And the Danube Flows On. Andreas Müller-Pohle’s multimedia Danube River Project reveals unknown sides to a symbol of European integration
Any archaeologist will tell you that for thousands of years the Danube united the peoples that lived on its shores. But in the 1st Century AD the Roman legions arrived and Europe’s second largest river after the Volga became a dividing line between “civilisation” and “the barbarians”.
For some two thousand years now, the Danube has been serving this purpose with varying intensity. Mediaeval chronicles detail how it was crossed by the Goths, Huns, Avars, Slavs, Proto-Bulgarians, Magyars, Russians, Pechenegs, Cumanians and Moguls, and between the 15th-19th centuries its course was the border between Christian Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Not without a dose of symbolism, in the 20th Century the shores of the only large European river which flows from West to East were divided between the democratic countries and those of the Communist bloc.
At the end of the same century the only Danubian member states in the European Union were Germany and Austria. But with Hungary and Slovakia joining in 2004, the accession of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, and the declared will for negotiations by Croatia, Serbia, and Ukraine, it seems the Danube is soon to become a border on paper only.
“Every river unites and at the same time separates lands and nations. The Danube is the European river per se and for this reason it has become a symbol of European integration,” says German photographer, philosopher and writer Andreas Müller-Pohle. Between July and November 2005 he traced the Danube, from its springs in the Black Forest to its delta at the Black Sea. “I wanted to show the whole river, to build an overall portrait. So I chose about 30 sites: historical landmarks, large cities, picturesque spots, as well as some quieter areas along its banks. I’ve been asked why I didn’t concentrate on the unsightly stretches there are, like the polluting industrial complexes along the Romanian bank. But that was not my concept.”
Müller-Pohle took the pictures with his camera half-immersed in the river so that it could see both what is above and hidden under the surface. Compiling the Danube River Project he selected 84 photographs from the 4,000 he had taken, as well as five hours of video and audio recordings of the hydrophone-recorded underwater sound of the river at Sulina, Romania.
The Danube and its banks, taken as they are, reveal unexpected views, such as the idyllic-looking plant roots in the water by Sigmaringen, Germany. Some are disturbing: like the ripples before the lens, which, due to the perspective, appear as if they were about to engulf the Parliament in Budapest; or the concrete pillars of the bridge in Novi Sad, Serbia destroyed during NATO bombings. The murky, still water at Drobeta-Turnu Severin, Romania, bears no traces of the bridge built by Emperor Trajan in 103-105 for his war with the Dacians. It was 1,135 m, or 3,723 ft, long and for nearly 1,000 years remained the longest construction of its kind in the world.
Each photograph includes a small set of data along the bottom edge: the values of the pollutants found in the chemical analysis of the water (nitrates, phosphate, potassium, cadmium, mercury and lead). Müller-Pohle took water samples from every place he photographed. “Initially, I thought that the river would become more polluted the closer to the delta I got,” he says. “It is true that there was a higher concentration of pollutants after Croatia, but if we look at the values of the different elements, we’ll see that not everything matches my hypothesis. The highest nitrate content was in Donauwörth [Germany], and of mercury, in Vienna.”
The project plans to showcase the multimedia installation in a number of Danubian cities. After Ulm, Bratislava, Belgrade, Regensburg, Budapest/Dunaújváros, Ingolstadt and Donaueschingen, it is now the turn of Ruse, Bucharest and Tulcea.
The Danube river has no historical, cultural or symbolic equivalent, but Müller-Pohle’s future plans once again feature rivers. “The Danube is part of a larger project. The next step will be to explore big cities which depend on their rivers. At present, I’m studying Berlin with the Spree and the Havel, Singapore with the eponymous river, and Kolkata [formerly Calcutta] with the Ganges.”
Bulgaria Air Inflight Magazine, Sofia, no. 32, 2006