Baumgartner’s “1 Sekunde” at Vanderbilt Fine Arts

Christiane Baumgartner - 1 Sekunde (#2 of 25 prints), 2004

On a recent trip to Nashville, TN I had the opportunity to catch the Wide Angle: Photography and Its Influence on Contemporary Art exhibition at the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery (January 13–February 27, 2011).

While I was particularly, and pleasantly, surprised to see one of Gerhard Richter’s photo-lithographs included in this exhibition (which contained works from other well-known artists including Kiki Smith and Andy Warhol), I was most intrigued by the German printmaker, Christiane Baumgartner, and her 2004 work of twenty-five woodprints, 1 Sekunde.

In this work, Baumgartner’s modernized take on ukiyo-e (literally translated: “floating world”) printmaking by distilling video into a still image through a computer, then meticulously reproducing and carving the wood block from a printed page to arrive at the final printed image, explores the notion of ”moment” by expanding one second to what could be taken as infinity.

1 Sekunde is not a departure of technique or approach to Baumgartner’s overall body of work, though the smaller scale of the prints that line an entire wall nearly elicits the feeling of watching someone’s paranoid-level collection of 9” black-and-white security monitors. But the linear presentation successfully expands her central motive in the work: stretching one second of time from video taken from a moving car into twenty-five individual images (each .04 of a second).

In the modern world we’ve become conditioned to the slow-motion scenes of action movies that serve to draw out the tension of a plot development, just as we’re even more accustomed to the relative banality of transport by motor vehicle and watching the world pass by through the lens of a passenger window. What’s significant in this juxtaposition is that by combining the two ideas in this manner, Baumgartner gives the audience a sense of the dramatic, without the drama—the ordinary, made epic.

The very process of Baumgartner’s technique compounds this notion even further: the time spent setting up the camera, taking to the road, returning to the studio, loading the video on to her computer, settling on the second of video to use, distilling the frames, printing them, copying them to boards, cutting them by hand—a high level of investment, all for one second of passing scenery that one would miss by simply blinking during an otherwise uneventful automobile jaunt between points A and B.

There’s no invitation whatsoever that this moment presented to the audience is of any particular significance in and of itself. Rather, Baumgartner suggests a world omitted. The trees, flora, and fauna of landscape in visual art constitute a great deal of the composition and feel of an image; often, it’s what the artist wants us to focus on. But in the age of the automobile, much of what could be a marvelous scene has become a nuisance: “stuff” along the way that only reminds us that we’re between where we were and where we’re going. The landscape becomes a geographical impediment, and our collective response is to tune it out altogether with indifference.

Interestingly, it’s the technology of capturing and reproducing time and place that Baumgartner uses to such great effect in 1 Sekunde that makes it possible to critique another technology that blurs our sense of time and place.

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