Elger Esser: Morgenland / Reviewed by Malcolm Cossons / 18.05.17
The elegiac Middle Eastern landscapes that comprise much of Elger Esser’s current exhibition Morgenland, spanning two floors of London’s Parasol unit, belie the upheaval experienced by the region. Running until the 21st of May, the exhibition represents the German artist’s first solo show at a UK public institution and occurred following conversations with the founder and director of Parasol unit, Ziba Ardalan. As Esser recounts: “During our first meetings we developed the idea to integrate new images I had taken from Israel and combine them into a show presenting the three neighbouring countries on the Mediterranean – Lebanon, Israel and Egypt.”
Taken over some ten years from 2004 to 2015, the large format photographs with expansive skies and distant horizons have the feel of historic photographs. Esser often uses traditional processes and works such as Esna I (Egypt, 2001) – showing the waterfront of this Nile city – or Saida I (Lebanon, 2005) – revealing a ruined Crusader castle – give the sense of a long-exposure photograph from the 19th century. This is intentional, as underlined by the exhibition title, which Esser explains: “Morgenland is a term translated first by Martin Luther from The Bible. It means ‘the morning land’, the land where the sun is rising, or the day. It became a term with a clear definition and bound to an idea of Orientalism in the 18th and 19th century. In his seminal book, Orientalism, Edward Said discusses the term, bringing the concept of Morgenland (East) and Abendland (West) into a discourse about cultural colonialism.”
These calm natural views are accompanied by images of the same landscapes with different echoes. For instance, Enfeh I (Lebanon, 2005) reveals the influence of Bernd and Hilla Becher, under whom Esser studied in Düsseldorf, while Shivta (Israel, 2015) shows, in dramatic fashion, night receding over a desert landscape.
The exhibition also features a variety of work in other formats. Along one wall are a series of vitrines documenting Esser’s first visit to Lebanon in 2004. Each contains a group of snapshots, together with paintings of the local wild orchids. These are joined by three double-sided panoramas on silver coated copper that stand in each gallery. They come from a series called One Sky taken along the Israel/Lebanon border. Each presents the same view, taken simultaneously in each country, raising questions about the complex nature of landscape and boundaries.
A further element of this exhibition, housed in a smaller room, more directly addresses the history of the region. Entitled The Secret Archive of Livi Benjamin, Palestine, 1948, the works are seemingly from the foundation of the Jewish state. The eight blue tinted silver gelatin prints, bearing official stamps, are singed and stained. They were created by Esser and serve to address the historical strata of conflict and culture that has existed in this area from the Roman era. Morgenland does, however, give a sense that, despite what the news shows, confrontation is not the defining characteristic of this region. Esser’s images and installations present a vision of peace, tranquility and reconciliation.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Malcolm Cossons
Elger Esser: Morgenland continues at Parasol Unit until 21 May 2017.
Installation view, below, highlighting Elger Esser’s ‘Nizzana (The Secret Archive of Livi Benjamin, Palestine, 1948)’ Israel, 2015, image courtesy Parasol Unit.
Installation view, below, highlighting Elger Esser’s ‘Lebanese Day Book’, 2007, at right, image courtesy Parasol Unit.