Larger than Life
The park as a “seeing machine”: Arcadian landscapes unfold here before the viewer’s eyes. Majestic trees, serene bodies of water, broad meadows, lines of bushes, and gently sloping hills draw the eye into the distance. It does not take much to become immersed in these Elysian realms. One even discovers some kindred spirits: depicted figures can be seen contemplating and enjoying the beauty of nature.
Nevertheless, these images do not evoke a sense of the sublime. On closer inspection, not only is the virginity of nature lost forever, but the innocence of perception is also denied. The natural realms presented here are simply too beautiful to be true. The beauty, wildness, and potentially threatening aspects of nature have been skillfully merged into a decorative whole, as they were in landscape painting from the 17th through to the 19th century. Beate Gütschow’s photographic works reproduce traditional patterns of depiction, incorporating landscape elements that recall compositions by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), Jacob van Ruisdael (1628–1682), Claude Lorrain (1600–1682), John Constable (1776–1837), and Philipp Otto Runge (1777–1810). The subjects portrayed by these landscape painters were based on an idealized worldview, the construction of which reflected the dominant philosophical ethos of their time. The artists themselves, however, presented this ideal in a manner bordering on the absolute.
It is not only in the virtual communities of our modern world, where life itself is experienced as artificial and the concept of “naturalness” is exposed as an illusion, that the issue of differentiating between the original and the substitute becomes irrelevant. Jean-Jacques Rousseau long ago realized that nature and naturalness could only ever be ideals; his search for a natural truth became more of an intellectual exercise. The romantic idyll that prioritizes naturalness and regards it as an immediate mode of being has always been a myth, an illusion. “Nature” has indeed always been a cultivated, designed, and constructed environment, while the conception of nature has assumed many different forms throughout cultural history.
The longer one looks at them, the clearer it becomes that Beate Gütschow’s images are like jigsaw puzzles: they have been put together in the same way as what is commonly referred to as reality. Too clearly has the “not beautiful” been excluded and the “real” been denied or made hyperreal: the green of the meadow is just that little bit too saturated; the bark of the tree is too sharply in focus, making it appear too dominant; the light on the blades of grass seems to be coming from a different angle than that on the treetop; and, despite the clouds on the horizon, no mist obscures the view into the distance. The images begin to break down into their artistically conventional and culturally familiar components, shifting the focus of interest onto the materials and tools that have been used to create them.
Beate Gütschow photographs landscapes with a medium-format analog camera, then converts the images into digital files. From this archived material she then constructs new landscapes in Photoshop, basing their spatial arrangements and compositional structures on the principles of landscape painting. As part of this subsequent editing process, she adjusts the light and colors in the images, applying lighting techniques from the realm of painting to her photographs. Because Gütschow uses only the retouching tool and other traditional darkroom techniques offered by Photoshop, not its painting tools, the photographic surface is preserved and the joins between the component parts are not immediately visible. These digital tools make it possible to employ a painterly method without the resulting picture being a painting. The viewer is given the impression that this is a completely normal photograph. When, however, an ideal landscape is presented in the form of a photograph, it appears more unnatural than the painted version of the same view. In this way, Gütschow’s work explores concepts of representation, color, and light—the formal attributes of painting and photography—as well as the distinctions between documentation and staging.
Playing the role of an android puppet master, George Michael whips a group of sexy women through the video for Freeek! (2002). In this larger-than-life scenario, the dream girls are wired up, brought to their knees, and led around on leashes. They are at once erotic cyborgs and “desiring machines.” Specifically designed to arouse sexual fantasies, they are more potent than tangible flesh and invite viewers to project themselves into the scene. What is technically possible appears real, a fact that has always influenced culturally determined perception. Like this music video, which offers a wry commentary on how the pop and TV industries operate—namely, with the aid of some very simple and very direct visual stimuli—Gütschow explores and plays with the manipulative power of artifacts in the form and content of her artworks.
Following the initial dreamy immersion in the apparently idyllic natural scenes Gütschow depicts, it gradually becomes clear that these scenes may not actually contain what one had hoped to find there. The willing viewer has all too eagerly allowed him- or herself to be seduced by traditional notions of beauty and is now being led around devotedly on the digital leash of the deus ex machina. This process has been carried out in a very direct and calculated manner. The term “fake” etymologically combines “factual” and “fictitious.” Attracted by a desire for the truth, beauty, and goodness of the natural state, the seeker gets lost in the reflected representation. Echoing the ideal landscape thus leads to a demythologization of what is supposed to be a natural phenomenon.
Although they lose their absolute character, nature and the natural remain valid as relational concepts with respect to the simulated or artificial, and bravely oppose the increasing tendency towards artificiality. As a hypothetical postulate of “being good,” the idyll not only communicates the contrasting conditions in the actual social environment, but also refers to appearance and illusion. It points to the fact that what is presumed to be obvious and evident is based solely on a combination of modes of seeing, ways of thinking, and material practices that are specific to a given time. How greatly these elements are determined by and symptomatic of each other has been outlined by Michel Foucault in his extensive archeological and genealogical studies.
Gütschow demonstrates this game of historical references by using photography and digital montage to reconstruct landscape paintings. Her works examine the technical apparatus of visualization and the spatial organization of knowledge, both of which influence how seeing is conceived and also shape current thinking. She appropriates technologies of the visible, applies these to contemporary media, and subjects them to transfer processes. In doing so, she conveys what Foucault deemed impossible: the thought from outside (la pensée du dehors). The speculative reconstruction of a supposedly natural state invites reflection upon civilizational influences and hence an examination of the organization of knowledge.
In any case, the blooming landscapes prove to be artificial paradises, their truth content as fragile and short-lived as the grasses swaying in the warm summer wind. The veracity and inspirational quality of statements made primarily for media effect last only for one brief season, while the question of what is real gets lost in the Elysium of shiny surfaces.
The social environment is a media-driven civilizing machine that not only defines our mode of seeing, our desires, and our viewing inclinations, but also sets the scene for our self-stagings. In Emile, Rousseau develops an educational theory aimed at raising a “natural” man, a man liberated from all of the attributes and apparent existences that he adopts in order to improve his image in the eyes of others, and through which he is deformed by institutions that regard human beings in the “state of nature” as uncivilized savages or freaks. Freeek! is the first single George Michael released after being arrested in 1998 for lewd conduct in a public lavatory that was known to be a popular meeting place for gay men. At the end of the video, when the musical storm and the visual staccatos have abated, the sex god/cyborg is left behind, breathing heavily and exhausted.
Gebbers, Anna-Catharina. “Larger than Life.” In Beate Gütschow: ZISLS. Heidelberg, 2016, pp. 8-17.
Translated by Jacqueline Todd.