinische Galerie, the site of the artist’s current exhibition.
“What do you want here?” is a question Cyrill Lachauer has often been asked during his travels through the USA. It can express friendly interest or massive rejection, but it always implies that he is a “stranger” and doesn’t really belong there. Yet with his plaid Patagonia shirt, trucker cap, and boots Lachauer looks more like someone you would meet in the Californian wilderness than at Berlinische Galerie, where the 38-year-old photographer and experimental filmmaker is currently showing his most recent work. Indeed, the title of this exhibition is What Do You Want Here? Lachauer’s works investigate differentness, belonging, dislocation, and tradition. They lead you through an America between myth and decay, into a world of drifters and travelers, people who move from one place to the next and don’t seem to feel at home anywhere. We don’t know if they are dropouts or homeless people.

In urban slang, “Dodging Raindrops” means fleeing the rain, going to places where the sun always shines. And in a certain sense Lachauer’s episodic film Dodging Raindrops – A Separate Reality, the central work of the exhibition, tells about the great dream of dropping out. At the same time, however, it is a swansong of the visions of the hippie generation. For Lachauer follows the traces of his boyhood idol, the New Age Guru Carlos Castaneda, through California and Arizona. And neither Castaneda’s life nor the social realities the artist encounters seem very promising. 

The project actually began much earlier, in the mid-1990s, in Rosenheim, Bavaria. It was here that the then 15-year-old Lachauer was given Castaneda’s 1971 book A Separate Reality as a Christmas present, and he was captivated immediately. While other teenagers listened to hip-hop and electro, Lachauer delved into a virtually forgotten world. Castaneda’s cult books revolve around the teachings of the shaman Don Juan, peyote rituals, the “Ring of Power,” and “Fire from Within.” They were actually rather uncool, something for late hippies. But he “devoured” the book in just two days, while listening to Leonard Cohen’s album Songs of Love and Hate in a continuous loop.

Lachauer decided to study ethnology, like Castaneda. “Initially this was the result a very romantic impulse,” the artist recalls. What he didn’t know at the time was that the mystical shaman Don Juan and his teachings were fictitious, invented by Castaneda. “I didn’t know that this book contains fake field research. At the university, where I was quickly de-romanticized, thank God, Castaneda’s “fake research” again captured my interest, as an example of how white people construct their image of Native Americans and exploit the latter’s cultures for their purposes.” Parallel to ethnology, the son of the painter Alfons Lachauer later began studying art too, first at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, and later at the Universität der Künste in Berlin, where he was in the master class of Lothar Baumgarten, who also explored Native American cultures in depth.

Lachauer stumbled upon Castaneda again on a scholarship in Los Angeles. “He had withdrawn completely to a villa, like a sort of guru, with a group of young women who were totally subservient to him,” says the artist. When the writer died in 1998, five of the women disappeared. At the time, it was thought to be a mass suicide. But years later hikers found the skeleton of one of the women in Death Valley. The preacher of a new, spiritual age ended his life as an authoritarian sect leader, and his “Path of Knowledge” led to a nightmare.

But Castaneda’s biography, the places he visited, are just the coordinate system for Dodging Raindrops. Lachauer’s experimental film essay combines a poetic, radically subjective meditation on failed sixties utopias with an investigation of a profoundly divided society marked by racism and social inequality. “My work is about searching,” explains Lachauer. Thus, his film only shows fragments of stories, spinning a thick web of allusions. Paintings of rapping gang members in Watts, a section of Los Angeles known for crime, were followed by photographs of the ruins of Llano del Rio, the last remnants of a failed attempt to establish a socialist commune in the Mojave Desert. With his 16mm camera Lachauer also followed a young drifter in bushes along California’s Pacific Coast Highway, where the dropout set up a provisional camp with his dogs and books of poetry. The artist also stopped an Apache reservation, where pouring rain drums down on abandoned hunting lodges whose furniture is rotting outside. A garbage heap amid an idyllic forest landscape. No shamans or enlightenment can be found here.

The photos are accompanied by a hypnotic soundtrack and texts. The voice of the speaker would perfectly match a Western hero scarred by life. While the film leaves many things open, the texts are clear and concise, and sometimes breathtakingly hard. It They are also about the artist himself, a white man traveling through a land once inhabited by Indians: White. Male. Predator. A direct descendant of the rapists of this land. But they also highlight current events, including the bloody attack on a black church in Charleston. Dodging Raindrops ends with scenes from a rodeo in Arizona, a masculine, purely white world full of cowboy hats, lassos, and saddles.

