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Seen in Los Angeles: Werner Herzog’s Hearsay of the Soul

Herzog Hearsay of the Soul

Werner Herzog’s latest project is an eighteen-minute, five-channel video installation entitled Hearsay of the Soul, featuring the landscape etchings of 17th-century Dutch painter Hercules Segers–known for his expressive, un-peopled landscapes replete with jagged peaks and barren valleys[1] –in tandem with the contemporary music of Dutch composer Ernst Reijseger. The project seems both a personal homage to these artists, especially Segers–whom Herzog regards as “the father of modernity in art”–and a humble experiment playing with the relationship between music and image.

Hercules Segers, "The Hague Mountain Landscape." Etching 23.6 x 28.5 cm

While a number of critics have testified to the sublime experience that Herzog’s fusion of Segers’ expressive landscapes and Riejseger’s avant-garde cello performance attempts to produce[2], I’m also sympathetic to those critics that question the work as nothing more than a dressed-up exhibition of Segers’s prints. But I think that the work’s austerity is first a testament to Herzog’s enthusiasm for the artists he showcases–an enthusiasm I might question (Segers as father of modernity?) but am nonetheless fascinated by–and second a function of Herzog’s interest in the interaction between music and painting. One needn’t go far to pinpoint this interest in his work. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) already juxtaposed Reijsegers’ music with the discovery of ancient cave paintings, and Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) momentarily combines Richard Wagner with Caspar David Friedrich[3]. The stripped-down pairing of Segers’ landscapes and Reijseger’s music seems a distillation of this artistic impulse, so I think Hearsay should be given our sincere attention, less as a celebrated artistic debut than as a window into the mind of an enigmatic filmmaker. The video installation consists of five projected screens that form a triptych of sorts–three adjacent screens on the wall in front, one each on opposite sides of the room. The triptych, I think, is a useful form for thinking through the piece. The work consists of three distinct sections, but they don’t seem to unfold in a linear progression. We don’t move from an exposition, to climax, to denouement, nor is this a steady crescendo. Instead, I want to say that the first and last sections support, or rather infuse, the second section, which spatially and temporally feels like the centerpiece. In the first section, magnified portions of individual Segers landscapes are projected on all five screens, each screen’s image scrolling laterally, often at different speeds. More than anything, what we get here is a sense of immersion rather than composition. Magnified this close, and paired with slow, uneven scrolling movements, Segers’s landscape prints appear not so much as individual pictorial works but as textured and colored surfaces to be inhabited. The accompanying choral chant gives the section a sense of mysticism, a feeling almost directly opposed to the tone of stately elegance in the final section, where we scale back and see the landscape prints as smaller, framed pictorial units, accompanied by Reijseger’s adaptation of an ethereal Handel aria. This last section feels like a palette cleanser, a matter-of-fact exhibition of the prints we’ve just experienced but haven’t exactly seen. The accompanying aria confirms this; in this context, the piece sounds like an imagined score fit for an evening at the art gallery–it’s refined and reverent, but importantly lacks the guttural, bassy vocals of the opening chant.

A snapshot from the first section of the piece: magnified portions of a Segers etching fill your field of vision.

