Six years of filming on the river

16 March 2012

The video installation 'fliozan' invites visitors to lose themselves in the fascinating network of German riverscapes. It took six years for Professor Dr. Harald Schleicher of the Academy of Fine Arts at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) to complete this monumental project. It is now on display in Duisburg.

We first see a turbulent alpine stream with water tumbling down between rocks. Gradually, the flow of water slows down, cities are revealed and bustling industrial landscapes pass by, again and again alternating with stretches of apparently unspoiled nature. Birds are heard to chirp briefly before the noise of the near omnipresent traffic again absorbs everything. The only thing that remains constant is the flow of the current until the river finally empties into the sea.

"It was a kind of self-prescribed local history project," says Professor Dr. Harald Schleicher, talking about his large-scale video installation 'fliozan - German Rivers'. The installation will be on display until this summer in a monumental format of 10 x 2 meters in the gallery of Duisburg's German Inland Shipping Museum.

20,000 kilometers in six years

For six years, the director of the Film Class at the Mainz Academy of Fine Arts was on the road with his VW bus. He traveled some 20,000 kilometers in order to film 7,000 kilometers of river. The result is an extraordinary portrait of German rivers from source to mouth.

The trip begins on the Danube and ends in the mud flats where the Elbe flows into the North Sea: The sun sets and a salient slowly merges with the darkness. "Really rather a commonplace ending," says Schleicher with a smile. "The only thing missing is a cowboy riding off in the sunset."

Ten-meter-wide film collage

But the artist has left this out - like many other aspects that one would usually expect from a conventional film portrait. The artist’s installation, in the form of a ten meter-wide collage, presents several picture elements that are simultaneously displayed - together they make an entity. The lift lock in Waltrop emerges into view from the left and seems to push the previous image before it until it too disappears from view to the right. Detailed shots from various angles follow the initial portrait of this impressive construction.

Up to seven images move at the same time across the screen; these are sometimes narrower and sometimes wider, and sometimes there is a pan shot that moves from top to bottom. A cargo ship filmed from three different perspectives appears; industrial cranes, nuclear power plants, colossal churches, and someone just walking their dog.

Schleicher used a motorized swivel head for most shots; particularly for 360 degree panoramic tracking shots. This contributes to the documentary-like, prosaic character of the film. The original background sounds can be heard; these also migrate across the screen with the sequence of images from left to right. Strikingly, predominant here is the traffic noise.

Much noise around the rivers

"I would never have thought that it could be so noisy along our German rivers", states Schleicher. "On the other hand, who would have thought that I would find my journeys so interesting?"

Schleicher would set out each summer, guided by several navigational devices and plans for bicycle tours, which proved to be very useful. He usually began at the source of a river, which he then followed until he came to an interesting tributary. In the installation, there is then a jump to the source of the tributary. In this case, the flow of images is interrupted by a black cesura.

A lack of postcard motifs

All German rivers at least 300 kilometers long are represented. Among others, Schleicher visited the Danube, Rhine, and Elbe, but smaller rivers, such as Iller and Havel, are also to be seen.

There is no commentary whatsoever. "My work is not a geography lesson. And I find that whenever you label something, it quickly loses its fascination." And the result of his travels is certainly fascinating. Schleicher usually filmed from the shore, but also took shots from on board ships, and the same subjects are often shown recorded from three or four different viewpoints. "My aim was to avoid recording typical postcard scenes." He has succeeded in doing so with the formats alone, using sections that are sometimes narrower and sometimes wider in his 10-meter-wide collage.

The installation's vast panorama seems to put most visitors in a meditative mood. The flood of scenes that it is difficult to follow with the eyes does not evoke confusion but immense calm. After all, here we are on the river - what can be more relaxing?

Schleicher experienced similar reactions when he first put his installation on display in Mainz Art Gallery. "I do not expect visitors to watch the entire 160 minutes," he says. "My installation is not intended to be a conventional documentary film." However, the work is not without its own dramatic composition: Nature and industry alternate; the monumental gives way to small everyday things.

Not just for art lovers

Schleicher expected visitors to stay for a few minutes, but many viewed the installation for up to an hour. Now he is eager to see how the public will react at the German Inland Shipping Museum. "The visitors here are not just art lovers."

The installation will make most visitors want to learn more. Whether the images are of the neglected bridges on the Neisse or the great inland port at Duisburg, this - in every respect - flowing artwork touches on something deeply rooted, something primordial within us. There is an archaic quality about the act of traveling to the source of a river; in fact, the image of the river can be traced back to the most ancient sources. This aspect is reflected in the installation's title - 'fliozan'; the verb 'to flow' in Old High German. But it is not necessary to know that to be able to enjoy and appreciate this artwork. Harald Schleicher's video installation is wordless and is thus similarly effective in every language.