When Werner Nekes died on January 22nd, 2017 the film world not only lost an artist but a scholar too. Just as there are painters simply in love with colour and light, or sculptors who worship their stone, the film artist Werner Nekes delighted in the technical wonders of cinema. He could have raved his entire life long about how our eyes were tricked by his frames. His internationally renowned collection of artefacts relating to early cinema and its prehistory reached back to include medieval depictions of visual phenomena. Even after repeated attempts to establish a museum for it in Germany failed, he never tired of sharing the treasure. He lived amongst his collection in a former leather factory on the banks of the Ruhr River. Welcoming private visitors warmly, Nekes would shower them with eye fodder.
The most consistently recurring phenomenon referred to throughout Werner Nekes’ body of films is that which we owe to the moving image in general: The inertia of the eye. If however the visual organ was really as idle as physics suggests, it would hardly expose itself to cinema’s sensory overload. An idle eye might have wished for the cinema to abide by the static shots of early Lumière films, but while the eye may be idle, it is certainly not lazy and quite clearly addicted to kinetic stimulus.
Werner Nekes began making films in the mid-seventies, at a time when the cinema was in full command of its powers and Hitchcock’s shower scene was already history. An area which was yet to be tapped back then was the overlooked lowest common denominator, the minimal definition of film which Nekes began to explore at the same time as the movement responsible for structural film experiments in New York. To allude to the painter Courbet, »The Origin of Cinematic Life«, whom Nekes refers to in his erotic panorama DER TAG DES MALERS (The Day of the Painter).
During a period in which contemporary film theory was characterized by semiotics and used the syntax of language as a starting point, contenting itself with the comparison of frame sequences and sentences, Nekes searched out the in between: »I reached the conclusion that film is the difference between two frames«, as stated in Nekes’ lecture, Kinefeldtheorie. » By that I mean the brain work required to produce a fusion of two frames. « His colleague Morgan Fisher recalls in an interview: »One spoke of expanded cinema. But it wasn’t about that. Reduced cinema would have been a more accurate term.«
Nekes’ technical interest in the mechanics of film concurrently led him and the other avant-gardists of structural film to an iconographic chronicling of early cinema’s »elementary particles«. In EUREKA for instance, Ernie Gehr stretched a five-minute panorama film of a tram journey shot in 1903 to half an hour; Standish Lawder’s INTOLERANCE shortened Griffith’s eponymous work to a fifteen-minute 16mm film. In STANDARD GAUGE, Morgan Fisher rescued the so-called »China Girl« from obscurity, the light calibration image that appears in every title sequence for film lab technicians. Whilst on a formal level these works dealt with temporal perceptual phenomena and the disclosure of cinematic techniques, they simultaneously drew attention to the largely neglected pictorial objects previously missing in the visual world of film history.
Today we can confirm that the film avant-garde of the late sixties and early seventies made the field of film studies aware of its failings concerning early film. This consequently led to a reappraisal of the first two decades of film history, evident since the eighties. Werner Nekes undertook this archaeological groundwork more intensively than all the other artists, predominantly concentrating on the precursory and prototypical forms of cinematic perception.
It would thereby fall short to reduce Nekes’ archaeology of cinema to the history of technology or media. However it is precisely the themes of early optical toys as well as the subject matter of early cinema that cannot be separated from their medial implementation, as indeed they frequently illustrate a distinct reflection of technical modes of action. Those who dealt with issues of curiosity were unable to disregard the aspect of voyeurism. Thus, alongside the fantastic, the second thematic pillar of Nekes’ work is eroticism, both as a filmmaker and a collector.
The thaumatrope is among the most primitive of experimental designs catering to the slowness of our perception. The first thaumatrope I constructed as a child, whilst faithfully following the instructions in a Donald Duck crafting book, depicted a bird on one side and a cage on the other. All twirling efforts consequently aspired to relegate the poor bird, against all the promise of animation – and then only with its help – back to the state of unfortunate imprisonment. Adults had their own thaumatrope, allowing two phases of lovemaking to interact. These simple devices invariably sought to simulate the act of completion – and hence the fulfilment of an existential longing.
Werner Nekes’ films repeatedly explore the amusing and equally tragic desire for completion – quite simply that which is REAL BETWEEN THE FRAMES.
It is probably most evident in his feature-length experimental narrative film ULISSES: In a ghost shot, which alongside stop motion is the most influential of early film tricks, the protagonists experience the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous. LOST WITHOUT A SHADOW is what is said in a dialogue therein. Within this phrase resounds our fetishising relationship towards optical illusions: We would be lost without the shadow world of cinema.
Not only do Nekes’ films plainly reveal the interaction of individual film frames, they also investigate the circumstances that allow us to see the elementary consortia in the first place – a highly romantic concept even in this sense. Nekes frequently referred to the history of the nude in painting and photography.
In Nekes’ last feature film, DER TAG DES MALERS the iconography draws on a popular art tale, which is just as likely to be found in early cinema as well as the late romantic idylls of the transparent software belonging to Laterna Magica. Representation of the nude is a consistent theme, a favourite motive for photographic illusions since its inception and alongside the aspect of technical sensation, a further key stimulus of the medium in the truest possible sense.
Just as Nekes’ films contend with the threshold of perception, a threshold between the moving and the static, erotic art also engages in the transgression of thresholds. As the early pornographers made use of art historical references when selecting display modes, Nekes reconstructed role models taken from painting, including Courbet’s THE ORIGIN OF THE WORLD, Matisse’s THE DANCE, Duchamp’s NUDE DESCENDING A STAIRCASE.
