Occasionally, one discovers an artwork for which there are no words to immediately explain the experience. This is the case with “Hearsay of the Soul”—filmmaker’s Werner Herzog’s video installation at the 2012 Whitney Biennal. So much of the touted Biennal felt unclear-- somewhat muddy curation that, at the very least, exists as a confusing representation of art’s current state of affairs, in terms, for example, of the Biennal's overall aesthetic cohesion. However, there are exceptions to this complaint. Entering Herzog’s space is an arresting experience. The elements are simple: a series of five projectors acting in concert, showing magnified slides of landscape etchings by 17th century Dutch artist Hercules Segers—for Herzog, the father of modern art. Accompanying this display is an unearthly stream of music—first merely heard, then, with a great degree of reward, finally seen: performed in its own series of projections. The performance by Dutch cellist and composer Ernst Reijseger is visually spare in its minimal display, and allows the viewer to focus on the music itself, and its relevance and place in Segers’ abstracted landscapes. This resonant soundscape is deeply moving, in a manner that quiets thought and fills the body.
Herzog’s film installation warrants an entire afternoon of attention, though its running time is only about fifteen minutes. The viewer encounters a blackened recessed space, visually and physically separate from what's immediately outside its door, allowing the viewer to become enveloped by the piece. Segers' landscapes portray seasonal and atmospheric changes to his native European countryside, and with the shifting of night to day, summer to winter, Herzog elicits an awareness of transformation. On the part of an engaged viewer, there is an initial effort to try to make measured sense of “Hearsay of the Soul”—to draw connections between the scrolling landscape projections and the sonorous musical accompaniment, for instance. However, it is not long before one gives into the experience of the piece, and the art becomes encompassing. Perhaps herein lies the embodiment of that elusive concept of the sublime—when body and mind stand in unspeaking, awestruck experience in the face of some great, unexplainable thing.
“Hearsay of the Soul” communicates a great longing and sorrow in the purity of its enigmatic delivery. The space in which the installation is housed feels sanctified and upon leaving I felt stirred. It ranks for me as an art experience that cannot be fully articulated, an artwork that has changed me in some small way.