Julian Rosefeldt creates visually opulent and meticulously choreographed moving-image artworks. His work, In the Land of Drought, 2015–17, brings the old together with the new: it is a response to a famous eighteenth-century musical composition, informed by traditions of abstract painting and architecture, and filmed with a drone.
Born in 1965 in Munich, Julian Rosefeldt has lived and worked in Berlin for the past twenty years. As a recent recipient of the German Academy in Rome’s prestigious year-long fellowship, he currently resides at Villa Massimo in the Italian capital. For Rosefeldt, stories about the origins of his works are important. The origin story of In the Land of Drought, 2015–17, begins years back with an adventurous road trip Rosefeldt, who is also Professor for Digital and Time-based Media at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Munich, took with his students to the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco. There they visited abandoned film sets that appear like ruins of ancient forts and palaces emerging from the desert. Rosefeldt, who investigates the myth-making techniques of cinema in his work, remained fascinated with these unusual locations. He revisited his memories from Morocco some years later when organisers for the music and arts festival Ruhrtriennale in Ruhr, Germany, approached him to work on a project. They invited Rosefeldt to produce a visual backdrop for a live concert performance during the 2015 festival of Joseph Haydn’s famous 1797–98 oratorio The Creation. The oratorio depicts and celebrates the creation of the world as described in the Book of Genesis. For Rosefeldt, to create a film to accompany Haydn’s optimistic, life-affirming music was a challenging commission:
When you listen to Haydn’s The Creation, you can grasp physically the themes and subjects he talks about. In his music you can hear the waterfall, you can hear the birds, you can hear the wind. You can almost feel the snow. It is a very evocative work, which is already a translation of nature at its genesis, nature untouched by humans. It was pretty clear to me that I would not be interested in directly translating The Creation into film, and also on a visual level that would not make any sense, as it would have probably ended in a very kitschy interpretation of Haydn.
Rosefeldt filmed in the desert of Morocco and in the Ruhr area, a vast industrial landscape and the historic centre of Germany’s coal production. His response would be a narrative that was diametrically opposed to The Creation:
My idea was to look back from an imagined future on the Anthropocene and show the end of Genesis. It begins with Haydn’s oratorio, then there is the development of all these ancient cultures, which are depicted through the abandoned film sets – Roman, Greek, biblical sites, Egyptian – and then there is this unclear cut to the industrial age. I shot on location in the Ruhr area and west of Cologne and Düsseldorf in open-cut coal mines, which of course are leftovers of another achievement of civilisation, the industrial age.
Rosefeldt condensed this film into the standalone work In the Land of Drought after the Ruhrtriennale festival. While his images of an imagined post-Anthropocene landscape were filled with Haydn’s music during the live performances, In the Land of Drought has an atmospheric, immersive new soundtrack without any elements of the oratorio included in the score. According to Rosefeldt, this decision was made ‘because it’s not at all easy to imagine any illustrative art to go with Haydn’s The Creation, as it is already so rich with pictures that any kind of direct visual translation would kind of kill your imagination’.
In the Land of Drought was shot entirely with a drone and shows an army of scientists dressed in white lab suits investigating what appear to be archaeological remnants of ancient and modern civilisations. The bird’s-eye view creates meditative images and gives the bleak landscapes a painterly feel. The drone gave Rosefeldt a new perspective on his filmmaking:
I was quite influenced by painting for In the Land of Drought. Starting to see landscapes from above was fascinating because I used the drone not to shoot narratively but rather to understand structures and patterns and also power structures, as the change of perspective is a complete inversion of what you normally see. While gliding slowly over these landscapes I felt a connection to abstract painting and its spiritual meaning. If you take Barnett Newman or the Abstract Expressionists, there is the same desire to translate a feeling into strokes and colours; to take a gestural approach. That was something that I thought about a lot while filming these landscapes.
While Rosefeldt is now a professor at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Munich, he did not go to art school but studied architecture, the training for which still influences his work today:
I didn’t study architecture to become an architect but I really wanted to study it anyway, and right after my diploma I started to work as an artist. What it contributed to my practice is not only an interest in architecture as a subject but also an understanding of the importance of teamwork. As an architect – or studying architecture – you learn to collaborate. That’s not common in visual arts. Actually, the training in art academies is rather the opposite; it’s always about finding your own language and trying to work out what you really want to say. In architecture, you have to have a broader view of society, to think of sociology and the history of art and urbanism, and design of course. There is a wider understanding of how to solve an aesthetic question. Teamwork and that wider perspective on the process of creation is something that I embrace a lot in my own work process.
This collaborative approach to working is key for Rosefeldt, whose film projects in the last decade have become increasingly complex. The credits for In the Land of Drought feature a large crew including drone pilots and an animal trainer, as well as twelve shooting locations in two countries. His highly acclaimed thirteen-channel film installation, Manifesto, 2015, which premiered in Melbourne at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image and has since been presented in over twenty cities around the world, was no less complex to produce. It was shot in Berlin at twelve locations over twelve days, with Australian actor Cate Blanchett playing thirteen different characters performing a compilation of more than fifty artist manifestos from the past century, from movements including Surrealism, Dada and Futurism. Architecture has a prominent but always surprising part in both Manifesto and In the Land of Drought, as Rosefeldt chooses unexpected locations to interrogate traditional strategies of filmmaking:
One of the things I like to do is use architecture or set design in a rather enigmatic way. In many of the scenes in Manifesto, for example, you cannot immediately make sense of what you see and hear; the combination of a set or architectural background with the action or the text that then unfolds can be disorienting at first. I do that for the sake of engaging the audience, because narrative cinema otherwise makes you lean back and lets the architecture announce the action. It’s like when you see a dark dead-end road in a film and already know that a crime might happen. I prefer to allow text and action to unfold in an environment that is not so easy to read – to activate you as a spectator all the more.
This piece was originally commissioned for and published in NGV Magazine Issue 16 May-Jun 2019.