A quest for Ultima Thule: Subversive Romanticism
by Philipp Dennert
Alexander Lembke harnesses photography as a means to trace the man-caused subjection of natural landscapes. From the point of view of a passive observer, his images capture the domestication and acculturation of spaces distant from the center of social attention. The abandoned Russian mining colonies of Svalbard within the polar circle, the amputated trees from the natural reserve “Königsforst“ and the series of images showing avalanche protection facilities all revolve around the topic how the untouched space, the outside of the human domestic sphere has never existed.
Despite this rather environmentalist motivation, Lembke’s photographs elude from presenting a gloomy reality of decay and striking evidences of man’s invasion into the realm of nature. His visual language is one of balanced calmness, well-composed frames and abstracted graphic quality. References to German Romanticist landscape paintings enrich his images with a pleasing lightness, the meticulously constructed gaze reveals an almost perfect order.
Yet, the attentive viewer can detect subversive elements in Lembke’s images that disrupt the harmony of man and his environment. The crisp panorama of arctic glaciers is spoiled by the smoke of a coal-fired power plant, the heroic pose of a wanderer standing in awe over the glacier landscape is broken by the subtle but drastic realization of the extent of the glaciers reduction due to global warming.
The human subject rarely takes the lead in his photography, even in the portrayal of cultural spaces individuals are analyzed on their interaction and relation to other elements in the picture. This focus on interaction and transformation is certainly reflected in the compilation of Lembke’s work. Rather than aiming for impact on strong singular pictures, Lembke’s path is one of approximation in several series of photographs from different angles. His photography can be explained as a manifestation of the Kaizen principle, the circle of continuous refinement, always returning to the same sites and documenting the next stage of the same long-term process.
In European mythology Ultima Thule is a distant, northern place that is not marked within human cartography, untouched by civilization. Lembke’s photography is the quest to trace it, an iterative process as he states himself: “Always when I come close to it, I realize that humans have already been there.“