lava flow
Austria 2021 15 min

Cosmic Jive
On Manfred Neuwirth’s "lava flow"

The work of Austrian artist Manfred Neuwirth circles persistently around the elementary. Simultaneously raw, and ethereal, earth and air seem to be the basic building blocs of many of his films. Most recently his work has been about the surprisingly intangible nuances of snow, and sea waves. Now he tackles fire as a spectacle of nature (in its interplay with rock, smoke, earth, and water): lava flow is a series of slow cross-fades of landscape views around a magma spewing volcano near Reykjavik, recorded in May 2021. With graphic precision, Neuwirth records the viscous, reptile-like flow of lava; its fire shimmering through the cracks in cooled-off, solidified rock; the spray of red-hot eruptions. He focuses on contrastive pairs, juxtaposing heat with cold, blaze with rain, organic with inorganic, close-ups with wide shots — the dramatic with the familiar.

For on location, the spectacle Neuwirth is telling about, is utterly normal: a cyclic programme, an event that is being repeated every few minutes. But lava flow is much more than a documentary of an active Icelandic volcano. It is at the same time an absolutely unpretentious contemplation on the state of the world: a work on pre- or post-Anthtropocene, a study on the absence of so-called homo sapiens, a report from beyond and before human colonisation of the earth. Hence, the volcanic motif carries mythic overtones, and, as it were, a «psychedelic» iconography. The same is true of the ambient soundtrack of Neuwirth’s longtime companion Christian Fennesz, who, as before, weaves Neuwirth’s field recordings, gathered on location, into his compositions. Something «cosmic», in the double sense of the word, lingers in these seemingly extraterrestrial images, with the music taking measure at the meditative outposts of the 1970s Krautrock scene.

In any case the sensory power of this film is tangible, with the images entering a veritable state of jittering when the lava’s heat rises up in the cold air. And despite all the seeming simplicity of the concept, lava flow is not shy for riddles, mysteries, even optical illusions. Are we looking from afar at these landscapes or are we up close? Is the frame speed reduced? Or are volcanic eruptions in fact looking like slow motion events? Those who know to tell things in utmost clarity and simplicity should hardly need worry about the complex outcomes of their work.

Stefan Grissemann