Fabian Knierim: On borders

[ … Greyish blue to the edges of our field of vision; a light streak above the horizon, beneath a sky filled with lowlying clouds; from the left, a neatly wooded point makes its way into the image, a green meadow, a stretch of asphalt that ends at the sheer edge of the low cliff — the Langelandsbelt stretches out peacefully before us. The surface of the sea is indifferent to history’s upheavals. The wake of the Soviet freighter that crossed through the shipping lane between the Danish islands of Langeland and Lolland in the spring of 1962 disappeared within a few minutes. The diplomatic waves stirred up by the ship and its cargo — Cuba-bound medium- and intermediate-range missiles and parts for constructing launching pads — had a much longer-lasting effect and nearly caused World War III.

Along with Øresund, the Langelandsbelt is the primary gateway to the Baltic Sea: ships destined for ports from Gdańsk to St Petersburg and those leaving the Baltic Sea pass through this strait — except for those passing through the Kiel Canal. Since the 1950s, NATO had been operating a small base here for the surveillance of the shipping lane, and it was suddenly thrust into the strategic centre of world politics in the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis. From here, the increase in Soviet shipping was registered with suspicion, and it was from here, in October of 1962, that a radio signal reported a transport ship’s change of course, confirming Khrushchev’s backing down in the confrontation and ending the crisis. …]

The Langelandsbelt was only one of the stations on Robert Schlotter’s journey for his work “Beyond Cold War”. A quarter of a century after the opening of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Iron Curtain, he sought out locations along the former demarcation line between the two most powerful military alliances in human history: the front line, where NATO and the Warsaw Pact had faced off opposite one another and which ran through the middle of Europe — from the Arctic Ocean to the Black Sea. The series is not the report of an expedition and not a travel narrative with a point of origin, a destination and encounters along the way; the images have not been placed in chronological order. On the contrary, it is a series of isolated fade-ins: the photographic gaze does not wander along the border, instead, it seems to cross it repeatedly, although it always remains unclear whether, at any given moment, we are looking in the direction of Moscow or Washington, whether to the East or to the West.

In terms of genre categories, these images can be classified as landscape photography. Nonetheless, they only occasionally deal with a heroically or romantically idealised nature, which sits on high above history or reconquers what the small-minded conflicts of humanity had seized for a few decades. The banality of humanity’s everyday life appears too often for that: residential buildings, utilitarian architecture, a fence here and there, a rough track, a paved path. Even when the most characteristic motifs of Romanticism are conjured up — cloudy peaks, the vastness of the sea — the effect of the landscape is at most indifferent; it is always already man-made, never significant on its own account, but always only as a historical site.

In this sense, Schlotter’s landscapes situate themselves within a different line of tradition: photographs of crime scenes and battlefields, that is, the sites of past events. Roger Fenton’s photograph from the Crimean War, which became famous under the Biblical title “The Valley of the Shadow of Death”, is an early example of this type of photography. The salted paper print of 1855 depicts a barren, hilly landscape devoid of people and a path winding into the background of the image. The scenery becomes identifiable as a battlefield through the dozens of cannonballs and artillery shells covering the desolated ground. The absent events are indicated only by the traces they have left behind, only the industrially fought war’s remnants, or what we interpret as such, remain: devastated surfaces, mass-produced weaponry, the extermination of every living thing — in our imagination, the event becomes all the more immediately present.

[ … In the 1980s Paul Graham demonstrated how exhaustively a conflict smouldering on for decades can etch itself into the surfaces of everyday life. His photo essay “Troubled Land” shows the omnipresence of the ‘the Troubles’ — the Northern Ireland conflict — within the island’s bucolic landscape: the colours of the hostile parties glare out from the luscious green of the meadows, a watchtower rises up behind an overgrown fieldstone wall, political graffiti on a traffic island, a sprinting British soldier at the edge of the photo.

