in Features | 01 APR 08
Featured in
Issue 114

Tales from the City

How we create architectural spaces that in turn define our social behaviour is a constant theme in the films of Clemens von Wedemeyer

in Features | 01 APR 08

Clemens von Wedermeyer & Maya Schweizer, Metropolis, Report from China (2006)

In the final sequence of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962) the modern city – a new housing estate in the suburbs of Rome – is depicted as a cinematic stage set. Beautifully framed long shots pan across almost deserted streets, while close-ups focus on details: a piece of tarmac, a block of scaffolding, a window frame, water trickling down a drain, the expression on a woman’s face as she waits for a bus, the headline on a newspaper (which reads ‘The Atomic Age’), the glow of a street light as night falls.

The cityscape provides both the backdrop and subject for the film’s existential narrative – a stilted romance played out against Italy’s rapid postwar economic expansion. The shifting architectural landscape mirrors and defines new private and public relations. The difficulties of contemporary communication and emotional alienation are evoked in Antonioni’s final seven-minute sequence, which, apart from a light piano score, is silent.

Taking inspiration from L’Eclisse, German artist Clemens von Wedemeyer’s Silberhöhe (Silver Heights, 2003) is, in fact, a remake of sorts. Using a similar grammar of filmmaking to Antonioni – epic long shots, close-ups, cinematographic stills – Von Wedemeyer tracks the Leipzig suburb of Halle an der Saale. At one point the camera pans across street lamps to a sparsely furnished interior where the final scene of L’Eclisse plays out on a television. In Von Wedemeyer’s version, however, the promise of a new dawn reveals a grubby, semi-demolished modern housing estate. Here things don’t just decay: they are laboriously erased, reduced to piles of rubble.

The scenery is enigmatically captured by Von Wedemeyer: swallows and electricity pylons against an epic sky, plastic barrier tape fluttering across a car park, construction vehicles stalled in an urban wasteland. There is a similarity between the foreboding atmosphere of the modern Rome pictured in Antonioni’s film and the brute reality of the city of Halle an der Saale so romantically depicted by Von Wedemeyer. The references are entirely cinematic; the city is pictured as atmosphere.

The device of referencing L’Eclisse so directly – via the clip playing on the television – in Silberhöhe is, however, of another register. At once a self-conscious conceit and domestic in its pitch and scale – quite literally pertaining to the televisual as opposed to the cinematic, foregrounding the site where we most often consume moving images these days – it alerts the viewer to themes that are as much concerned with deconstruction as with anything else. According to Von Wedemeyer, the first architectural designs for the Halle’s Silberhöhe estate were drawn up in the late 1970s, and its demolition was planned less than 25 years later.

Die Siedlung (The New Estate, 2004), which was made around the same time as Silberhöhe, focuses on another suburban Leipzig housing estate. In contrast to the monolithic modern blocks being demolished in Silberhöhe, the houses being built in the new development consist of single unit family homes. Using a documentary format – hand-held video camera, interviews, voice-over, real-time footage – Die Siedlung details the shift from state-owned to private property and plots ‘the desire of this new development’. This is a matter of aspiration and social reconditioning, a move from a socialist building policy to living on one’s ‘own patch of ground’.

We are shown two contrasting narratives: an optimistic estate agent is interviewed whilst showing a young woman and her daughter around the plots of land while an unemployed man sits by a dismal ornamental pond and bemoans the shift in property rights. The haphazard buildings populating this new estate are as contradictory as the history of the site portrayed by Von Wedemeyer. Die Siedlung is filled with a nervous atmosphere of suppressed chaos; it was filmed during a stifling summer. People hang around, apparently waiting for nothing to happen. Even the wide landscape shots feel claustrophobic.

For all Die Siedlung’s documentary nuances, the urban landscape seems like a film set, and the editing has a distinctly laconic rhythm. The unemployed man’s story has a cinéma vérité quality to it, while lingering shots of aeroplanes crossing the sky or blank building arrangements embellish the documentary with something a little more lyrical. At the same time Die Siedlung provides the documentary alternative to the more obviously cinematic Silberhöhe. Von Wedemeyer returns time and again to multiple filmic genres and a range of aesthetic strategies to explore multiple viewpoints within the same project.

For example, the artist might present an early piece such as Big Business – a remake of a Laurel and Hardy slapstick sequence – alongside The Making of Big Business (both 2002), which explores in documentary style the process of recreating Big Business using inmates at Waldheim prison in Germany. It’s an approach that Von Wedemeyer similarly adopts with the films Otjesd (Weggang) (Otjesd, Leaving) and The Making of Otjesd (both 2005). The artist’s employment of different levels of engagement – the ‘making of’ punctures the authority of the single work but also informs that single work with further layers of meaning and vice versa – results in a complex diffusion of meaning in the works themselves and in the potential strategies for their presentation.

The Utopian/dystopian dichotomy explored in Silberhöhe and Die Siedlung – or how we create architectural spaces that in turn define our social behaviour – is a constant theme in Von Wedemeyer’s work. In Metropolis, Report from China (2006), made in collaboration with Maya Schweizer and filmed in Beijing and Shanghai in 2004, the rapidly expanding 21st-century city is revealed in all its squalid glory. Following an idiosyncratic documentary format, the film explores how the city is both a site of, and a fantasy for, power and capital.

Influenced by, and including direct references to, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) – itself a grand rumination on science fiction, socialist ethics and the dynamics of production – Von Wedemeyer and Schweizer’s film reveals how we read the city through projected fictions. The film opens with footage shot while driving along a Beijing motorway by night. Over images of tower blocks and glittering neon signage Von Wedemeyer’s voice-over reads from Lang’s account of a trip to New York in 1924, which directly influenced his vision for Metropolis. Edited to hypnotic effect by Von Wedemeyer and Schweizer, the film cuts from an image of a new tower in Beijing to an almost identical one in Lang’s film. The voice-over describes how the landscape of Metropolis has come to represent the ‘imaginary city’, while we witness on screen the incredible architectural similarities between the two locations.

Beijing, likewise, has existed in the Western imagination for many years now as a potent emblem of China’s expansion as a superpower gearing up for the Olympic Games. Von Wedemeyer and Schweizer find Beijing and Shanghai to be the cities of Metropolis. The premise of the films is that they are, in fact, looking for a set for a possible remake of the original film. Of course, what the filmmakers discover – the reality of these evolving Chinese cities – becomes the film.

Metropolis, Report from China consists of largely off-camera interviews with migrant construction workers, architects, novelists and screenwriters. The dialogue is played over shots of the developing cityscape: starkly lit construction workers labour through the night or attend to domestic chores in their spartan barracks; another group balletically clean windows or stumble as they carry doors on their backs across a building site. At one point someone asks off-camera, ‘Does the city showcase well the economic success?’ The success, one assumes, is measured in the number of cranes at work. While a group sit in a high office block discussing off-camera how European architects find China to be a place in which they can realize Utopian projects that would be unmanageable elsewhere, the camera zones in on a traffic jam in the streets below. Here the editing underlines the relationship between truth and fiction.

Metropolis, Report from China is one of Von Wedemeyer and Schweizer’s most succinctly edited and sensitively communicated pieces. It embodies the influence of previous films and film theory, the understanding of the present through filmic references, the reading of the city as a film set, the socio-economic context and historical significance played out therein. Layers of understanding and meaning are created through loops of influence and memory, of real life and myth. It is also about the processes and magic of filmmaking. Shot largely at night, artificial light is used to maximum effect – ecstatic neon signage, for example, juxtaposed with the single bulbs that frame the construction workers.

Rien du tout (Nothing at All, 2006), also made in collaboration with Schweizer, is by contrast his (their) most self-evidently fictional but no less contemporaneous work. Both the content and the format emphasize staging and theatricality. Here the influences are Pier Paolo Pasolini, Samuel Beckett and Peter Bruegel the Elder. The stage as a site of Modernist struggle is fused with a contextualizing, contemporary narrative of banlieue teenagers who populate the film and a medieval mise en scène. The film has a distinct narrative progression, but one built gradually through elliptical suggestion and dramatic effect.

The film depicts a casting for a stage version of Beckett’s play Catastrophe (1982) in a hall in the Parisian suburbs. It details the complex interdependencies and fractious relations between the protagonists. A group of local teenagers drafted in to perform are supervised by an increasingly stressed assistant to the grandly impatient director, who wears a huge fur hat, smokes cigarillos and barks out orders with little compassion. The teenagers gather, gesture and pose. They are awkward and intimidating. Their streetwear is combined with medieval costumes – an odd mix of hoodies and cloaks.

A power game takes place between the director, her assistant and the teenage extras. The casting – the lost time of film production – creates a peculiar atmosphere of anticipation and boredom. Beckett’s play is an allegory of totalitarianism and the struggle to oppose it. Rien du tout documents the gradual unravelling of the director’s power as the action moves from the interior stage to a car park full of teenagers arranged like a strange medieval carnival. ‘You didn’t manage well. You managed badly … It is a question of gesture,’ she accuses her assistant, before promptly collapsing.

According to Schweizer, the director represents a Parisian bourgeois woman from May 1968. She is played with iconic presence by Inge Offerman, who is pictured in the catalogue that accompanied the film, at a vintage film festival with Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The banlieue exists as a contested site of politics, again one of projection and fantasy as much as a tense reality for the majority of immigrants living there. In October 2005 the violent disruptions in Clichy-sous-Bois resulted in the largest cross-country riots in France since May ’68. A state of emergency was declared that lasted three months.

In Rien du tout the theatre could be seen to represent Paris, and the car park the banlieue. This external scene in the car park is modelled on Peter Bruegel the Elder’s The Fight between Carnival and Lent (1559) and represents a charivari of sorts – a ritual in the tradition of carnival in which youths exert an arbitrary justice. Here the city figures as the context for the theatrical premiss. The film ends by tracking the play’s costume designer wandering off into the night away from the car park.

Von Wedemeyer’s film project Von Gegenüber (From the Opposite Side, 2007), shown to critical acclaim at last year’s Sculpture Projects Muenster, picks up from where Rien du tout leaves off. Shot from the perspective of someone wandering the streets, the 40-minute film loop tracks 24 hours in the life of the area around Muenster railway station. There are narrative threads running through the piece: men gathering in the homeless shelter, a woman thrown off a train, a bomb found in the station, a group of protesters with placards, some architects measuring up the plaza for development, kebab stalls, car parks. Underpasses and security guards feature a lot: security seems to be a major concern.

Von Gegenüber is a curious blend of fiction and documentary in both content and technique. If a theme of Rien du tout is the complex personal/social dynamic within the staging of fictional drama, Von Gegenüber focuses largely on the spatio-temporal tension of filmmaking, and, by extension – and here specifically in the context of ‘sculpture’ – of perception. Here the city is a stage for the private and public performance of daily life. The film was screened in a previously disused cinema adjacent to the railway station and results in an acute heightening of awareness to the surrounding landscape: a projection onto and an interpretation of one’s immediate environment.

So, to return to Antonioni (who trained as a documentary maker), and whose background is evident in the way he plays fast and loose with framing. Antonioni builds a narrative consisting of apparently random close-ups and oblique camera angles; and choreographs crowd scenes so they seem to push against the edges of the frame; he infuses a documentary register with the sometimes slower pace or grand sweep of the cinematic. Von Wedemeyer’s work, although very different from Antonioni’s, reveals a similar preoccupation with framing that oscillates between cinematic and documentary conventions as well as being aware of those pertaining to the white cube and exhibition formats. To think of film as both culture and industry is interesting here, or to consider where the political is located in relation to critical filmmaking and how fiction and myth inform and communicate a historic and socio-economic narrative and vice versa.

Von Wedemeyer’s most recent film, which is currently in production and yet to be titled, focuses on a politician and is set backstage after an election. The victorious politician practises a speech declining accession to power. At the time of writing this, Hillary Clinton had just won sweeping victories in Ohio and Texas, setting her back on track against Barack Obama in the fascinating drama that is the Democratic election race. In this instance it is interesting to think about that performance of power in relation to Von Wedemeyer’s practice, to recognize the staging of politics, and how capital and power work, and to ponder their implications.