The Films of Eske Schlüters
Eske Schlüters dissects films by directors like Jean-Luc Godard and David Lynch and recuts them. Her subtle works defy all narrative; instead, they open up entirely new ways of reading cinematic imagery. Kito Nedo met with the artist in Florence for his series on the Villa Romana fellows of 2009.
||For Eske Schlüters, there are two ways of looking at a film: either she follows the pull of the movie's narrative, like the majority of cinema-goers, or she "scans" films on her computer in search of material she can use in her art. In the case of the latter, she works like a collector in search of seemingly indistinct, yet very particular images or shots that often last mere seconds. "I'm usually interested in visual moments that are not entirely clear," explains the artist, who was born in 1970 in Ostfriesland, in an interview at the Villa Romana. She has been living and working here since February as one of four fellows. It's usually the ephemeral moments that prove to be inspiring for Schlüters' film work: shadows behind a red drape, the glint of light on the surface of water, markings for the film player, or a typographic frolic from the introduction to a film from the sixties.
Schlüters puts together short films from the material she gleans, and paradoxically, they have nothing unequivocal about them, although at first glance formal clarity and a love of detail stand out. A delicate fabric of associations gives rise to reflections on complex themes like deception, disappearance, error, and affection—without taking on the appearance of a theoretical treatise. On the contrary, Schlüters' works are also fascinating aesthetic experiences. Her six-minute film Vanished into Thin Air from 2006 subtly touches upon the existential experience of transience. It successfully steers clear of the obvious visual clichés such as wilting plants, burning candles, deteriorating facades. Instead, Schlüters uses a series of brief takes, whispered words, or the simple drumming sound of raindrops to evoke an eerie state of mind, bringing the art form of film closer to life—and the contingence on time for both film and existence itself. Irrespective of the fact that the aesthetics of film offer countless ways to stretch out or speed up time, a ninety-minute film actually lasts this length of time in "real" life.
On the other hand, as documents of long past moments, film images also contain something timeless—this is what makes them so interesting for Schlüters, who has found a way to deal with the material in both an awe-inspired and disrespectful way: "When I take images from a film and join them together in a new context, it's not merely a new context that arises, but a new meaning as well," she explains in reference to her working method. "This way, you often get a clearer view of the images themselves, which disappear in the original sequence of the overall film." The appropriated material, scenes from films by important directors of experimental cinema such as Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, David Lynch, and Hal Hartley, are not merely combined with a new soundtrack containing new voices and sound; changes are also made to the images themselves when Schlüters manipulates speed, color, and crop. The fact that one never gets an impression that the images have been damaged, but rather carefully rebalanced, is due to the special sensibility she brings to bear in joining cinematic moments to form new combinations.
If, as a result of this manipulation, the reference to the original film is blurred beyond recognition, the artist doesn't really mind. On the contrary: her works aren't "a guessing game," she says confidently. "There is a form of recognition that rests on supposition." She can gain more from a vagueness that leaves room for association, for thinking in images. The fact that this approach needn't be linked to a denial of cinematic history is something film historian Christa Blümlinger recently mentioned in her book Kino aus zweiter Hand (Cinema Second Hand). She accorded similarly disposed deconstructivist appropriation methods of so-called "archive art films," particularly by virtue of their "historical, critical, or archaeological distance" to the original material, the ability to preserve contemplation on the aesthetic fundaments of film.
In the process, Schlüters makes use of the language of film and its grammar under very different conditions today than did the avant-garde of the sixties, when artists like Marcel Broodthaers had to defend the use of the camera as an artistic tool before the establishment. Even the appropriation techniques of the seventies and eighties that artists like Jack Goldstein stand for are today integrated into the mainstream of art. Closest to her work is perhaps the Scottish artist Douglas Gordon, who in 1993 stretched out Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho to the length of 24 hours, which destroyed the masterpiece's original narrative structure while at the same time revealed the cinematic skeleton of individual frames.
Because the appropriation and manipulation of extraneous film material for the production of art has long since acquired the status of an advanced cultural technique, it's important to differentiate between skillful appropriation and mindless quoting in art. For this reason, too, Schlüters is interested in the discussion about what can be seen—and not only how it was produced. "I'm not interested in cut & paste, but in the organization of the material. What I do is not a mere taking apart and collaging, but also an analysis of the image, of what is shown."
This also means that Schlüter explicitly refers in her work to the discussions that have accompanied the triumph of film-based art in the exhibition establishment since the sixties. One recalls how, with the arrival of the video beamer in contemporary art, the charged black box called the format of the neutral white cube into question as the sole soothing environment for a concentrated, contemplative enjoyment of art. The fact that Schlüter works with film as a visual artist does not, however, mean that she is an uncritical adherent of the black box. In contrast with other artists working in the medium of video, she is interested in a "scattered" way of seeing and, with the help of the exhibition architecture, is repeatedly searching for moments that break the suggestive power of the moving image. This is why she finds dim light more appropriate, allowing the film and the room's contours to be simultaneously visible. "I don't find the black box format all that great, because then you're concentrated only on the film. It's better when you can also see something of the space the works are installed in." In order to attain a good visibility of the film images with the greatest degree of openness, the artist likes to design architectural solutions beyond the box. For her exhibition at the Düsseldorf Kunstverein, for instance, she had several pedestal-like platforms and "sound showers" installed in the space to create an alternative spatial setup for several projections. Instead of remaining in front of a single projected surface, viewers had an opportunity to wander about the space and alternate from work to work.
The fact that Florence has basically no contemporary art scene is not a problem for Schlüters. What she especially enjoys about her fellowship at the Villa Romana is the opportunity to work with uninterrupted concentration. The city has already inspired her to pursue a new theme: every day, thousands of art tourists make the pilgrimage to the Palazzo Vecchio to see the copy of the famous Michelangelo statue of David, the original of which has been housed in the Accademia for the past 140 years. It's the phenomenon of copying, of doubling that interests her. "There's so much art here, and concentrating on paintings and copies of paintings is one way to approach the cultural abundance of this city." And maybe that's not the worst strategy for dealing with the picturesque sweetness of the Italian tourist town. Instead of giving in to art's intoxication while visiting the museums, churches, and palaces, Schlüters has already switched over to the other, more analytical mode of viewing art to collect material for her new work.
In July, the video installation Limite Meanwhile by Eske Schlüters and Axel Gaertner can be seen in the exhibition space Fake or Feint in Berlin.