Peripheral Zones / Right In The Middle

Nathalie Grenzhaeuser works in areas which one could at first call peripheral zones on the current geopolitical world map. One such place is Spitzbergen, which stands under Norwegian sovereignty and is in the archipelago of the same name north of the polar circle. The artist has travelled there three times, and during her last visit in 2009 primarily photographed Pyramiden (Russian: "???????), a coal mining settlement given up by the Russians in 1998 which has meanwhile become a ghost town that one can visit virtually on the internet.

Another island situated somewhat outside political attention is Cuba. The socialist state lies in the Antilles archipelago in the Caribbean. Here in 2013, Grenzhaeuser concentrated mainly on the Cuban province of Guantanamo, which is often equated with the American prison camp, the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Entry to this is also forbidden to civilians, making it a ghost town in the figurative sense - perhaps the world’s most famous.

The confrontation with both places comes from the artist's engagement with large-scale architectural and industrial projects resulting from lofty aims, which react to extreme conditions and generate their own hypertrophic form. Examples are her series on the postmodern office area of La Défense in metropolitan Paris (2001) and on mining sites in the Australian desert (2008-2011). Even here, these witnesses of civilisation processes appear in Grenzhaeuser's photographic images to be strangely fragile and questionable, in spite of their monumentality and technical superiority. In the series, Pyramida and La Marea (The Flood), her sculptural worlds change into spaces of emptiness and transitoriness in which time appears to stand still. Against the background of rapid global, political and economic change, these peripheral areas appear anachronistic. In graphic comparisons, the artist uses the phase of their ostensible rest and seeks connections and forces which point to their possible future.

A common characteristic of Pyramiden and Cuba lies in their socialist history, which is still present in Cuba today. In both series, Lenin monuments act as ideological mega-signs. The few remaining monuments in the world to the leader of the Russian October Revolution are reminders - 25 years after the collapse of the socialist political system - of the political vision of rewriting history through revolution and altered power relations. At the same time they symbolise the survivor of a historic period. Nathalie Grenzhaeuser spans these theoretical spaces between utopia and its failure when she shows the bust of Lenin in lost profile on the empty square in front of the backdrop of the mountain panorama (Lenin, p. 32), or as a striking form s!imilar to rock that symbolises longevity and yet slowly weathers (Lenin 1, p. 5).

Further image motifs of Pyramiden bring the perception of the post-urban landscape and the handling of nature based on economic interests closer into view. The architectural legacies once again question under which conditions it makes sense to ensure long-term urban standards in extreme climatic conditions. Protected, autonomous life in an inhospitable zone with, for example, greenhouses and a swimming pool was only possible at the expense of high energy costs. A century before, expeditions had failed because of inhuman conditions.

Grenzhaeuser's perspectives make impressively clear the strangeness of the functional building construction that seems to negate its surroundings. In exterior shots the eye is drawn by depth-inducing, image-defining diagonals to the barrier of the inhospitable mountain massif that, through its sheer size, points to the hubris of urban settlement in such a place. This functionally structured space, whose predominance was based on ensuring survival, is symbiotically connected in her photographs with the labyrinthine. An empty room is perforated by views in different directions (Speicher, p. 45) and views get caught in tunnels or reflections. The interior view of one of the two extraction shafts on the mountain (Schacht, p. 29) corresponds to the seemingly endless hall of one of the hostels in the settlement (Crazy House, p. 42), a 'residential machine' of the '70s that offered fast and cheap rooms for a large number of people. Both motifs are typologically influenced by the logic of the production line and remind one of Charlie Chaplin's film, Modern Times . The artist lets the shock and defensive reflexes that this expeditionary machine once triggered elevate into r!eferences to the unfathomable.

Darkness lurks at the end of the tunnel or behind an empty doorway. The light above answers the dark: beams of light which penetrate the windows and doors illuminate the space. The sun shines on Spitzbergen only in the short summers. Its beautiful light gives the images something theatrical and delusive, for brightness does not protect against all dangers such as fog creeping in and sudden changes in the weather. Here one suspects the digital reworking with which the artist changes her analogue shots and sharpens their expressiveness.

Traces of abandonment are another narrative element that primes the dystopian character of the place. In the former director's office, stools arranged in a quarter circle perform a Beckett-like waiting situation (Schnee, p. 33). Where are they who spoke and dealt here? White particles of colour cover surfaces like a feather quilt of silence. Elsewhere, remains of insulating material mould away (Deponie, p. 36) and form an amorphous mass that points to the imponderability of the cause even more strongly than the broken f!ootbridge (Steg, p. 43).