The first and last sections, then, almost function as bookends, suggesting a dialectic between experience and appreciation, immersion and composition, closeness and distance. But it’s the second section, the centerpiece, that resonates with me. Here, we witness a performance by Ernst Reijseger on cello accompanied by Harmen Fraanje on organ.[4] They’re in a Lutheran church in the Dutch city of Harrlem, but you wouldn’t know it by the looks of it. All we see is Reijseger sitting with his cello in the middle of a small white room cluttered with electrical cords, chairs, and amplification equipment; periodically, the camera swivels 180 degrees to find Fraanje on a modern, austere pipe organ, the likes of which I’ve never seen before–it’s simple and white with clean lines, and it’s discreetly recessed into the corner of the room like a cabinet. Everything about the footage of the musicians eschews baroque ornament. Their presence is the room together seems entirely unpretentious, even unplanned. The footage itself–handheld and shaky, but not stylishly so–lends to this sense of contingency, the sense that Herzog brought these two together on a whim, with little fanfare, stripping away the performative aspects of musical performance. Throughout the section, the footage of Reijseger’s performance is juxtaposed with Segers’s landscapes in a variety of ways, and we start to wonder which image, the video of the musicians or the magnified etchings, takes precedence: which is the center piece and which the accompaniment? It’s a question that I think Herzog is concerned with, though he’d probably reject this particular question altogether. On the wall text just outside of the installation, Herzog writes that the juxtaposition of Segers’ prints with Reijseger’s music “should transform images into music, and music into images…Segers’s and Reijseger’s ecstasies morph into each other.” I think Herzog’s attempt to articulate the relationship between sound and image is particularly important for this work, if not for his entire oeuvre. But I don’t just think the primary relationship in Hearsay is between Reijseger’s music and Segers’s landscapes. What I was really drawn to was the relationship between the music we hear and the sight of Reijseger’s performance. Toward the end of this second section, Reijseger’s playing grows in intensity as his image takes over the center screen, surrounded by Segers’ landscapes. It’s at this point that we realize that Reijseger’s piece builds vertically rather than horizontally; the musical composition, lacking sections and refrains, consists mostly of Reijseger’s seemingly improvisational flourishes against the steady two-chord oscillations of the organ. This is more about sound than composition.

Reijseger takes the center screen while Segers's prints surround him.

It’s at this moment in Hearsay, when Reijseger occupies the center and Segers the periphery, that Herzog’s ambitions start to come together, for Reijseger becomes enveloped in sound, his musical choices becoming more visceral and less tonally consistent, less legible. His bodily and facial contortions suddenly become as captivating as the precise movements of his fingers, and we start to imagine that the sounds he produces cannot adequately translate the feelings and impulses that prompt them. No, Reijseger’s cello isn’t accompanying Segers’s etchings, but is rather helping us understand what Herzog means by proclaiming Segers the father of modern art: his desolate, alien landscapes, at once site-specific and dreamlike, are a lot like Reijseger’s playing: clearly invested with the subjective feelings of the artist but never exhaustive of them. Contemplating his own relationship to Segers’s etchings, Herzog writes that “Segers’s images and my films do not speak to each other, but for a brief moment, I hope, they might dance with each other.” It’s no surprise that Herzog, always chasing after the inexpressible sublime moment, would reject a linguistic metaphor and instead embrace dance, which reminds us of the imperceptible choices our bodies make before our minds are conscious of them.
Hearsay of the Soul is currently running at the Getty Center in Los Angeles until January 19, 2014.

[1] You can get a sense of what made Segers interesting by comparing his landscapes to those of his contemporary, Jan Van Goyen, whom Samuel Beckett critiqued as someone who “anthropomorphized landscape.”
[2] Paddy Johnson at artfcity.com gives a great summary of the critical praise: ” New York Magazine’s Jerry Saltz calls the installation “ravishing“, and New York Times critic Roberta Smith actually went so far as to dare viewers “not to cry” (somehow I managed). Meanwhile, Emily Nathan at ArtNet called it hypnotic and enchanting, Kyle Chayka at ArtInfo wrote that it was “awesome” and “sublime”, and Time Out’s Howard Halle simply described the work as undeniably “beautiful“. Other phrases thrown around the blogosphere include ”arresting“, “you are in a cathedral experiencing the divine“, and my personal favorite, a “place for stoners.”
[3]Just before he arrives at the Count’s castle, Jonathan Harker, evoking Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog as he faces the ocean with his back to the camera, seems to summon Wagner’s prelude to “Das Rheingold.”
[4] You can see this same performance in its entirety in Herzog’s documentary short Ode to the Dawn of Man (2011), a companion piece of sorts to his documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams.