Berlin-based artist Julian Rosefeldt is known for his large-scale video works: often multi-channeled projections, with professional actors and high-quality production values. His films reveal the absurdity of human behaviour by highlighting repetitive social practices. Rosefeldt’s current exhibition, ‘In the Land of Drought’, now showing at König Galerie, retains all the elements of absurdity and suspense characteristic of his other films, yet marks a departure in pursuit of a more meditative, sombre tone, concerned with the catastrophic effects that humanity has inflicted on the earth.
Desolate landscapes of industrial ruins take focus in what Rosefeldt describes as a “post-Anthropocene world,” where humans no longer inhabit the earth. All that is left are wastelands, ravaged by humanity’s destruction and the abandoned ruins of human ‘progress’. “We’re looking back from an imaginary future,” states Rosefeldt, “on the Anthropocene, on the present, in which we fucked up the planet big time”. The film traverses between two locations; the first, an abandoned film set close to the Moroccan Atlas Mountains. The second, the industrial Ruhr area of Germany. Rosefeldt has deliberately sourced these locations as examples that represent the current state of destruction caused by humanity. Rising sea levels, mass species extinction, deforestation, and carbon emissions have driven Earth into a new geological epoch. What is most striking about this work is that these landscapes are not manufactured or digitally rendered to create this imagined future. The terrifying reality is that the film’s locations are not outside the realm of our experience, they are examples of what damage has already been done: these locations actually exist.
There is a robotic stillness to the way the work is filmed, as it was recorded entirely by drones. The drones’ bird’s eye view removes any sense of human perspective and moves at a pace that is as unnerving as it is stunning. ‘Scientists’ slowly emerge on screen, dressed in uniform white overalls, adding a performative element to the work as they fumble for clues, exploring abandoned factories and film sets for missives from the former inhabitants. Their presence within the work grabs the focus, as our attention shifts from the immensity of the ravaged landscape to the figures within it. Their human-ness is initially distracting, raising questions about where these ‘scientists’ come from, and what they want.
However, these beings display behaviours that mimic our own, suggesting that there is a constant cycle of discovery, colonisation, and destruction at play. Towards the end of the film, the ‘scientists’ movements become more uniform and choreographed, creating a mesmerizingly hypnotic dance. This slight tonal shift to the surreal may have made more sense within the film’s original context, as an accompaniment to the performance of Joseph Haydn’s famous oratorio, ‘The Creation’, which premiered at Ruhrtriennale in 2015. However, it still works as a compelling piece of choreography and creates a surreal sense of unease that feels in keeping with the artist’s intentions.
The work exhibited at König is a condensed version of the original film, no longer accompanied by an orchestra but a haunting minimalist soundtrack that builds in intensity. The film is installed in what functioned as the nave of this former church. The single screen covers the entire width of the space, and instantly draws viewers in. The immensity of concrete within the large and echoey Brutalist space mirrors the landscapes within the film. The buildings ochre hues, and bleak grey textures—the drama and scope of the space—all merge perfectly with the desolate immensity of the film’s subject matter.
From the comfort of a large bean bag, viewers can relax into the gloom of it all. This does risk creating a soporific effect to the experience, breeding a feeling of apathy and comfort that threatens to work in opposition to the political intent of the film. However, with a running time of 43 minutes, one is grateful to become fully immersed: the sedated atmosphere allows viewers to comfortably watch the film in its entirety, and to absorb the scale of its content.
The tone of Rosefeldt’s work successfully creates an at once meditative and unnerving experience. It is a grim and urgent subject matter, that appears here with lighter moments of humour and absurdity. This visually stunning and impressive work creates a space for us to reflect on our relationship to the earth, how we have become so disconnected from it, and what this means for our future.