Wolfgang Staehle, "2001," Sept. 6-Oct. 6, 2001, at Postmasters, 459 West 19th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.
Wolfgang Staehle, one of the original cyber-artists and a founder of the seminal artists' online network The Thing [at http://bbs.thing.net], opened his first New York exhibition in ten years at Postmasters Gallery in West Chelsea earlier this month.
Called 2001, the work involves three live video feeds projected onto the walls of the darkened gallery. On the main wall is a panorama of the Manhattan skyline, stretching from the Brooklyn Bridge to the World Financial Center (and including the site of the World Trade Center); to the right is the Fernsehturm tv tower in the eastern sector of Berlin; and in the back space is the Comburg monastery near Schwaebisch Hall, Germany.
None of these views are expected to move or change. Instead the frames are an index, a measure of human permanence and evolution. Staehle gives us images of the artifacts that remain from successive eras of information transmission -- the bell tower's sound of metal clashing heard over town and field; the television tower pushing images, speech and music, evoking in its form the extravagant minaret of the medieval era from which the muzzein makes his call to prayer; and finally the two joined frames like the two late great towers, hub site of television transmission and telephonic communication, the architectural expression of the city itself as transmitting tower of global control. All of this is devised as a live program, as in itself a transmission.
Staehle has always been a minimalist and a process artist, his gallery work reduced in means and formally reflexive (like the "grid paintings" he made in the '80s of magnetic videotape braided onto canvas stretchers). What Staehle displays here is raw technological capability, simply a view, a camera position, and the image being constituted live over the internet.
The live frame of course is opened to the event, but the event is foreclosed by the subject framed, that is, architecture, which is static. Only it wasn't.
In a wall text Staehle quotes Heidegger on the instantaneous nature of modern society, and the philosopher concludes with the question, "What then?" The answer history provided then (1935), as now, was war. The precipitating contemporary event happened in Staehle's frame, webcast live. This is a matter of happenstance.
What did the landscape genre become in the era of photography? What is landscape photography in the era of instantaneous networks? Let's ask, with Slavoj Zizek, what ideological and phantasmatic functions does this genre of depiction serve? In American art, it has traditionally been used to convey the sense of mastery, the view from the mountaintop, the prospect overlooking the wilderness, seeing equals owning. Landscape served that purpose in the 19th century, just as eating at Windows on the World restaurant was consumption within a panorama, and by phantasmic implication, consumption of the panoramic view as well.
Staehle's installation work enters the art market bracketed by the "capitalist realist" photographic cityscapes by Andreas Gursky, shown earlier this year at the Museum of Modern Art, and the photojournalistic images of poor anonymous hordes by Sebastiao Salgado, recently on view at the International Center of Photography in midtown Manhattan.
Staehle's goal is not spectacular visual experience like, say, Marco Brambilla's mid-'90s video installation Cyclorama at Exit Art, which put the viewer inside an octagonal room at the center of a revolving restaurant.in a tall urban building. That work is drunk with spectacle, and strived successfully to induce a contact high.
Nor is Staehle trying ostentatiously to be interesting, in the manner of video pioneer, Bill Viola, whose exceptional work of the 1990s included a piece that pictured a medieval church in the midst of a modern small city imaged as a triptych of video projections in the style of antique panel painting, with cars squirming ceaselessly along the roads and clover leafs around the building.
Rather, Staehle's presentation is dry, even banal, like Warhol's Empire, that out-sized film (in its duration) imaging the first great architectural icon of New York. But with this kind of monumental banality, the meanings loose in the world may rush in and obliterate it. (Imagine if that bomber lost in the fog in 1945 had blundered into the building as Warhol filmed it.)
Panoramic landscape precedes history. What we don't see here is what matters most to us now -- the detail, like the dust, a morbid compound... the pathetic pictures of missing people posted on street corners. Aside from its profile, its iconicity, the panoramic view is painfully unedifying when any element of narrative or incident needs to enter into it.
Staehle's work was designed to stand in for painting, to emulate its iconicity. 2001 is an instantaneous transmission offered as a symbolic mode of human eternality, a verification through surveillance of the simultaneous presence of three towers from three eras. It is offered up as electronic architecture, a dry monument in light, a Pop celebration, an instantiation of the network itself that allows this video image to be continuously webcast over the web. It is an artistic bid with installation for the kind of temporal eternality accorded work like Walter de Maria's Earth Room, continuously maintained by the Dia Art Center on Wooster Street in SoHo as a kind of funereal metaphor for the long-displaced artists' district turned luxury shopping mall. As such it is an esthetic conception that has been ruined by history.
Electronic networks, like architecture, are fragile. Their eternal aspects are but borrowed seeming. Like beauty in life and peace in society. The banal is eternal, but its banality is contingent on no events. In Staehle's work, our city was suddenly revealed as waiting, like a film actor on the set or a trench-bound soldier.