»DER TAG DES MALERS reveals what LA BELLE NOISEUSE doesn’t want to show: The unknown masterpiece«, is the confidently ironic quote taken from the cover of the video release from 1997 in reference to Jacques Rivette’s film adaptation of Balzac. Thus, directly after its title sequence, the film dispenses with all further representations of artistic inventiveness – the classic device in films about artists – and instead turns the art itself into an object in the chronology of cinematic depictions of the nude.
But how can a nude depiction appear in photography without referring to its fabrication in juxtaposition to the photographer and the model?
DER TAG DES MALERS (The Day of the Painter) sounds a little like THE DRAUGHTMAN’S CONTRACT. One of the scenes does indeed recall Peter Greenaway’s eponymous feature film, where the painterly subject is framed in the foreground by a grid, the kind of which has been in use since the Renaissance as a tool for proportionally correct representation.
In the early years of cinema, the relationship between the attraction of that which was depicted and the technique implemented remained intact. In this sense, Nekes’ film is primarily a blatant anachronism; and in the meantime all modes of cinematic devices in the self-imposed emulation of painterly traditions to celebrate the beauty of the female nude seem hopelessly exhausted. Nevertheless, the autonomous nude film, as opposed to the nude photo, never became established as a genre.
It would be easy to exonerate this film of presumptuousness and naivety, to try another attempt at the genre by reducing it to its medial Meta level. Just as its efforts to mobilise countless art historical role models of the nude also didn’t lead to a conscious distancing. Nekes not only takes the technical legacy of early cinematography and its forerunners seriously – but also, and therein lies his actual radicalism, their abandoned aestheticism and inherent longing to reach forbidden places.
For Nekes, this place was always the invisible magical moment of cinematic illusion, the space between the frames. And going by an early work from 1966 it is clear that another special place where this could be found in life was: In the female sex. In JÜM-JÜM, co-director Dore O. swings naked in front of a painting she made of a phallus – and is directly animated by the way in which the montage causes actual disruption to the flow of movement. Nekes’ tool is the same as the one Matisse chose when he looked around for an extension of painting – scissors, and later his invention of the shutter aperture allowed Nekes to mount the film frame by frame inside the camera.
In DER TAG DES MALERS, when Nekes attaches a camera to his model’s leg to provide us with a glance inside her vulva as she strides through an idyllic summer meadow, the peculiar connection is once again repeated between naïve playfulness of movement and voyeurism convening with technical skill.
In contemporary art history, every view inside the female vulva must stand in juxtaposition to Courbet’s painting THE ORIGIN OF THE WORLD from 1866. Its detailed realism continues to make it controversial even today. While Courbet thought of himself as a painter of the visible, this particular painting was usually hidden from view. Its first owner, the Turkish diplomat Khalil Bey bought it directly from the artist and hid it behind a green curtain. It was later sold to the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan who also kept it concealed. As a matter of fact he attributed a great deal of importance to the deprivation of visibility in his studies of eroticism: »The shrouding, the curtain is still the most effective way in which to enable us to be in a position where we are able to imagine the fundamental situation of love.«
In Nekes’ erotic experimental film, the throbbing duality of visibility and invisibility by means of flicker effects ascribe the alternating frames with a similar function – devoid of all the drama however.
Nekes was too much an artist of the 19th century to not himself fall prey to the attractions he celebrated. This explains the unaccustomed emotionalised film music of Anthony Moore, who utilises a melancholy minor key melody as a loop like a Sisyphus-style obsession. And once again the individual frames, compelled to become illusions of movement, reveal an unrequited yearning for completion. Is the union of love a visual trick as well?
The tragic longing for a last impossible act of completion is also the driving force behind every collector. Naturally, there’s always comfort in the knowledge that the completeness of a collection would render the collection process futile and thereby deprive the collector of his purpose in life.
DER TAG DES MALERS is both an exploration of the way in which a longing cannot be satisfied as well as the shortcomings of cinematic means, whilst simultaneously celebrating both. At the end we see a conventional 35mm take of Courbet’s recreated work that only encounters its real animation during the actor’s performance – while masturbating. Rarely has the inaccessibility of an intended destination or inaccessibility of a technical simulation approach been as clearly divulged as at the moment when the film’s protagonist exclusively experiences lust.
Nekes’ films have often been examined on the merits of their filmmaking techniques, with the secrets of his synthetic and purely cinematic methods of producing movement meticulously scrutinised. While this has made the optical illusion more comprehensible, it still retains its potency. The eye may be idle, but not lazy; above all else it is covetous. And Werner Nekes never ceased to tickle it.
1987 Das Schreiben mit Licht (Teil 2)
1987 Die Bewegung und der Raum (Teil 1)
1987 Vom Nachbild zum Filmbild (Teil 3)
1982 Blick aus dem harmonischen Gefängnis
1979 Little Night
1978 Bei der Lichtbildnerin
1977 Frozen Flashes
1972 Aus Altona
1968 Tarzans Kampf mit dem Gorilla
1968 Mama, da steht ein Mann
1967-1985 gurtrug Nr. 3
1967 Das Seminar
1967 Schnitte für ABABA
1967 schwarzhuhnbraunhuhnschwarzhuhnweißhuhnrothuhnweiß oder put-putt
1967 Ach, wie gut, daß niemand weiß
1967 gurtrug Nr. 1
1967 gurtrug Nr. 2
1965 Tom Doyle und Eva Hesse