Schaulager Basel 2017, photo Tom Bisig
Schaulager, Basel, 2017 (photo Tom Bisig)

Tal Sterngast, “Boomerang. Contemporary Art against the Spectacular Image of History” exhibition in print in: Theory and Criticism, No 55, Jerusalem, Winter 2021


Initiated in 2016, Olympia (The real-time disintegration into ruins of the Berlin Olympic stadium over the course of a thousand years), by the Belgian artist David Claerbout, is a computer-generated, seemingly photographic replica of the Olympia Stadium in Berlin, which is encircled slowly by a virtual “camera.” The stadium was originally planned for the Nazi Olympics of 1936 by Werner March, according to the guidelines provided by the Third Reich’s architect Albert Speer. In the simulation, the stadium appears as it did in the postwar period, prior to its renovation in 2004. According to Speer’s Ruinenwert Theorie (Theory of Ruin Value), a building constructed of “natural,” premodern materials already contained its existence as a future ruin. Speer, who saw in his mind the ruins of ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt, melded together 19th-century neoclassical architectural theories to forge the aesthetic of the buildings he planned for the Nazi regime, as a spectacle exercising power in the urban sphere. Olympia virtually reconstructs the site according to scans of 3-D stadium models and the processing of real-time data about the weather, seasons of the year, lighting and humidity conditions and the state of the vegetation on site. The program is designed to operate continually for one thousand years, even while in storage, until 3016.

When first exhibited in the fall of 2016 in the KINDL exhibition space in Berlin, a vast structure that once served as a beer brewery, the dimensions of the projected stadium were close to those of the actual building. Moving slowly at the rhythm of breathing, one cycle of movement around the stadium in Olympia takes about an hour. The work thus confronts organic time – that of the vegetation – and biological time – that of human life, the life of its viewers – with mythical time – the ideological-political “one-thousand years.” The 3-D animation software used by Claerbout to process the gathered data, is a game development software rendering streamlined images. Emblematically called Unreal Engine, it is usually used to design games and systems for virtual and augmented reality. Indeed, the virtual site in Olympia is real and unreal, equally present and absent. This is a perfect model enduring in time, made entirely of data; a photograph without an index, a mere code.

Olympia’s presumption of prevailing for one thousand years, continuing the Third Reich’s fantasy of eternity, duplicates the predetermined annihilation of the Olympic complex, a structure that, like other monuments of the Third Reich, attests to the privileging of maximum effect over longevity in the planning considerations. Its unstable foundations fated it to catastrophe, to its future collapse. According to calculations of data pertaining to the vegetation at the site, and to the scanning of every stone and its specific location in the building, before long the (simulated) stadium will crack. Subject to the cycles of nature, it is expected to sink and crumble under the layers of trees and shrubs, which will continue to grow until it disappears entirely.

The melancholy pervading the images by Claerbout (b. 1969 and trained as a lithographer, draftsman and photographer) stems from their knowledge of the mutual assimilation of the technological into the human and of the human into the technological. The distillation of this knowledge informs the images and their means of production from the very moment of their appearance, as though they were heralding a loss for which they also constitute the work of mourning. Such is the case, for instance, in KING (2015–2016), where a 3-D animation simulates a zoom-in on the young Elvis Presley’s body, as featured in a black-and-white photograph by Alfred Wertheimer taken in 1956.1 Elvis stands in a living room, his one hand on his abdomen, his other hand holding a Pepsi bottle. The virtual zoom-in surrounds his partially naked body slowly, from the bottom up. Beginning with his bare feet, planted in the carpet, and moving up to his groin, clad in shorts, and on to his arms, back, shoulders, chest, and abdomen with the hand lying on it. The zoom-in comes close to the texture of his skin, the silhouette of his muscles and bones, his beauty marks, as if his were a holy body, the crucified body of Christ being sacrificed (to the audience, to our gaze). In this topography, composed of hundreds of samples of original photographs of Elvis, the surface of the image coalesces with the surface of the body. The work thus perpetuates the liminal moment in which Elvis was transformed from a young man into an idol, while his body becomes monumental, no longer that of a mortal, a moment captured in the original photograph and enhanced by the movement and the allusion to the image of the crucifix. It marks a transition from a world revealed to the camera as a chance occurrence, to a fully controlled image-world that is entirely conceptual. Similarly, in Confetti (2015–2018), a choreography fragmented and projected on different screens in a colorful swirl, confetti falls on the heads of celebrants at an American election party. What appears as a photograph is in fact a synthetic collage, a data-based digital description of physical matter and weight. The colorful, lightweight particles move through the air as if carried by the shockwave of an explosion, as if suddenly acquiring weight, being pulled by a force of gravity originating in a figure of a child covering his ears in fear and screaming at the center of the depicted room.

