Wim Wenders: Time Capsules In Places, Strange and Quiet

For the first time in Austria, an exhibition of the large-format photographs of the German film director, until 17 November

On The Town | Mary Albon | November 2012

Open Air Screen, Palermo from the filmmaker’s current exhibit at OstLicht (Photo: Wim Wenders)

"When you’re on the road a lot, when you enjoy wandering in order to lose yourself, you can land in the most remarkable places," says German film director Wim Wenders. "It must be some kind of built-in radar that often leads me into regions that are either strangely quiet or strange in a quiet way."

The exhibition Places, Strange and Quiet at the OstLicht Photography Gallery reveals that Wenders, one of the masters of New German Cinema known around the globe for films like Paris, Texas (1984), Wings of Desire (1987) and The Buena Vista Social Club (1998), also has a talent with another kind of camera.

As in his films, in which a journey is often at the heart of the matter, place plays a central role in his photography. On exhibit for the first time in Austria, his large-format photos, mainly in colour and shot over a period of four decades, convey the melancholic spirit of deserted, forgotten and unknown places all over the world, from Armenia to Australia, from Tokyo to Berlin.

Wenders’ photos reveal a predilection for lonely, empty spaces that capture a specific, unrepeatable moment in time. They echo with history, and often with a sense of loss. "Places profoundly determine how we live," he has said about the exhibition. "I try to listen to what a place has to say about history and stories, and above all about us."

"Every picture is a time capsule" for Wenders. He is admittedly old-fashioned when it comes to photography, preferring to shoot with film because it produces permanent, one-time-only images. "This is not nostalgia," he insists, "but pure pleasure in reality. And a striving against its progressive disappearance." Film cannot be manipulated in the same way as digital images. "The digital photographers of today practice a different kind of profession," according to Wenders. "They practice a new form of painting, which, I think, leaves ‘photography’ behind." His sense of composition produces perfectly balanced arrangements of shapes and colours – no manipulation necessary.

Wenders’ commentaries on his photos have the quiet grace of free verse, are laced with gentle humour and often include a nugget of insight about the medium of photography itself.

Noticeably absent from most his photos in the OstLicht show are human beings. Even so, his images are never static, and there is always a story lurking in his photos. An abandoned Ferris wheel in Armenia, a cemetery orphaned in the heart of a dense Japanese cityscape, or an open-air film screen baking in the Italian sun all hint at deeper stories. One suspects that "Open Air Screen, Palermo" (2007) may have special resonance for Wenders. Rows of orange plastic chairs are arrayed before a blank screen, a palm tree in their midst. Gradually you notice dissonant details that heighten the sense of abandonment – shadows of trees on the screen, tufts of scrub growing in cracks in the asphalt among the chairs. Perhaps Wenders is mourning the loss of communal experience that the cinema offers.

The eeriest photos in the exhibit were shot in Fukushima, Japan, not long after its trifecta of disasters. The invisible presence of radiation marked Wenders’ photos of the abandoned town with a ghostly sine curve.

His photos from the former East Germany are perhaps the most complex. They convey how easily history can be displaced, replaced and covered up. Commenting on a 20-year-old image of a spray of bullet holes on a building in Berlin’s old Jewish quarter, Wenders wryly notes that today it is a souvenir shop. A graffito emblazoned on another building in East Berlin proclaims: "This house once stood in another country."

In "Formerly ‘Palast der Republik,’ Berlin" (2008), in which the one-time seat of the parliament of the German Democratic Republic is being torn down, the narrative is about much more than the dismantling and disappearance of Communist East Germany. The site of the Palast der Republik on Berlin’s grandest avenue, Unter den Linden, is freighted with historical significance. This was also the heart of the Nazi regime, and before it, imperial Germany. The East Germans built their parliament on the site of the 18th-century Hohenzollern imperial palace, the Berliner Schloss, which was a bombed-out shell when the Communists took power after the war. Today, a largely restored version of the imperial palace is to be built on the same plot of land – though budget constraints have delayed construction.

Buildings rise and fall and rise again. Time is always moving forward. Seasons change, cities evolve, we all grow older. Wenders is a specialist in capturing these moments of change and decline.

Vienna’s urban landscape is also constantly changing. OstLicht, the first branch location of Vienna’s WestLicht photography gallery, is located in a new hub for the arts and creative industries in the recently refurbished AnkerbrotFabrik in Favoriten. Once Europe’s largest bread producer, this cozy complex of brick buildings dating back to 1891 now provides loft space for galleries, artists’ studios, workshops and offices. Instead of feeding the city’s stomach, today the Ankerbrot-Fabrik feeds Vienna’s imagination.

Wim Wenders: Places, Strange and Quiet

Through 9 Jan., 2013

OstLicht Photography Gallery

10., Absberggasse 27


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