Hearsay of the Soul, a video installation by Werner Herzog, lingers with you long after you’ve seen it. An intricately layered and complex work, the five-channel video piece utilizes both traditional filmmaking techniques and non-linear narrative form. We are confronted with detailed reproductions of etchings by 17th-century Dutch artist Hercules Segers, as well as a hypnotic performance by contemporary Dutch cellist Ernst Reijseger and organist Harmen Fraanje. The musical score is both otherworldly and familiar.
In an effort to investigate what makes Hearsay of the Soul so affecting, we invited a diverse group of experts—gallerist Paul Young (today’s post), historian of Dutch art Anne Woollett (January 29), musicologist Nancy Perloff (February 5), and video art curator Glenn Phillips (February 12)—to articulate how they experienced this multifaceted work, and how they understand it.
We begin with curator Paul Young of Young Projects Gallery, Los Angeles, about commercial cinema versus video art.
What first struck you about Hearsay of the Soul?
How it departs from Herzog’s film work and yet at the same time there are all these very subtle and underlying things that reflect it.
Give some examples of what’s “Herzog-like” about Hearsay.
Repetition is key in all of Herzog’s films. He often repeats shots, and he also finds people who are repetitive by nature, doing the same thing day in and day out. Landscape is also a main theme—probably the most important aspect. It’s a central character, and in Hearsay he’s featuring an artist who depicts landscapes.
Herzog doesn’t reveal much about the visual artist or the musicians.
This work says more about Herzog. I think he sees Hearsay of the Soul as a poem, and doesn’t want to make a documentary—that was a very deliberate choice. It feels very personal, and that’s what makes it interesting.
What happens when older art—as in this case, the 16th century etchings of Hercules Segers—is incorporated into contemporary practice?
Every contemporary art piece tends to have multiple reference points, and it’s a way to bring an old conversation to a new medium: to make something historical relevant to today.
Is there a single moment in Hearsay that especially resonates for you?
The initial thing that hit me was the formal tension between Segers’s etchings and the handheld camera Herzog uses to shoot the musicians. I started to realize that there is clearly a three-act structure. Hearsay begins abstractly, and then Herzog starts stripping away and it becomes more realistic.
Does Herzog utilize landscape differently in Hearsay than he has in his films?
I believe he does. In his films he’s looking at a representation of a landscape; here he’s looking at landscapes in an almost romantic way. “Landscape” is not so much a film tradition as a trope, but it’s really important. That’s also what’s interesting about Hearsay: it’s formalist, and yet Herzog does not tend to use formalism in his works.
What does formalism in cinema look like?
Formalism is using a medium to express content; to give meaning to the work. For example, if you go back to early film, you have montage, which is the earliest form of modernist cinema in which close-ups are used with static shots to suggest meaning.
Time—in film and in video art—is both subject matter and material.
How does Herzog fragment or emphasize time in Hearsay?
He starts out by scanning over Segers’s prints, and he’s creating a panorama. The idea is to place the viewer inside that fictional landscape, but then he breaks that. The music is then laid over the images. Listening to the music is when you really understand time and get a feel for the length of the video.
How does the viewing experience change the longer we spend with Hearsay?
Video art dictates time to the viewer. But a lot of video artists dislike that, so they create a loop, and you get to dictate how long you’re there. You can get as much out of two minutes as three hours for some works. But with Hearsay, it really wasn’t until the second or third time that I started to see more. So I feel you absolutely need to see the entire thing, and that makes it different from a lot of video art.
What is the role of duration in video art?
Duration is fascinating, and you can look at it from two points of view. One is a painterly point of view, often for contemporary artists moving into video from painting and photography. Artists like Andy Warhol understood that we come to cinema because we fall in love with images and people, and we could just stare at them for hours on end. He created painterly works that moved.
The other is a cinematic point of view. You have artists like Maya Deren, who understood that there is vertical movement in film. The horizontal movement is the plot; the vertical movement is when you stop the narrative and all of a sudden go into a philosophical idea or concept.
Herzog considers himself a filmmaker, not an artist. Conversely, there are a lot of artists moving into commercial cinema.
What a lot of artists like about cinema is that it’s distributed to the masses. And that’s something that they want their art to do, but it’s not always that easy.
But while artists like the sheer scale of cinema and its place within popular culture, there’s another aspect. Artists are sensitive to the nuances of image, beauty and feelings, and cinema tends to be an extraordinarily powerful medium. After all, I think everyone has been touched by a film at some point in their life, and often, very deeply. And I’m quite certain that holds true for artists.
Do artists have to leave behind a desire to be formally experimental when they enter the realm of popular cinema?
Yeah, and it’s unfortunate, because in the ‘60s and ‘70s, I think there was a public awareness of experimental film in theaters. Today artists have to leave that behind, and I think that’s part of the tension in a lot of their films. That’s not entirely true, of course. Some do push the experimental side, and the work tends to tip over more into the realm of video art. Other artists such as Julian Schnabel, Steve McQueen and others, seem to know when to moderate that impulse in favor of storytelling, and to pull back from formal concerns to create very solid and successful films.