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Cloud Studies at the Intersection of Science and Aesthetics – an interview with Helmut Völter

20 • 08 • 20Judit Flóra Schuller

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Masanao Abe, Cloud Photograph 133, 14 February 1933, 7:07 am

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Masanao Abe, Cloud Photograph 195, 25 May 1933, 8:56 am

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Masanao Abe, Cloud Photograph 442, 23 November 1934, 7:09 am

J.F.S.

German artist and graphic designer Helmut Völter lives and works in Berlin. His research-based work often relies on found images and archival material. We talked about his working method, his interest in cloud photography, and the project, The Movements of Clouds around Mount Fuji, which will be exhibited at Mai Manó House’s PaperLab later this year.

Your works are research-based projects where you often use archival and found imagery. How would you define your artistic practice?

H.V.

My practice stems mostly from my personal interests. I dig into topics I would like to know more about. Sometimes I come across an image or a theme by accident, and then I carry out research into it, trying to find out more about its context. In the case of images, I am interested in what they were originally used for, what their primary meaning was, and what their use could be today. I often combine these two different aspects of an image in my works: what did it stand for when it was created, and what use can it be put to today?

J.F.S.

Categorization and selection are key elements in your projects. How did this attitude appear in your work?

H.V.

What interests me is contradictions. On the one hand, an image is always resistant to categorization – as it is always more than just its visual content –, but on the other hand, it is useful to categorize things. For example, in the case of a photograph of a cloud, its intended use might have been to show a specific cloud formation. As the scientific classification of clouds has changed repeatedly, a particular category might have existed only for a few years, just as it may never have been an official category but merely a suggestion by some scientist. There is this contradiction between the image as presumed scientific proof and its history as a document of a failed or forgotten theory. When it comes to cloud photographs, their fuzziness and endless varieties of form seem in any case to resist scientific classification. The many Latin names given to them were rather poetic creations than reflections of an underlying system.

J.F.S.

Your works are particularly contemplative, slow-paced. What is your relation to time when it comes to creating art?

H.V.

Besides being an artist, I also work as a graphic designer and as a teacher, so in the first place, I need to find the time I can devote to my own works. But apart from that, it always takes a lot of time to do the research or design the book. I try to get the details accurate, because they are very important, they constitute the core of my projects. If the details are not correct, the whole thing does not feel right.

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Masanao Abe, Cloud Photograph 690, 15 September 1936, 9:00 am

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Helmut Völter: Handbuch der wildwachsenden Großstadtpflanzen, Institut für Buchkunst, 2007

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Helmut Völter: Handbuch der wildwachsenden Großstadtpflanzen, Institut für Buchkunst, 2007

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Helmut Völter: The Movement of Clouds around Mount Fuji: Photographed and Filmed by Masanao Abe, Spector Books, 2016

J.F.S.

The photobook is your chief medium. What was your first project that took the shape of an artist’s book?

H.V.

It was my diploma project on flowers in the city, entitled Handbuch der wildwachsenden Großstadtpflanzen (Handbook of Plants Growing Wild in the City). This was my final project at the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst (HGB) in Leipzig. It was not mandatory to create a book for the diploma work, but I and most of my classmates made one anyway. While making a book, you can learn a lot about graphic design, about how to find a theme for a book, and about creating the content. After the diploma project, I started to make photobooks more consciously. Another thing that interests me is making an exhibition out of the same material.  Not long after the Handbuch was published, I was asked to take part in an exhibition about gardens and the wilderness. I created a large showcase where the book was surrounded by images, texts and objects that had served as source material and inspiration while working on the book. For another exhibition, I focused on a different aspect of the book, the presence of “foreign” plant species that can often be found in cities. The book is my main medium, but I also enjoy the opportunity to use physical installations to shed light on different aspects of the same theme.

J.F.S.

You have two books on clouds. How did you chance upon the theme of “cloudgraphy”?

H.V.

