Following my primary (visual) research of Rhine II and some additional background reading and audiovisual research, as highlighted in my previous entries, I have the following interpretative comments on Rhein II:
Rhein II is a very flat picture. The lines, almost without exceptions (see my notes here), are all perfectly horizontal and run parallel to each other. The perspective used compresses the view and eradicates depth. The tones, predominantly shades of green and grey, are not particularly vibrant, which add to the sense of flatness. If one closes the eyes slightly, or were to look at this picture from far away, without knowing anything about it, it would be possible to confuse it with a microscopic cross-section of a solid object, showing the different layers that compose it, from the surface to deep down.
And in a way, this is what finally comes to my mind when I add up my visual experience of Rhein II. It is, as a whole, a progressively disturbing combination of layers:
It stars with a clear, if bland, sky. It is grey and soothing. Nothing in the sky is not supposed to be there. There is nothing to excite us, but also nothing to be alarmed about.
It then progresses to a narrow strip of manicured, clean grass, in what is nearly a vibrant tone of green, followed by almost spotless sand banks, with some intermittent rocks that are almost indistinguishable and non distracting.
It then moves to choppy waters, almost sea-like. They are like a premonition that something bad could happen, that a storm may be coming. But they also form a stable, repeatable pattern which somehow mitigates our anxiety.
Then, the first shock comes: a narrow band of black rocks, almost by stealth, clashes decisively with the water. Like a defense barrier that is too thin to be of any use, the rocks quickly disappear from our vision and then chaos begins: the wider strip of grass that follows is irregular, unkempt. It is full of debris and intersecting, winding walker-made paths (that Gursky did not care to remove, providing indexical evidence of humanity, of the reality of the river) that add to the sense of instability, of disorder. The grass in this area is also grainier, not as crisp as the narrow strip in the upper bank, and of a progressively darker hue, which sometimes looses a bit of definition.
The descent is briefly interrupted by a straight paved path, in dark, dull grey. But this is also quite thin, offering almost no resistance. The grass below continues to grow darker, with blotches of black in various places, but not as unkempt as the grass immediately above.
In an interview, Gursky has mentioned that Rhine is one of its favourite photographs. He goes on to say that for him “…it is an allegorical picture about the meaning of life, and the way things are and about the fullness and the emptiness” (1). In looking at the various layers of the image, I can see where he is coming from. As in the cycle of life, one starts almost on a blank, without knowledge or prejudices, like the sky in the top layer of the photograph. As one picks up experiences and our minds begin to be shaped, we move along and begin to interact with the world with the carefree confidence that youth gives us. We can still afford to make mistakes. Life is fuller but also without consequence, still too ideal, like the narrow grass strip just below the horizon. However, as we grow older and our responsibilities start to pile up: debt, children, material ownership, we begin to feel the anxiety of modern life. This is usually brewing in our underbelly, and at first we believe that we can weather it; like the choppy, but not quite stormy waters of the Rhine in Gursky’s photograph. But for some of us, the anxiety will grow out of control, and after an initial shock – the narrow strip of black rocks hitting the water – we will wonder aimesly for a solution to our problems. Without help, our lives could quickly descent into chaos, like the lower layers of grass in the photograph. There may be some respite, a moment of temporary calm and order (the strip of path at the bottom), but this may be just temporary and the descent could continue, as hinted by the last, narrow and progressively darker strip of grass at the bottom of the frame.
If you read the photograph this way, from top to bottom, then it ends in an enigma. The strip at the end is too narrow for us to have an unambiguous message. There are signs that this strip of grass is actually slightly more organised than the one immediately above, but space dedicated to these visual clues is insufficient. Does this make reference to our ability to recover, to regain our feet? Or is it offering false hopes? We cannot tell because the image ends, but it is significant that in this way of reading it, the end happens closest to the viewer, in the foreground of the picture, as if this was a matter for our own reflection rather than for the photograph to elucidate for us.
There are many elements from the original view that Gursky left in Rhine II, but the most prominent one is the staircase cutting the upper grass band diagonally, on a third from the left. It is significant that this staircase ends neatly, flatly were the grass touches the horizon. In my interpretation, this staircase represents a desire to return to more innocent, carefree times. A desire to go back to our childhood, where all our anxiety and problems irrelevant, unknown. We know this is impossible, but we all dream and hope for it, as a way of soothing our pain. In that respect, and because our eyes always return to the staircase, Rhein II ends up providing comfort and relief without giving any hope.
(1) Ben Lewis. Gursky World. [Online Video]. 27 September 2002. Available from: https://vimeo.com/17692722. [Accessed: 15 April 2018]. From minute 22:45