Jürgen Nefzger

Art and Cooling Towers. Jürgen Nefzger on His “Fluffy Clouds” Project

Jürgen Nefzger: Beznau, Schweiz, 2004; © Jürgen NefzgerJürgen Nefzger; © Mathilde Roman

Since 2003, Jürgen Nefzger has been travelling around Europe, using his large-format camera to photograph nuclear power stations in idyllic natural surroundings. Goethe.de spoke with the artist: about the lack of concern on the part of local residents, about nuclear power stations as amusement parks – and about the subtle romanticism of reactors.

Mr Nefzger, one of your photos shows a couple enjoying a day out; they are sitting on a bench at a viewpoint and gazing down into the valley, a bit like Caspar David Friedrich’s rear-view figures. Where the picture’s composition would lead one to expect an idyllic scene, however, we see instead a brazenly white nuclear power station. What is romantic about reactors?

Romantic scene-setting is an element I often use to draw the viewer into the photograph, though in this case it also serves another purpose.

Romanticism evolved as a result of the realization that humans no longer have a direct connection to nature. In contemporary depictions of nature, something is always missing – a foreground and background which no longer match. I take advantage of this “observational error” in my Fluffy Clouds pictures – only here it is the nuclear power station which fills the gap in the landscape.

Virtually no sign of German angst

What do your photographs say about nuclear power?

Actually, they say very little about nuclear power. Fluffy Clouds is more about how we react to nuclear power. How do we deal with something that we cannot see, and whose potential dangers we do not want to see?

At the start of the project I expected to encounter people who experience their close proximity to a nuclear power station to be a nightmare. To my great surprise, however, this was hardly ever the case anywhere in Europe, even in Germany – in stark contrast to the final storage facilities. No graffiti, no protest banners. There was just about nothing.

This lack of concern and criticism is to be found in the “romantic” settings of many of my photographs, with their beautiful colours and wonderful light. This is my visual response to the untroubled attitudes and suppression of concern that I experienced everywhere.

Jürgen Nefzger: Atomic Power Plant Photography - arte Metropolis

All that matters is big fish

It is not only local residents, however, but golfers, bathers and fishermen who go about their leisure activities in the direct vicinity of power stations without a care in the world …

Fishermen in particular are very frequently to be found near nuclear power stations: this is because the water there is warmer which makes the fish grow bigger. One of my pictures shows a fisherman in a deck-chair. He is by no means a freak, but one of many at a camp site by the river – directly opposite a French nuclear power station.

Jürgen Nefzger: Nogent-sur-Seine, France, 2003; © Jürgen Nefzger

This fisherman came to spend ten days there; together with a friend, he spent his entire time fishing – taking shifts to fish 24 hours a day. This shows very clearly how people tune out the invisible nuclear danger.

Speaking of invisible dangers: some pictures do not show any reactors, but only the “fluffy clouds” emitted by the cooling towers.

Precisely: in this case the fluffy clouds, which we would normally perceive as beautiful, represent the concrete and architecturally tangible power station – and in the context of the other images suddenly take on an ominous quality as an imaginary threat. After all, we only know that the cloud must come from a cooling tower because we have already seen so many nuclear power stations in the other Fluffy Clouds pictures.

Sinister hoses

Thus the serial character of “Fluffy Clouds” plays an important role?

Yes, though incidentally the extent to which this is the case varies according to the nationality of the viewer. When for example a German visits an exhibition and sees my photo of the fisherman in the deck-chair, he will require no help to understand the image, especially just one year after Fukushima. A Frenchman, who for historical reasons tends to have a different attitude to nuclear power, may only understand the irony inherent in the image once he has viewed the entire series of photographs.

Jürgen Nefzger: Gundremmingen, Germany, 2005; © Jürgen Nefzger

What is more, I try to employ the dramaturgy of the sequence of photographs to guide the viewer slowly towards the way I see things: from the idyllic scenes at the beginning of the series to the cold and threatening photographs of Philippsburg and Grundremmingen with their rusty barriers and sinister hoses, which no longer have anything romantic about them.

Cooling towers and skewed society

To what extent is “Fluffy Clouds” a political and didactical project?

It is political only in the sense of Hannah Arendt: to the extent that art gets involved in subjects of public discussion. My art is not political agitation – if it were, I would have to approach nuclear power in an entirely different way. However, the subtle aspect of my work is far too important to me to do that.

For me, nuclear energy is highly charged with symbolism – it is a metaphor for our skewed society, ecological awareness and attitude towards the future. From this perspective I find nuclear power stations fascinating.

Cathedrals of the energy age?

Recently, the painter Anselm Kiefer announced that he wished to purchase the decommissioned Mülheim-Kärlich nuclear power station: for him, it represents a quasi-mythological “pantheon” of the energy age. Can you relate to that?

To some extent, yes. After all, nuclear power stations rise up out of the landscape like cathedrals. The oversized dimensions of their architecture are certainly imposing, and first and foremost a cooling tower is in itself an object with a radical modern form. When you have seen as many nuclear power stations all over Europe as I have, however, the spectacular aspect quickly becomes relativized.

Jürgen Nefzger: Gundremmingen, Germany, 2005; © Jürgen Nefzger

Incidentally, I believe that one of Kiefer’s main motivations is provocation. What on earth is he planning to do with his nuclear power station? He can hardly start it up again, after all.

The nuclear power station as an amusement park

One possible second lease of life for nuclear power stations can be seen on your pictures of the “fast breeder” in Kalkar, the concrete ruins of which were converted in the 1990s into an amusement name grotesquely named “Kernwasser-Wunderland” (i.e. Nuclear Water Wonderland).

It has since been renamed simply “Wunderland Kalkar”. It is a very strange place with a very weird atmosphere – one of the most absurd things I have ever experienced. Many people assume I must have done a photomontage, but Kalkar genuinely looks like it does in my picture.

Jürgen Nefzger: Kalkar, Germany, 2005; © Jürgen Nefzger

At Fluffy Clouds exhibitions, people have even asked me several times whether the “fast breeder” is still in operation. Amazing to think that there are people who actually imagine that one could run an amusement park in the grounds of an active nuclear power station! Somehow reality almost seems to have overtaken my pictures.

Jürgen Nefzger: Fluffy Clouds. Hatje Cantz Verlag 2009, 144 pages, ISBN 978-3775725989, 35.00 euros. 

Thomas Köster
works as a culture and science journalist in Cologne. He writes for various publications, including the photography page of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) and for “frame”, the yearbook of the German Photographic Association (DGPh).

Translation: Chris Cave
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion

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