Michael Höpfner: Unsettled Conditions

A Wanderer’s Subtle Photographs of his Travels Around the World Stir a Desire to Step Into Landscapes at the Kunstraum NÖ

On The Town | Monika Schwaerzler | March 2008

Tourists pose in front of former Dalai Lama residence (above left); plastic tents represent temporary artistic settlement (above) (Photo: Courtesy of the Kunstraum Niederösterreich.)

In his current exhibition at the Kunstraum Niederösterreich, Austrian artist Michael Höpfner displays slides and photographs taken over the past two years during travels to Central and Western Tibet, to the Kertsch Peninsula, the eastern part of the Ukraine and the Sinai Peninsula. He crossed these countries on foot, and in that respect, literally follows in the footsteps of artists like Hamish Fulton or Richard Long.

But without overemphasizing the notion of the ascetic who renounces modernity, Michael Höpfner simply believes in the power of walking. For him, it is a possibility to appropriate a landscape physically, to slow down the pace and thus increase the intensity of perception. In his experience, walking can mean to go blank, to lose oneself or, on the contrary, to develop a heightened awareness of the wanderer´s ancient exposure and loneliness while venturing forth into uninhabited regions. The true wanderer lives in unsettled conditions and willingly accepts the strain that results from this provisional existence.

But how do you transfer this feeling of unsettledness to a prestigious (government subsidized) exhibition space?

Entering the Kunstraum Niederösterreich, a visitor is confronted with plastic tents suspended

from the gallery ceiling, improvized, fragile, and easily removeable. With these sloppy plastic shelters concealing the white cube architecture of the gallery, the artist managed to include a

subtle dose of institutional critique in his show. The tents clearly signal that the artist´s settlement in the gallery is just a stop-over; a museum-like space was never meant to be his final destination. He will move on, keep walking, leaving Vienna and its art places behind. Although an art nomad, Michael Höpfner cannot be compared to the arrivistes of the international art jet set, who tour the world exactly in order to arrive at the various interchangeable art institutions across the globe.

In his exhibition Höpfner displays a selection of his travel logs, two slide projections and a body of photographic works of people posing for his camera in front of Potala Palace in Lhasa. This palace was the former residence of the Dalai Lama, and today tourists flock to this highly charged building. The Chinese "liberators" of Tibet have designated the vast space in front of the monumental palace as a military parade ground, which looks in the photos like an area of increased surveillance, overpowered by the palace.

Other images include a Chinese man in a cowboy hat, confidently looking into the camera, and a young couple, she in the traditional Tibetan outfit, he cool and westernized by comparison, with fashionable sun glasses, sport shoes and a portable radio next to him on the ground.

Why do these photographs look so disconcerting? Maybe in the extremely bright light that prevails at 3000 metres above sea level, all the photographic models look terribly exposed. The old palace behind them becomes a carrier of the gaze, mercilessly denying the importance of the humans performing on the stage before it. They arrange themselves, but the monumental architecture, invaded and infected by a castrating gaze, says that all their individual differences, their fashion details and efforts to create a favourable and lasting image of themselves will be in vain.

A selection of eighty landscape images that Michael Höpfner brought from his journeys are projected as slides. Black and white slide film of this sort -- which softly renders the full range of grey tones of an image – is no longer available with today’s technology. Placing the slide projector on the ground level clearly indicates that these travel pictures have nothing to do with the lofty horizons of tourist industry. None of these landscapes – monotonous endlessly receding roads, desolate buildings and plastic litter – seem to afford a suitable motif for a "good" photo. Instead, they introduce a subtle shift of perception and gently guide the eye to detect differences and nuances.

In one photo, a particular stone building may appear off centre in the foreground and in the next photo the same building is moved to a far distance and becomes almost unrecognizeable. Only careful scrutiny detects the meandering of the roaming gaze. Instead of the idealized fantasies of tourist photos, Höpfner´s images are exhibited in an extremely low position, stirring desire in your feet. You want to walk into these landscapes, want to experience the surface of the eroded earth or the stony path winding through the fields. The feet act as scouts for the eyes and lure them into unknown territory not yet appropriated by tourist imagery yet.

In trying to account for the strong attraction of Michael Höpfner´s photographs I realized that no matter where the photos were taken, these are arenas of existential experience. In these vast open spaces with their low horizons, the traveller can meet his demon or his God, can develop a feeling of the old-fashioned Kantian sublime, this crushing, defeating experience, which ultimately puts the human in connection with the beauty and endlessness of the universe. In this respect, Höpfner follows in the tradition of the German Romantics, artists like Kaspar David Friedrich or, more recently, Anselm Kiefer.

But Höpfner does not have any illusions. The cherished monumental landscape can turn out to be a nuclear test site like the Lop Nor desert in China. The road leading to the distance may be a trade route for cheap consumer goods traveling to the West. In response to these troubling aspects of a globalized world, the artist has chosen to travel and to continue living in unsettled conditions.

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    the vienna review March 2008