Wolfgang Staehle, untitled, 2001

Artforum, November 2001

When Wolfgang Staehle's exhibition "2001" opened in early September at Postmasters gallery in New York , it offered a panorama of eventlessness. On three walls, static video images glowed in the darkness, like vast electronic postcards One showed a picturesque hilltop monastery near Stuttgart , its ramparts culminating in fairy-tale pinnacles. Another featured the famous TV tower in Berlin 's Alexanderplatz. The third was a diptych view of lower Manhattan , seen from south Williamsburg , across the East River . All three projections--at least on cloudless days, at moments when the boat traffic abated--seemed perfectly tranquil. The dared us to find them boring, or even to mistake them for stills. Only a periodic shiver, like a transparent curtain stirring, indicated that they were live-feed webcam transmissions, updated every four seconds.

Staehle's new-media riff on landscape painting was altogether transformed by the events of September 11. It wasn't the only artwork to be affected: Several exhibitions were nearly canceled as dealers scrambled to decide whether certain them were too raw for the public mood. But Staehle's piece didn't just become uncomfortably topical. On the day of the attack, the artist's dealer watched the World Trade Center towers collapse--in the gallery, in the flipbook motion of the digital feed. The work had documented a public tragedy that Staehle, along with most people who grieved over it, could not imagine--even after they had seen it happen.

In the days and weeks that followed, Turneresque smoke effects ("sublime" in a bitterly precise, Burkean sense) gave way to a simple void in the image where the Twin Towers had once stood. That same looming erasure was visible from all over New York . Here, though, it was framed in a troublingly literal way, leaving the artist himself unsure of how his own piece had been altered. Certainly, the work's resonance has been enlarged. But its meaning has also been narrowed-- perhaps coarsened. For some viewers, the piece now registers simply as a kind of inadvertent journalism. Setting out to capture history with a small h--the almost invisible passage of everyday events--Staehle stepped into the path of History. Originally conceived as an echo of Warhol's film of the Empire State Building , the video now feels closer in spirit to his "Car Crashes."

In another sense, the piece is unchanged. Little-h history goes on. The three fee continue to track ordinary daylight. Watching them, we retune ourselves to slowness, to the world of micro-events: The wind shifts. A facade brightens. A crane swings out over the gravel dumps of Williamsburg . What's unsettling is that the Manhattan image doesn't feel elegiac. Its neutrality is vexing, an emblem of indifference but also of continuity. Staehle says that if he exhibits the work again, he won't use the archival footage. Instead, the three views would be broadcast anew, in a "real time" from which the skyline we remember has been exiled.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Artforum International Magazine, Inc.