A review of Joachim Koester’s Message from Andrée by Chaney Giordano
In it’s own tiny room, the exhibit is set apart. The walls are white, but the dim lighting and lack of windows brings a hush over visitors to the scene. With the silence comes reverence and a morbid curiosity, like walking into the depths of a morgue.
Inside the secluded room at the Baltimore Museum of Art are three things: two posters, each depicting an image of a hot air balloon sailing high over a peaceful landscape, and a projector in the center of the room.
The projector displays images on a blank, black wall, grainy images in black and white, with no discernable subject. It is only from wall text that we learn that the 16mm film was recovered from a century-old expedition to the arctic that ended in tragedy.
Thirty-three years after Salomon August Andrée attempted to fly over the North Pole in a hot air balloon in 1897, his and the bodies of his crew were found, frozen and buried in an arctic wasteland. Along with them, canisters of film were recovered. This film documented their flight, their devastating crash, and their struggle to hike through a frozen landscape to find help.
Although these images of the crew’s perilous journey would be compelling and tragic, they are not the ones Koester chose to project on the wall. Instead, he selected deteriorated images altered from three decades of exposure to the elements. Each of these images shows little more than a plain backdrop covered in splotches or lines, in every shade on the black and white value scale.
Projected rapidly, one after the other, a snowstorm is created in the format of a three minute and forty second film of ruined images.
According to Koester, the images are a figurative representation of the expedition’s horrific end. Editing and projecting them onto the wall, they become a depiction of the crew’s final days. Seeing nothing through the haze, I was transported there with them, in the snowy hopelessness of their arctic trek. Contrasted with the tranquility in the hot air balloon posters, the film conveys the divergence between the hopeful beginning of the expedition and the reality of its dismal end.
Koester’s message comes through loud and clear. The contrast between the posters and the chaos of the film communicates the reality of hope turned to disaster. Despite the horrific end to the adventure, Koester manages to communicate a mysterious and tragic beauty. Rapidly firing, with no natural order or progression, the images were eerie and compelling in a way that would have made me keep watching even if I didn’t know what I was seeing. Almost like an intro to an episode of The Twilight Zone, where clues and premonitions abound, I kept looking for something recognizable through the haze, and although I felt something of the chaos and disaster Koester sought to communicate, it also seemed to be romanticized and distorted by the artist.
Taking a step back, it’s important to consider the exhibit isn’t called Message from Koester. It’s called Message from Andrée, and yet Andrée’s voice and image is inherently missing from the display. Without the aid of wall text, I could never have known any of Andrée’s story, or how personally connected the story of his life was to the vague and abstract film before me.
Sure, there were feelings of confusion and despair in the film that Andrée himself must have felt in his final days in the arctic, but those feelings could be connected to any number of tragedies. What bothers me about this exhibit is that what happened to Andrée wasn’t just another tragedy among tragedies. The tale of Andrée’s failed expedition was uniquely compelling and moving. It was a story that deserved to be told, and choosing to obscure the images that survived of the individuals who were lost felt like a missed opportunity.
Koester chose to explore his own ideas of beauty, tragedy, and loss by displaying only the distorted images. He challenged himself by attempting to visually display a real story with only symbolic imagery. While Koester’s piece may have been visually fascinating and emotionally evocative, his self-serving exhibit failed to pay respect to the supposed subjects of his piece or properly tell their story. In the end, nothing in the film was specific to Andrée’s story, leaving me a little confused about exactly where Andrée’s message was supposed to be found.
Joachim Koester’s exhibit will be at the Baltimore Museum of Art until March 6, 2016.
Chaney Giordano is a Baltimore-based writer, traveler, beachgoer, outdoors lover, and adventure seeker.