Thoughts on Michael Järnecke’s Buxtehude project

by Bernd Utermöhlen


With his Buxtehude project, Michael Järnecke has created „the first self-contained representation of a city with moving photography“ within his city records, as he writes at the beginning of this book. In this case »Moving Photography« does not mean that the motif is moving, but that the camera – mounted behind the windshield of a car – is moved through the space of the city with the lens open for a certain period of time.

Michael Järnecke made his first photo trips through Buxtehude from February to May 2015 as part of the annual competition „Artists see their city“ organised by the Cultural Office of the Hanseatic City of Buxtehude. With the picture „Light-topographic recording of the Buxtehude Old Town Ring on the evening of 2 May 2015“, taken in a 6-minute drive on a 4 km. long route, he convinced the jury and won the Art Prize 2015. For the prize-winner exhibition 2016 – „Wirklich? … Buxtehude?“ (Which means „Really? … Buxtehude?“) from 29 May to 3 July 2016 in the Buxtehude Marschtorzwinger – Michael Järnecke extended his radius of action to the entire city area, which he explored in further photo trips from March to May 2016. As a result of additional research on historical map material, among others in the municipal archives of the Hanseatic City of Buxtehude, the artist examined not only the streets that are most frequented today, but also those that were the main traffic routes in earlier times, such as the Alter Postweg, which today leads through the Industrial Area East and ends in a dead-end street.

The structure of the book makes access to the entirety of the town clear. After an introductory part, three maps from 1769/72, 1899 and 2017 provide an overview of the entire city area with the associated traffic route network. First the author approaches the city with 5 trips on the B73 „Vorbei an Buxtehude (Passing Buxtehude)“. Then he takes 9 access roads „Wege nach Buxtehude (Paths to Buxtehude)“, starting with Harburger Straße via Stader Straße, Apensener Straße, Moisburger Landstraße, Alter Postweg, Estebrügger Straße as well as the route from Neukloster via Heitmannshausen to the railway station. This is followed by 19 individual and circular routes around „Hafen, Fleth und Viver (Harbour, Canal and Moat“ and „In der Altstadt (In the Old Town)“.

There now follow 8 further „Strecken und Straßen (Routes and Streets)“ close to the Old Town on Bahnhofstraße, Harburger Straße, Hansestraße and Konrad-Adenauer-Allee as far as the street Obstgarten. Then the Altkloster district becomes the centre of interest and is also fully explored with six rides, including a circular ride around the historic monastery district. The Industrial Area East and the Industrial Area Lüneburger Schanze is also covered by three journeys through the Alter Postweg, the street Lüneburger Schanze, from Schanzenstraße via Alter Postweg and Ostmoorweg to Harburger Straße. A trip to the Sagekuhle high-rise district via Dammhausener Straße is also a must. The book concludes with a 12-minute drive through the town from Ottensen to Dammhausen, recorded with a pinhole camera. The end is a series of 7 „Ausfahrten (Excursions)“ first in a southern direction from Westfleth to Föhrenweg in Ottensen, then to the north „Ins Alte Land“ to Moorende, Hove and Estebrügge.

With 7 pictures in the introductory section, this book combines a total of 67 recordings of photo trips through the Buxtehude city area. Among them are 36 night trips, 28 day trips and 3 trips at dusk. All journeys are spatially and temporally located with date, journey duration and route, and are shown in the captions at the end of the book. For the city recordings Michael Järnecke was on the road in Buxtehude between February and May 2015 for a total of 3 days and between March and May 2016 for a further 11 days. The shortest of the trips documented in this book lasted 10 seconds, the longest 12 minutes. Most of the trips lasted between 2 and 7 minutes. All in all, the 67 illustrations in this book document photo trips through Buxtehude with a total duration of 4 hours, 16 minutes and 23 seconds. Whereas the artist’s primary concern at the 2016 prize-winner exhibition was the presentation of his works as autonomous photographs with a selection of 30 pictures, his aim in the continuation of his project was to depict the entire city. In the present book he has been impressively successful.

But there is one more question mark! Whereas the title of the exhibition was still »Wirklich? … Buxtehude?«, now, by using the English „Really“, a third question has been added to the book title: »Wirklich? Buxtehude? Really?« As if this „Really?“ immediately rejected the possibility of affirmative answers to the first two. As if Järnecke is asking, what actually happens through his photographic space recordings, or in his own formulation: »Does the city become another by the way I treat it photographically here?« First of all, it should be noted that Michael Järnecke’s method actually represented Buxtehude as a self-contained entity. For Buxtehude he thus provides a comprehensive documentation of the existing traffic routes in and around the city in a time window of about one and a half years. The fact that this is already historical is shown by the recording of the day/night journey on Estebrügger Straße from 26 March 2016 (see page 32). The traffic light, which in this picture still caused coloured stripes, no longer exists, it has become superfluous due to the construction of a roundabout. – The fact that Järnecke uses historical maps to find his routes also creates a temporal depth dimension. People have been moving on these routes, which can now be travelled by car, since time immemorial. These are traffic areas with different lengths of history. For example in the area of the B73, reindeer hunters already moved along on the Geest rim routes at the end of the last ice age about 15,000 years ago and had resting places there. Other routes, such as those in the old town, have only been built since the city was founded in 1285; among them, however, are streets such as Hinter dem Zwinger or Viverstraße, which were only built after the Vivers were filled around 1959. By documenting these traffic spaces, Järnecke draws attention to changes both in the landscape and in the city itself. If, for example, you are aware of this as you drive down the street Hinter dem Zwinger, you will know that you are on an area that was still covered by water about 6 decades ago, or on the aforementioned ring road around the monastery district you will know that you are on areas that carried the surrounding wall of the monastery 400 years ago. In view of this, Järnecke’s „Question about the nature of a city through its changes“ is a new one: What was it like here in the past and what will it be like here later? Is that which was before still existing, is that which will be later already there? Can the essence of the city – thought of as an indestructible core – be recognised permanently? And if so, how?

