Noon on a Thursday is an odd time to host a talk with a director as well known as Werner Herzog. But that was probably the intent: over the past few years, due to his projects being more widely released, IMDb trivia, and that clip of him getting shot in the gut during an interview, the cult around Herzog's “wacky” public persona has slowly eclipsed his actual output. The occasion for last Thursday’s event at the Whitney Museum was Hearsay of the Soul, Herzog’s video installation in the Biennial, meaning that anyone expecting ponderous philosophical pronouncements and an encore reading of Go the Fuck to Sleep would be sorely disappointed.
In a format resembling an undergraduate art-history lecture, co-curators Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders sat onstage with Herzog, reviewing images of works by Hercules Segers and Caspar David Friedrich, alongside short clips from the director’s films. Segers's etchings are the central visual component of Hearsay of the Soul, and Herzog cited his “soul brother” as the first modernist and longtime source of inspiration.
“Our images don't speak with each other,” he noted, “but they can dance together.” Whether or not the art is successful “doesn't matter . . . I am not alone.”
Hercules Segers, Mountain Landscape
Segers’s haunting, partially abstract landscapes contain a great deal of emotion, and will surely captivate those who take the time to follow his expert line. The reason why Segers holds such a prominent place in Herzog's imagination, aside from the fact that he made landscapes, went unexplained. With lights down low, the lavish, pseudo-mystical praise and interesting yet irrelevant anecdotes about the artists' lives flowed freely, and I was glad to sit there and drift through it. Friedrich's art, on the other hand, both in terms of subject matter and style, is much more clearly connected to Herzog's work––no waltzing required.
After a prolonged digression on Mayan plates and cryptography (a departure as simultaneously welcome, hilarious, and unnecessary as the iguana close-ups in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans), Herzog launched into a lengthy attack on contemporary art, in his typically serene and measured manner. He rightly noted that the vast majority of contemporary art is completely disconnected from craft, and suffers from being too wrapped up in the conceptual. The art of the current era won't last the test of time, he said—it has “shock value that doesn't actually shock.” Unlike the conceptual art of the Fifties that gave a necessary jolt to patrons and cultural gatekeepers, the questions posed by today’s works and their intended impact feel conventional and obligatory.
An albino alligator from Cave of Forgotten Dreams
At one point, Herzog offered a fictive example of contemporary art—cardboard boxes, a dirty sleeping bag, some crumpled beer cans, intended to draw attention to the plight of the homeless—that bore a slight resemblance to a piece in the corner of the room. In addition to the art market (“a bubble of fiction”), Herzog blamed institutions like the Whitney for allowing what he considered worthless art to run rampant.
“I'm proud to be here,” he said, “but there are deep, lingering doubts.”
The curators sat alongside Herzog on stage, neither interrupting nor affirming his criticisms. Though Sussman momentarily managed to change the subject with a question about his installation, the filmmaker continued to link most of his comments back to a distrust of the art world, even during the audience Q&A. Shortly before the event concluded, he drew a parallel between the flourishing of painting in 17th-century Holland, and that of cinema today: just as 17th-century Holland is not remembered today for its writers, so will 21st-century artists be little remembered in the future. Today, Herzog declared, is the age of cinema. Given this sentiment, it's just as remarkable that he agreed to participate in the Biennial at all—but it was certainly a welcome intervention.