Finally, Joel Sternfeld’s series “On This Site”, created in the mid-1990s and the final example in this cursory survey, deals specifically with crime scenes: the places where crimes, murders, racial hatred, neglect and commercial greed have taken place. The photos contain no indication at all of the acts, some of which had occurred long before: the images draw in the viewer with their seductive tonality and echoes of romantic Americana. They produce their remarkable effect through the obvious disparity between the everyday world that is seen and the act described in the accompanying text: an act that, of course, only seems to be exceptional and is actually — as the series suggests — a repressed integral element or, at least, the flip side of precisely that everyday world. Sternfeld gave his work the subtitle “Landscapes in Memoriam”. …]

We also find ourselves dealing with sites of memory in the photographs of Robert Schlotter. The project’s premise identifies the landscapes in terms of sites where history has taken place and we instinctively set out in search of its remnants. The compositions of the images encourage us to do so. A path or a street often leads into the distance of the pictorial space and invites viewers to follow its course, to look for clues along the way and to make sense out of them. And we certainly do not end up emptyhanded. Thus, a dome-shaped building — perhaps a surveillance station — rises up above the wooden houses of a Scandinavian town. At the edge of a forest path, we seem to recognise the remnants of anti-tank barriers; half-buried pieces of concrete make us think of the ruins of bunkers. However, the clues are rarely so unambiguous that we can be certain of their significance. Do the tyre tracks leading into the forest mark the path of a border patrol? What is to be made of the structure on top of the garage with the yellow door? Is the barbed wire fence in a clearing the remains of a secured border or just a fence surrounding a piece of land? It looks too formidable for the latter, but seems almost ridiculously inadequate for the former. Is this supposed to be the Iron Curtain? At the places where the representatives of two systems spent decades suspiciously eyeing one another, our gaze becomes paranoid itself. Before the background of each of our own individual memories, every detail
in the images sets off a chain of associations in which subjective and collective memory, folklore, headlines, news reports, accurate and less accurate historical knowledge, places and names intermingle: Yalta, Egon Bahr, SS-20, the NATO double-track decision, SM-70
‘automatic firing devices’, Leningrad, border patrols, the Wall, Kennedy, Reagan, Khrushchev, Vietnam, Kissinger, the German mark and the eastern mark, Red Square, Mathias Rust, red, blue, Ho Chi Minh, Leningrad, “The Day After”, fallout, British barracks in
Bielefeld, Rammstein, Afghanistan, Helmut Kohl’s cardigan, the Balance of Terror, tank battles in the Lüneburg Heath.

The photographs provide a space for this play of thoughts, as the landscapes may have done for the military strategists playing with their plans. The compositions open up into stage-like situations:
a plateau on the Brocken, a clearing, a plain seen as though from the elevated vantage point of a commander on his hill. A feeling of disorientation sets in. If the border is left unmarked, how are
we to determine where we are? Our gaze wanders expectantly through the photos, prepared to pounce on the smallest clue. Only once are we startled by an event in these photographs: a train
rushes through the image and crosses a forest path. Is a border crossed here?

Searching for the traces left by history, our gaze finally comes up against its own limits, its own ‘borders’. The images always contain barriers, which suggest that something lies behind them, but simultaneously prevent us from reaching it: a birch wood, a chain of hills, a corrugated metal fence. The paths that lead into the images also usually end abruptly: the street disappears from sight behind a small hill, a river disappears behind a bend, a jetty is lost between the trees of a forest. As viewers, we remain bound to our vantage point; our perspective persistently remains at the intermediate range of an observer. The urge to cross these ‘borders’, to tear down the walls and fences and to take a look behind the curtain, is stimulated — however, the photos do not submit and only make us to feel this urge twice as strongly. Beyond their concrete historical frame of reference, the photographs offer room to reflect on the essence of borders in themselves, on the security promised by them, on the orientation offered by them, on the ignorance fostered by them, on the mistrust and fears fuelled by them, on yearning and curiosity. What may be the most open photo of the series shows a view on to the Norwegian Sea. We can see all the way to the horizon — a border that cannot be crossed, but which can be moved.

published in: Beyond Cold War, Halle (Saale) / Germany, 2014