The virtual camera movement in Olympia, which surrounds the oval structure of the stadium, situated within the colonnade and at moments outside of it, turns towards the sun like a sunflower following the pattern of light and shade that the original colonnade was planned to project onto the ground. Indeed, the movement of the light paralleling the passage of time is a central protagonist in Claerbout’s body of works. Unlike the Post-Internet artists of his generation, the site central to Claerbout’s conceptualization of information-based images is not their circulation in media networks, but rather human consciousness, the connection (or disconnection) between the visible world, the eye and vision (a threefold interconnection which Claerbout relates to the question of sanity). The 3-D animation detaches itself from daylight and returns to invented light, conceptual or imagined, and to the shell-like materiality of surfaces with nothing beneath them, like painting.2 The frame circumscribing the photograph is replaced by the animation interface’s definition of the edges of the image. Whereas a photograph is captured by a lens and is dependent on light (with the camera’s mechanism analogous to that of the eye), animation is based on scanning in the dark, where light is replaced by a sensor measuring distance from objects like a blind mole. Photography involves collision, whereas in scanning contact is avoided. Finally, the animation image detaches itself from the event. It appears forever in its aftermath as a memory.

Claerbout’s return to the tableaustands out in contrast to that of artists belonging to the preceding generation, such as Jeff Wall or Andreas Gursky. It introduces the shift from images captured by a photographic lens to ones based on data, as a crisis of a civilization, a crisis of faith in a (relatively) fixed and stable system of representation. This process underscores the parallel between vision and delusion, and is in fact a process of becoming

blind. It also gives rise to an analysis of power relations within our image-dominated present, which seems to delineate a future which in many ways is reminiscent of the past, prior to the rise of literacy among the masses.

Between Speer’s vision of controlling the physical space (an outcome of modernism, which was nevertheless hostile to its progressive ideas) and Unreal Engine, the software used by Claerbout to create immersive images, the modern invention of photography – lucid but not always predictable – rose and fell. For the optical lens through which light passes and collides with matter was indeed a transparent mediator designed to create continuity between the “world” and the subject, while also positioning a wall of glass between the world and its image.4

1 The work’s full title is: KING (after Alfred Wertheimer’s 1956 picture of a young man named Elvis Presley).

2 This is a moment that can be compared to Jan Van Eyck’s image revolution, when light in painting ceased to be a divine light penetrating from outside, and entered the physical, material body of the painting. Somewhat like Van Eyck’s paintings, Claerbout’s work is a laborious product, which conceals the labor invested in it while flaunting it at the same time. As noted in relation to Van Eyck’s motto, als ich can: “Like a godly act, his was painting that would hide that it was painted, that it was ever ‘made,’ but would simultaneously show off the meticulous human labor invested in it.” See Tal Sterngast, Twelve Paintings: Excursions in the Gemäldegalerie of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin .(Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 2020).

3 Claerbout returns to the tableau while emptying it of figures, plots and manmade structures, and filling it instead, in a painstaking process requiring a team of some ten assistants, with what usually serves a background, landscape or vegetation.4 The glass in Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass, at once a material and an emblem, a transparent surface and a barrier, prefigured to a large degree the relations between the viewer and the modern work of art.

Translation: Talya Halkin

David Claerbout ©2023