This ambivalence between the American ideal of freedom, spirituality, and individuality and latent violence also characterize Lachauer’s 36-part photo series Adventures of a White Middle Class Man. The subtitle, From Black Hawk to Mother Leafy Anderson, refers to transmigration. “At first, I was interested in Black Hawk, a Sauk chief, and in Mother Leafy Anderson, an Afro-American church founder. When she was in trance her spirit guide was Black Hawk. They both lived on the Mississippi River. In keeping with historical incidents, I wanted to look at this landscape zone and search for traces, for a narrative,” says Lachauer. But during this trip we he soon began focusing on encounters, “on trying to deal honestly with my proximity to the drifters and travelers on the move all over the USA, on trains, on foot, or by car.” He emphasizes that he did not want to produce “poverty porn,” a kind of photography that exploits “the other” voyeuristically. “My form is to leave gaps and not to fix the camera on certain things that I experience or see. Instead, I rely on a stiller language.” 

His pictures of the Mississippi show “non-places” and uncultivated land, capture traces of absence and decay: the remains of sleeping places, signs scratched into walls, a horse next to a lonely car wreck. Almost all of the people in Lachauer’s pictures—a woman on a houseboat, an old man with a Colt in his hand—turn away from the viewer. They are akin to figures seen from behind in Romantic paintings. Only a tattooed sword swallower performs for the camera. “I wanted to create images which speak about anyone. And accordingly I didn’t want to speak about the landscape, but—and this may sound a little dramatic—to speak with the landscape.” Although his journey along the Mississippi began when Donald Trump was elected president, Lachauer in no way intended to comment on daily politics. With its distanced poetry, the hints of vulnerability and emotions, and the focus on the stories behind the pictures, his work is in the tradition of great American documentary photographers, from Joel Sternfeld to Alec Soth.

At the same time, there is a shimmer of ethnology. Concealed behind the poetic motifs is an almost scientific interest in markings, monuments, symbols, and territories—in how the landscape is staked out and usurped. For example, the three giant crosses that were rammed into the soil on a muddy field near the Mississippi in a triumphal gesture mark the victory over the indigenous peoples of this country and the destruction of their culture.

-3,54 m.ü.NHN. bis 2962 m.ü.NHN, a series of photographic works recently purchased for the Deutsche Bank Collection, also examines forms of appropriating land. Initially, the colored-in pictures of clouds of smoke seem as romantic as the mist over the Mississippi. This is contrasted with the frugal title, “m.ü.NHN,” a German abbreviation for meters above standard elevation zero, or the height above sea level. Indeed, Lachauer is interested in surveying the world. For his series he traveled all over Germany, from Neuendorf-Sachsenbande, a municipality in Schleswig-Holstein 3.54 meters below sea level, to Zugspitze, the country’s highest peak. At certain geographical points he ignited smoke cartridges to mark the spot, but also to make it disappear. “On the one hand, I was concerned with veiling, with turning off the landscape, which is also done in cartography, where the space is replaced by a color. But the smoke also refers to the destruction that is connected with cartography and conquests.” He also alludes to the present. “Smoke also plays a role in protests and demonstrations, or in the flares of soccer hooligans.” Lachauer says he was interested in how we treat that which we call nature, landscape: “One thing we do is to make a map from it in which a forest, a mountain, or a lake is pressed into a colored system. On a second level, this relates to another issue I am very occupied with: the conquest of the New World, and colonization, which would not have been possible without maps and cartography.”

How much ritual this action contains is shown in his film 2 m.ü.NHN. – 114,7 m.ü.NHN, which he shot in the Berlin area in 2012. Underscored by a suggestive soundtrack by the composer and artist Ari Benjamin Meyers, thick smoke fills the canvas, a pulsing, constantly changing organism that devours everything. Like the photographs in his series from the Deutsche Bank Collection, the film is also deeply ambivalent, beautiful and menacing at once. And like Lachauer’s photographs of landscapes in the American hinterland, the images in the film keep their secret. “Whether here in Berlin or on the Mississippi, the world is so fragmentary, fractured, and complex that clear statements do not do justice to it,” says Lachauer, “That would not correspond to my experience. I find it so contradictory that I think I can do it much more justice with this more unclear, more cryptic, more poetic language.”

Cyrill Lachauer. What Do You Want Here
Until 4/30/2018 
Berlinische Galerie