Claudia Terstappen

Wed, 19/06/2013 - 20:20 -- damien
A Language of the Sacred
Claudia Terstappen is seduced by rituals and magical practices. In her photographs, she looks at temples, shrines and the objects used in ceremonial practices; she also explores the concept of the spirit of place that is the foundation of many indigenous cultures.1

Terstappen is interested in belief and hope, and she wants to know how the shaman heals and what this means for the ways in which the human mind and spirit work. But this is not a new age encounter with the spiritualities of others, it is more an investigation of hopes and promises and how these are delivered by abstract languages like ritual and prayer. In times of crisis, when governments and societies fail, people, often en masse, turn to their gods, their spirits, their shamans and their magical practices to regain a sense of place and security. Terstappen wants to know how this works.

When I probed the artist about what she believed, she quoted Ludwig Wittgenstein to me. She said: ‘We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all’.2

It is intriguing that an artist taking photographs of sacred sites and places of worship would be interested in someone like Wittgenstein. He was, after all, a logical positivist and associated with the Vienna Circle of the 1920s which rejected metaphysics and theology. Wittgenstein meditated on the nature of language, how language works; he probed language games as a linguistic philosopher and concluded that the puzzle of philosophy grew out of a misunderstanding of how language operates.3

At first this language of the rational seems far away from the monumental photographs of landscapes and shrines that have a spiritual meaning for thousands of people in distant/different cultures. One writer has said that Terstappen examines spirituality ‘in an almost anthropological way’.4 Travelling to distant places, away from her own homeland, the artist appears as an intrepid explorer seeking out the mystical and unknown. This can be problematic in itself since the traveller may not have been invited and the power structure at play may be unequal.5 However, most anthropologists photograph people rather than places in an effort to understand other cultures and customs. This is not what Claudia Terstappen does. Her work is about language and what escapes from it. It is as if she uses Wittgenstein as a kind of philosophical diving board to jump into the unknown. Where the philosopher remains conceited in his logic, the artist rummages around in the unconscious and the cultural imaginary trying to find out what motivates people towards ritual and mysticism.

It is a dangerous investigation in many respects, both physically and ideologically, but it manifests in striking visual imagery. Some of the images are literally slices of everyday life, such as Rituals (Japan 2004), which shows a ceiling lined with metal buckets each individually identified. These are used by worshippers who are visiting their family graves near the Yashaku Shrine. A small wooden box, filled with sand, accompanies the buckets, and is used to hold the incense that will be burnt as a sacred offering. In another image, the viewer is allowed a glimpse of the ornate and decorative chapels of Cruz del Romero, which celebrates an annual festival in the south of Spain. In Otagi nenbutsu-ji Temple (Japan, 2004), one thousand, two hundred carved figures of Rakan are seen stacked closely together on a hillside as a celebration of the disciples of Shaka, the founder of Buddhism. The heads, covered in moss, appear to be growing from the ground, as if they have been there for centuries, but in fact they have been carved by people from various parts of the country, from 1981 to 1991, and they have become increasingly modern over time with some (out of frame) sporting mobile phones and Sony walkmans.

These images bring spiritual rituals into the zone of ordinary life, whereas some of the landscapes preserve an aura which is difficult to explain in words. Here, ordinary language and logical thinking cannot help us much. Following Wittgenstein, we might say that these are things that can only be shown. They are outside the logics of language as we know it. However, the meaning still relies on the viewer’s interpretation. For some people, the black and white series that includes the pictures from Iceland (2001) and the Sacred land of the Navaho Indian series (USA, 1990) will be admired for its formal qualities, and the masters of the landscape tradition, such as Ansel Adams, will be invoked by critics. However, for other people, these landscapes will have a different resonance and they may well be perceived as having a kind of spiritual aura. People may simply see this aura as the wonder of nature or, like the Romantics, they may see the spiritual in the landscape.

The big project for Claudia Terstappen is to understand how desire, belief and cultural memory are entwined. She encounters this research through photographs which have a mysterious ontology that has been written about by many writers and practitioners.6 The virtual image that appears in the analogue process has seduced scholars and artists alike. The nineteenth-century practice of spirit photography, which promised to present pictures of the recently departed, is just one material manifestation of a cultural fascination with the medium as both a realist and a performative tool. Terstappen is well aware of the mystical and magical qualities of analogue processes and has studied ghosts, poltergeists and corn circles depicted in photographic imagery. However, like many people, she is ambivalent about these images. What is revealing about them is not whether they are real but why some people believe that they are. Hovering slightly below the surface of such photographs is a sincerity that is seduced by the unknown but not convinced by it.

Claudia Terstappen, Cruz del Romero, Spain, 1994. 300 x 300cm. Photographic prints. Courtesy the artist.

Claudia Terstappen, Fushimi—Inari—taisha, Japan, 2004. 150 x 150cm. Photographic prints. Courtesy the artist.

Claudia Terstappen, Deseos, Japan, 2004. 150 x 150cm. Photographic prints. Courtesy the artist.


1. The artist negotiates with indigenous and first world people to establish the protocols of photographing sites with cultural and spiritual significance.

2. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (German text with English translation C.K. Ogden), London: Routledge, 1992, p.187 (first published in German in 1922).

3. A.R. Lacy, A Dictionary of Philosophy, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976, p.237.

4. Jean-Hubert Martin, Claudia Terstappen: Sacred Places, English translation, exhibition catalogue, Galeria Spectrum Sotos, 2002, p.2.

5. For a collection of scholarship and opinion on this issue see Elizabeth Edwards (ed.), Anthropology and Photography 1860–1920, New Haven and London: Yale University Press in association with The Royal Anthropological Institute, London, 1992. Negotiations are made with indigenous and first nation peoples before any site is photographed.

6. The most read text in the field is still Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard, London: Fontana, 1981. First published in French in 1980.

Claudia Terstappen was born in Germany and moved to Australia in 2004 after working for many years in Spain. She is based in Melbourne.

Anne Marsh is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Art & Design, Monash University.