How are the spatial recordings to be judged from a source-critical point of view? The deposition of layers on the negative, the photographic sedimentation, can be illustrated by a comparison with film. On the basis of a usual frame rate of 24 frames per second, one minute of Järnecke’s space recording can be thought to consist of 1440 layers. In the case of a 6-minute recording, there are already 8640 layers. However, the finer the layers are defined – one million shots per second are now possible with high-speed cameras – the more layers can be assumed. Theoretically, the fineness of the layers is unlimited. Potentially they are all present on the negative. Each layer consists of the photons that hit the negative at the same time. Each layer therefore stores billions of individual subatomic events. This is the reason for the enormous density of the photographic sedimentation. On the film material, the layers overlap transparently, allowing highly artistic photographs to be developed. But the images in this book only show prints of the underlying negatives. Only the negatives contain all the information about the recorded space-time. The single negative is, so to speak, the document of the respective documented space-time. Knowing that the temporal dimension is also depicted in the space recordings, we can interpret the forms that have emerged; but we cannot fully recognise what is depicted. It is conceivable that in the distant future a computer will be able to decode the negative completely. On this basis one could then let the city emerge again from the negatives. In this sense, Michael Järnecke delivers realistic images of Buxtehude.

The difficulty in describing the achievement of his spatial recordings stems from the fact that Järnecke records time as well as space with his method of moving photography. Correctly, they should therefore be called space-time recordings. „What exactly is time?“, Saint Augustine already asked in the famous book XI of his „Confessiones“ (translated by Kurt Flasch, Stuttgart, Reclam 2008, p. 193) and lamented his inability to answer this question. „If nobody asks me about it, I know it; if I want to explain it to someone in response to his question, I don’t know.“ Now we are about 1600 years further today, but even in modern physics the question of „time itself“ is ultimately open. However, since Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, we have abandoned the idea that time exists independently of space, and instead speak of a four-dimensional space-time uniting space and time. What does this mean with regard to moving photography? With his method, Michael Järnecke succeeds in capturing the four dimensions of space-time on one carrier, the negative.

He lets the space-time gradually sediment on the negative. The resulting layer structure can be imagined three-dimensionally, whereas the sequence of layers represents the temporal dimension.

In this way, Järnecke can fix concrete pieces of space-time and make them accessible for observation as photographically developed space-time preparations. Everything is present in it at the same time. Nevertheless, the forms and lines created can be interpreted from their temporal origin. Thus, for example, a light source that is small at the beginning of the journey and can be seen in the middle of the picture, strives as a more or less strong line either to the side or upwards and disappears from the picture at the end as a thick condensation trail. Thus, if you let your eyes wander over the picture surface, you can go for a walk in time, so to speak. As small excerpts, the pictures refer to a reality as a whole in which everything is captured and nothing is lost. Surprisingly, this corresponds with Augustine’s view: „In the eternal, however, nothing precedes; there the whole is present, while no time is entirely present. […] Who takes man’s heart into his hand, that it comes to rest and sees how eternity, in its standstill, determines the future and the past, without itself being future or past? (Confessiones, op. cit., p. 188f.) In Michael Järnecke’s moving photograph, the phrase „eternity in its standstill“ acquires a secular-pictorial expression.

If a camera could be run in this way from the Big Bang to the present day, the entire history of

the world would have room on a single negative. On the other hand, with the 67 spatial recordings depicted in this volume, only tiny pieces of space-time are captured photographically. Each individual piece is, so to speak, a space-time torso in which beginning and end are missing.

But as a part, each one nevertheless bears witness to the whole. Each torso contains an immeasurable abundance of individual information, and this enables the development of images that are particularly fascinating from an aesthetic point of view.

With the immense density of the representation, Järnecke’s Raumzeit-Torsi fulfil one of Hegel’s essential demands on art, namely „that it transforms every figure into an eye at all points of the visible surface“, art makes „each of its formations a thousand-eyed Argus, so that the inner soul and spirituality can be seen at all points“ (Vorlesungen über Ästhetik I, Frankfurt, Suhrkamp 1970, p. 203). Experiencing this, the contemplation of the images does not remain without consequences. The impact that emanates from them occurs at the moment of recognising that the seemingly artistic forms owe their emergence to the time contained in them. At this moment, the surface comes alive and looks back from the picture „thousand-eyed“ in Hegel’s sense. In 1908, Rainer Maria Rilke expressed in his poem „Archaic Torso of Apollo“ how such a view can be experienced. I therefore put this poem at the end.


Archaic Torso of Apollo

We didn’t know his incredible head,
in which the eyeballs ripened. But
his torso still glows like a candelabrum,
in which his looking, just screwed back,

remains and shines. Otherwise the bow
of the breast could not blind you, and in quiet turning
of the loins could not go a smile
to the middle that carried the procreation.

Otherwise this stone would stand disfigured and briefly
under the shoulders’ transparent lintel
and would not glisten like predator skins;

And would not burst out of all its edges
like a star: because there is no place,
that does not see you. You have to change your life.