Friederike Brandenburg

What remains after humans disappear and nature takes over? The photographs of Friederike Brandenburg take up this question. One of the dozen images in this show (all Untitled, and from the series “Zurückgelassen” [Left Behind], 2007–), shows a light blue car amid a sea of green; the vehicle is almost covered by ferns. On its left is a broadleaf tree, on its right a fat conifer. At first glance one almost misses the car, but upon closer examination it looks like a 1970s or ’80s model—in any case not a vehicle of recent vintage. The car is a modern-day memento mori.

Landscape here becomes a form of still life. Brandenberg’s pictures are so vivid that one can imagine the very stillness of the air. Another image is of a small wooden boat falling to pieces on a rocky shore. It is not a romantic rowboat, nor a racing yacht, but rather a boat seemingly designed for work and hauling things. The line of the shore follows the curved line of the hull—or the other way around. The snow on the stones and the steep hillside slows the speed of perception. The beauty of the picture suggests a harmony between the ruins of human artifacts and the forces of nature.

Brandenburg, born in 1983, trained at Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen, Germany, and the National Academy of the Arts in Oslo. She’s a wanderer who takes pictures while traveling. Often she notices pieces of old machinery out of the corner of her eye while driving, then turns her car around to investigate the debris. The exact location of the images remains unspecified; a trip to Lofoten, an arctic archipelago in the north of Norway, is mentioned, but details remain unclear. Any given picture could have come as easily from New Zealand as from Norway, the two countries where they were taken.

These images are not literally spectacular, yet they exhibit a great calm that draws the viewer in. Evoking decay, they also remind us of life: Next to a dead truck and a mountain covered in snow, the birch trees are blooming. Some of the images seem to pose a question, almost a riddle. How did that steel I-beam get to the edge of the sea? Who brought it there? Why was it left? Similarly, one asks what happened to the car turned upside down on the shore in another image. Its rusted exhaust pipe and bare innards look like intestines, pointing to the fragility of the object.

One of Brandenburg’s central concerns is what will remain of human culture and industry now that people are changing the entire ecosystem—so much so that environmental writer Bill McKibben has begun calling our planet eaarth—the second a denoting the impact of humans, which has created a new, different planet. This distinguishes Brandenburg’s work from that of Edward Burtynsky. To the vast scale of Burtynsky’s imagery—ship-breaking yards, wastelands of strip mines, and the remnants of uranium tailings—Brandenburg counterposes a smaller one. Where Burtynsky emphasizes the deadly, poisonous consequences of consumption, Brandenburg stresses the force of nature. Instead of overpowering the viewer, there is a suggestion, perhaps an optimistic one: In the end nature will prevail. Ruins, however, will remain.

Daniel Boese