Correspondingly, Cuba presents its geographical conditions as a counter-pole to the icy Pyramiden. Situated in the tropical climate zone, it is fertile and blessed with a rich flora and fauna. Its discoverer, Columbus, wrote in his diary - not only the film, Soy Cuba, from Mikhail Kalatozov explained this to us - of the most beautiful country that human eyes had ever seen. The island, however, became no place of contemplation, and hubris here is connected with the exploitation and destruction of the country's own culture. Since the seventeenth century Cuba has developed under Spanish colonial power into an important cultivation area of sugar cane, tobacco and coffee, and thereby the supplier of European luxury goods. As a result of indiscriminate colonial politics the native population was almost destroyed and slaves from West Africa were brought to the island to protect production.
The public play, sport and recreational sites, as well as places commemorating the fight for independence that Nathalie Grenzhaeuser has photographed for her series are witnesses to the break with this history and to social change. Wealth was to be more fairly distributed within the socialist revolution of 1959 under Fidel Castro. Cultural offerings for the mass of the population stood alongside free health care and education as proof of a better life. However, authoritarian, political decisions and a prescribed planned economy have stood in the way of global developments since 1989 at the latest. Cuba, too, is party to new alliances and power constellations that evoke domestic political changes, and thus stands once again in the conflictual p!osition of opening up to the outside and its danger of neocolonial influences.

With the introductory image in the series, La Marea, of a wave breaking on the quay wall, its splashing foam shining against the darkness and contrasting with the empty streets, the artist formulates the underlying angst into a visual metaphor. This moment of unpredictable power is reminiscent of Hokusai's famous woodcut, The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1830), created a good quarter century before the opening up of Japan to the West - enforced by the Americans.

In the following motifs in the La Marea series the mythological image of an island in a stormy sea penetrates that of an island as Paradise. Dead palm leaves, bare ground and dishevelled buildings as the visible traces of Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 counterpoint stylised blossoms and animal motifs that decorate fountains, stages and playgrounds. The absence of humans as a result of the storm in the former holiday resort and tourist attraction of Baconao allows the artist to take a similar perspective to Pyramiden. The exploration of a post-urban space there corresponds to the detection of a society at the end of utopia here. The same atmosphere of silence surrounds monumental, architectural gestures that enclose the pathos of the past, and places for small, daily joys.
In terms of image structure, the artist focuses on circular forms, torques and body-like openings that let the island motif sound like a variety of musical rounds. Architectures are shown as hieroglyphic-likesolitaires that enclose the large, interior spaces (Estadio, p. 23). The empty rostrum that opens like a huge mouth resembles the torn-open throat of an oversized toy fish. Moreover, switching between close and panoramic views and using different camera options alters the scale relationships. The octopus-like vertical exaggeration of the monument to the general of the independence war, Antonio Maceo Grajales (Maceo, p. 19) is answered by a miniaturised racket on a playground (Shuttle, p. 19), and in the distance a tiny, apparently Lenin relief at the edge of a baseball field (Lenin II, p. 6). In these kind of perspectival meanings in which the formerly large shrinks and loses substance, sensory losses appear that point to revaluations. The head first dive of two youths into water - a synchronous backwards dive (Los niños del futuro, p.7) - can be read as a current version of an inverted world. It also stands, however, in the tradition of avant-garde photography in that the motif symbolises the powerful jump of hope into a better future.

Changes come to Cuba and the Arctic - whose raw materials under the ice already create new distribution scenarios. Nathalie Grenzhaeuser's exhibition title, Gezeiten (Tides), refers to her area of artistic exploration: the beginnings, climaxes and reversal points of social utopias in the force field of economic and political realities.

Jule Reuter

Erschienen in Gezeiten, Verlag des Saarländischen Künstlerhauses Saarbrücken 2014.


1 The film, Modern Times, which Charlie Chaplin made in America from 1933 to 1936 deals with the results of the worldwide economic crisis after the stock market crash of 1929, and the changes in industry brought by the economising of manufacturing processes. The conveyor belt now dictates the speed of human movements. In a key scene of the film, man in the figure of the tramp is driven into pitiless, mechanical movement driven by gears.
2 Soy Cuba (I am Cuba) was made in 1964 during the climax of the Soviet-Cuban crisis. The Russian-Georgian director, Mikhail Kalatozov, made it in Spanish using Cuban actors. In four episodes, the film explains in suggestive pictorial language and unusual camera shots that relate to the Soviet film avant-garde, the combative times of the revolution with its contradictions and moral challenges. It was critically received by the Cuban audience and disappeared for decades into the Moscow Film Archive. Soy Cuba was rediscovered at the beginning of the 1990s by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese for the international cinema.