There is something mysterious and miraculous about Marianne Engel’s motifs, be it the remains of civilization, flowers, bushes, forest clearings or rivers: they imply a kind of self-organization that makes you wonder if they are meant to conjure the presence of an unknown creative force within the chaos of unbridled nature. In photographs like Geweih (2010) stumps of dead trees stick out on a little heap of earth, looking like the remains of antlers. A situation that must be found over and over again in a forest, but photographed by Engel – the light accentuating the hill in front, the symmetrical perspective – it turns into a site with a spooky energy, comparable to a man-made place of worship. A found situation bearing the hint of a higher order which has the quality of a vision, a revelation. But even if intimations of alchemy and the occult, mysticism and the esoteric may well apply, it would be wrong to read the artist’s photographs as visual ciphers of the supernatural. On the contrary, what we see revealed in these pictures is the pure presence of things themselves.
A picture like Supertree (2009) is truly stunning, even if it actually shows nothing more than a tree in London’s Victoria Park. The way it is shown, however, turns it into something much more than that. The tree is a creature, an alien, a beauty and a beast at the same time; it looks absolutely autonomous and self-sufficient. Engel herself often speaks about contingency in this context, meaning, philosophically speaking, that there is no compelling reason for things to be as they are, or even to be at all. Existentialism would talk about the meaninglessness of the world and of human existence, something which leads either to suicide or to the conclusion that meaning must necessarily be individually determined. Maybe it is indeed just this absence of meaning that turns the sheer presence of the tree into something utterly brutal.
Contingency also eliminates the boundary between life and death, inasmuch as death suddenly becomes meaningless. Contingency, interpreted as the absence of all good reasons in the world, is initially an experience of the abyss but also of overcoming it. This is very close to descriptions of the sublime, where sensations of awe, horror and helplessness also play an important role. The sublime, however, is a pleasurable experience, for humankind can face the overpowering superiority of nature as a cognitive species. Our inferiority as sensual beings is compensated for by our awareness of our superiority as moral beings. Describing the experience of contingency as a sublime moment without the comfort of human superiority makes it seem of course unbearable; but that does not undermine its significance as a moment in which all meaning bows to the sheer presence of things. Consolation can then be found on the one hand in a sense of connectedness with all other (meaninglessly present) things in the world, and on the other in the singularity of the human mind, uniquely capable as it is of this kind of experience.
Marianne Engel’s photography reveals a view of the world in which all objects are shown to have a modest but unmistakably justified existence. The artist still finds most of her inspiration in nature, but photographs of houses, a car or even a lamp post serve as evidence that even the most trivial object can reveal a mysterious authority. The fact that her photographs are almost exclusively taken by night and use a very long exposure time is therefore the technical expression of the very core of her artistic approach: there is beauty out in the world that is meaningful and meaningless at the very same time; but to find it and see it takes time and a closer look.