The German artist and filmmaker Julian Rosefeldt is internationally renowned for his visually opulent and meticulously choreographed moving-image artworks. On the occasion of the Australian premiere of his latest work In the Land of Drought, 2015/2017, at the NGV, Rosefeldt spoke with Katharina Prugger, NGV Curatorial Project Officer, Contemporary Art, via Skype from Rome, where he is currently based for the prestigious German Academy Rome Villa Massimo fellowship.
Katharina Prugger: In the Land of Drought, 2015/2017, is a condensed version of your filmic interpretation of Joseph Haydn’s famous oratorio The Creation (1797–98), which you made on the invitation of the Ruhrtriennale Festival of the Arts to accompany a live concert in 2015. Could you talk about more about the origin of this project?
Julian Rosefeldt: Many paths can lead to an art project; this one leads back quite a few years. I am a Professor for Digital and Time-based Media at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste (Academy of Fine Arts), Munich, and I like to travel with my students once a year. We don’t necessarily visit places with lots of art, but rather aim to spend time team-building while gaining some travel experience, so we embarked on a road trip to the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco. I had heard about the studio complexes in Ouarzazate, a city on the southern edge of the mountain range, not far from Marrakesh. The film industry often shoots biblical or ancient historical content there because of the landscape and the weather. The lovely thing for me, as an artist, is that after filming, the studios commonly abandon their film sets in the landscape, as it is cheaper to leave them to the elements. I had heard about this, and so I went to see the locations with my students. These amazing film sets actually look like palaces under restoration with the scaffolding around them; many people watching In the Land of Drought, 2015/2017, believe that these are real buildings.
The other part that led me to make In the Land of Drought is a funny coincidence. At the time I was trying to finance Manifesto,1The celebrated thirteen-channel video installation Rosefeldt produced in 2015, starring the actor Cate Blanchett. which is always the most difficult part of a project. One idea I had for a potential co-producing partner was the Ruhrtriennale. So, as I often do with new ideas, I made a note of it; my desk is full of notes with calls to be made. The piece of paper with ‘Call Ruhrtriennale’ was sitting on my desk for about two weeks when one day my phone rang. It was Tobias Staab, a dramaturge with the Ruhrtriennale under artistic director Johan Simons. He said he would like to talk to me about a project and I said, ‘Yeah and I already know which one’. It was a pure coincidence that while I was about to call him for Manifesto, he had called to invite me for another project.
For me, these stories about the origins of a work are always important. In that case, it was Tobias Staab inviting me to create a visual interpretation of Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation. I joked with Tobias at the time and said ‘Okay we have to bargain here because I also have an idea’; so in the end, Ruhrtriennale co-produced Manifesto as well as The Creation.
Quite soon after I was invited by the Ruhrtriennale, memories from my road trip to Morocco came back to mind, and I thought the deserted film sets could serve as a perfect tool to tell Haydn’s Creation in another way. I came to an understanding with the Ruhrtriennale that I could use whatever I produced for The Creation for the new piece. And so In the Land of Drought came to be, which I edited after we finished the concert.
KP: Haydn’s oratorio tells the creation of the world as described in the Book of Genesis. Your work is almost a ‘reverse creation’ story. How do you consider In the Land of Drought operating as a direct response to The Creation?
JR: When you listen to Haydn’s The Creation, you can grasp physically the themes and subjects he talks about. In his music you can hear the waterfall, you can hear the birds, you can hear the wind. You can almost feel the snow. It is a work that is highly visual and evocative. It is already a translation of nature at its genesis; nature untouched by humans.
I was clear that I wasn’t interested in directly translating The Creation into film on a visual level, as it would have probably ended up as a kitschy interpretation of Haydn.
My idea was rather to look back from an imaginary future in the post-Anthropocene world and in a way show the end of Genesis. The work begins with Haydn’s oratorio, then there is the development of various high cultures that are depicted through the abandoned films sets – Roman, Greek, biblical sites, Egyptian – and finally, there is this unclear cut into the industrial age. I shot on locations in the Ruhr area and also west of Cologne and Dusseldorf in open-cut coal mines, which of course are leftovers of another achievement of civilisation: the industrial age.
I imagined how we would leave this planet behind, and at the moment it looks like we are really headed into this direction of self-destruction. In The Creation I am filling the images of an imagined post-Anthropocene abandoned landscape with Haydn’s music, which tells you the exact opposite. That was the contrast when the work was performed during the concert. You would hear in the music what once was there.
KP: One of your shooting locations in the Ruhr Area was near the Prosper-Haniel mine, which was Germany’s last black coal mine until it was closed on 21 December 2018. It had been in operation since 1863. It is interesting to think about this chapter of human history coming to an end.
JR: Yes, it’s pretty incredible. One location we visited was the Garzweiler surface mine, where we filmed the open brown coal pit. It’s located west of Cologne. You can see it perfectly on Google Earth, which is interesting because we always talk about the Anthropocene and how humankind has left traces, but when you look into coal mining you can clearly see how the landscape has been altered. Whole villages and highways are moved for the mines. Our guide explained to us the two strata, or layers, of coal visible in the pit and said quite proudly, ‘Look isn’t that amazing; this is enough coal for another one hundred years’, and I just thought this is such a ridiculously small amount of time in comparison to the billions of years it took for the earth to exist. How silly humankind is to just burn it in such a short time. It is so evidently a mistake to believe in this industry in our time.
KP: It seems to me that the beautiful images you created of the mines might in the future serve as a eulogy to this important but destructive period of humanity.
JR: Maybe, but – talking about beauty – there is also an aesthetical decision that I frequently make in my works. There is the problem of over-aestheticising that I’m totally aware of, but I often try to break with the journalistic approach that is common in contemporary art. It’s not that I want to say one is more valuable or better than the other; they can be equally interesting and effective work strategies for an artist. For instance, the way the group Forensic Architecture embraces journalistic strategies is brilliant I think. Very often, though, I feel that many works with a journalistic approach don’t tell us anything new, or probably even less than well-crafted journalistic reportage tells us, which I find problematic.
I also want to put into question an art world where we just tell each other how shocked we are about what’s going on around us. So I ask myself constantly how we break out of the white cube and reach wider, or different audiences – those who really need to be addressed.
The celebrated thirteen-channel video installation Rosefeldt produced in 2015, starring the actor Cate Blanchett.