I found a really interesting book in the meteorological library of the University of Leipzig. It is called The International Cloud Atlas, and was published in 1956 in Geneva by the World Meteorological Organization. It is the official guide for the classification of clouds, meant for scientists and meteorological observers. In a scientific book, the text is usually more dominant, but in this case the images are more important, and they are amazing pictures. It would have been impossible to translate the visual content into text; this kind of information can only be captured in photographs. After finding the Atlas, I started to research the history of cloud photography.

J.F.S.

Who was Masanao Abe? What is to be known about his work as a physicist?

H.V.

I came across his work as I was working on my book, Cloud Studies. I was looking for cloud scientists for my research, and found Masanao Abe’s work really remarkable. He took photographs, stereo photographs, and even shot films, at a very particular location, at the foot of Mount Fuji, for nearly fifteen years. Abe was well-known in the scientific community of the 1930s, but his work was largely forgotten after his death in 1966. I contacted the Japanese Weather Agency to ask for additional materials from them. They happened to know how to reach Abe’s family, who had kept all the documents of his scientific work. They were happy and grateful for my interest in their grandfather’s work, and invited me to come to Tokyo to delve into the archive. It was a hidden archive, kept in a separate small building in the family’s garden. Apart from Abe’s close relatives, no one knew about its existence.

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Masanao Abe, The Abe Cloud and Air Current Research Observatory, early 1930s

What interests me is contradictions. On the one hand, an image is always resistant to categorization – as it is always more than just its visual content –, but on the other hand, it is useful to categorize things.

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Masanao Abe, View from the observatory on Mt. Fuji, 1930s

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Unknown photographer: Masanao Abe in front of a tent, before the observatory was built, c. 1927

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Helmut Völter: The Movement of Clouds around Mount Fuji: Photographed and Filmed by Masanao Abe, Spector Books, 2016

J.F.S.

What happened to his estate, where is it kept now?

H.V.

All of Abe’s material is now at the Intermediatheque, which is part of the Museum of the University of Tokyo. They were really delighted to have Abe’s estate, as his work lies at the cross-section of science and art. They organized an exhibition and made a book as well. Currently they are trying to make it available to the public online.

J.F.S.

The photobook you based on your research was published under the title The Movement of Clouds around Mount Fuji. The book consists of several parts. How is it structured?

H.V.

When I started to work on the book, I thought it was going to be really simple because my chief intention was to show the images. As I went deeper and deeper into the details it turned out to be a really complex material. I wanted to show the different aspects of it: the scientific part—meteorology, physics, observation techniques—but also the aesthetic, cultural, historical and political aspects of it. To give you an example: the image of Fuji has been important in Japanese culture for a long time, but during Abe’s research, from 1926 to 1941, it also became a nationalistic symbol, an emblem of a nation at war that was painted on fighter planes. Though Abe only gave scientific reasons for his choice of Mount Fuji, his images were never purely scientific, they always had additional layers.

The main part of the book comprises 102 photographs of Mount Fuji—in a reference to Hokusai, whose One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji also contains 102 images. This is followed by a section entitled Field Notes, which consists of large format paper sheets that Abe used to combine a contact print of every photograph he took with a drawing, the date, the time and the meteorological data. They’re beautiful objects, right at the intersection of art and science. The third part consists of film stills, reproduced as image sequences, similar to Muybridge’s series. The written part of the book starts with an essay by Sadie Plant, followed by texts that I wrote myself. I wanted to avoid making a conclusion or defining a label for Abe’s work. Instead of a single line of argument, I wanted to offer different ways of understanding his research. There is of course the meteorological background, but there is also a text about Abe’s love of cinema. As I see it, his cloud studies were the perfect combination of scientific research and his desire to produce aesthetically overwhelming photographs and films of clouds.

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Helmut Völter: The Movement of Clouds around Mount Fuji: Photographed and Filmed by Masanao Abe, Spector Books, 2016

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Helmut Völter: The Movement of Clouds around Mount Fuji / Fuji Paradigms: Visions of Mt. Fuji, exhibition view, Izu Photo Museum, 2015