Hide and Go Seek

Tony Pipolo on Sylvia Schedelbauer at Anthology Film Archives

Sylvia Schedelbauer, Erinnerungen (Memories), 2004, HD video, color, sound, 19 minutes.

WITH SIX SHORT WORKS to her videography, Sylvia Schedelbauer is easily one of the most impressive moving-picture artists to emerge in the past decade. Born in Japan of a Japanese mother and a German father—both of whom severed ties to their postwar childhoods—Schedelbauer’s videos are so eloquently and exquisitely constructed that it is easy to underestimate the passion and urgency that underlie them. Driven to conjure a past to replace the one her parents have denied or hidden from her, she has, through an ingenious use of found footage and the endless possibilities of montage, created a series of works that turn artifice into a means of investigation and a bridge to repair the rift between desire and knowledge.

In Erinnerungen (Memories, 2004), her first movie, she counters parental silence directly, appropriating dozens of family photos, accompanied by a voice-over commentary that presents her plight. It begins with a series of images from a photo album she discovered in a shoebox buried in a closet when she was fourteen. Vivid and sepia-colored, these affecting, carefully framed photographs document her grandfather’s service as a German soldier during World War II. Seen at rest and in groups, ordinary, uniformed men emanate a humanist spirit wholly at odds with the realities of the ideology they served and the war in which many of them lost their lives. Though Schedelbauer tells us that her grandfather died at Stalingrad, she cannot identify him in any of the photos. As elusive as the past of which he was a part, he seems to embody the paradox that she implies is intrinsic to photography: its documentation of a world that remains unknown. For all its irrefutability as data, every photo in this group, however evocative and haunting, remains a tantalizing enigma, its truth-value indecipherable and irretrievable. Schedelbauer’s work suggests that this is not merely a matter of technical limits or human fallibility, but the byproduct of the perpetuation of wars and the conditions that promote them.

Schedelbauer follows up with more casual-looking photos from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, many presumably taken by her parents. In juxtaposing the suppressed past with the one she has lived through, she contrives a wished-for continuity, a gesture both pitiable and palpable. Thus when, near the close of her movie, she provides a list (retrieved from the Internet) of international wars, mostly throughout the twentieth century, she links her own incomplete story to those of the countless millions whose pasts were similarly fractured and suppressed. In so doing, she affirms that the distortions that beset personal and cultural histories are among the most far-reaching casualties of war.

Given the relative uncertainty and malleability that bedevils photography, it is no surprise that Schedelbauer saw the even greater possibilities of found footage. Her subsequent works, equally marked by semifictional, “biographical” impulses, use montage to bind these found images—and the “stories” embedded within them—to her need to summon the missing pictures from her life. Indeed, her title Remote Intimacy (2007–2008) suggests the very contradiction of this phenomenon. Schedelbauer manifests an acutely intuitive sense of selection (her sources here and elsewhere include Craig Baldwin, master of found-footage compilations, with whom Schedelbauer has collaborated), evoking times and places with uncannily apt images and sounds—of ships sailing to the music of 1940s radio, men cutting down trees, children playing baseball in a California forest—as well as hints of the Japanese internment that took place there during the war. In the last third of the work, color images, including shots from Japanese movies, highlight the cultural dislocation her parents survived. It is tempting to imagine that the fleeting found images of a Western man and a Japanese woman are meant to evoke them.

Sylvia Schedelbauer, False Friends, 2007, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 5 minutes.

False Friends (2007) ups the ante, so to speak, adding noir-like suspense to Schedelbauer’s repertoire. In the spirit of the title—a phrase that refers to words which, though identically spelled in two languages, mean different things—she repeats a select number of images, crosscutting them with others to imply both complementary and contradictory meanings. The opening shot of newborns in a hospital nursery seems linked somehow to the two men greeted by a nurse at the entrance of a medical building. But the latter is interrupted repeatedly by images of unspecified menace: a possible intruder exploring a house with a flashlight, a figure running through a darkened terrain from some undetermined danger. Shots of a nude couple making love, seen briefly and translucently, may be Schedelbauer’s imagining of a primal scene—both intimate and remote—imbued with cultural ambiguity. In the penultimate shot, the figure seen running throughout suddenly pauses and looks offscreen left, in the direction, the editing implies, of the men who have just been admitted to the building by the nurse. In welding two segregated pieces of found footage into quasi-narrative coherence, this gaze, symbolically, might be that of Schedelbauer herself, in poignant pursuit of the very connective tissue that eludes her.

Despite the presence and recurrence of a male figure walking across a muddy field at the beginning, middle, and end of way fare (2009), the footage, taken from educational and industrial films, seems more diverse and the overall effect more abstract than the previous works. This impression is compounded by faster editing and superimpositions, tending to blur and blend images temporally as well as spatially. A vague family resemblance prevails: trees, leaves, woods, farmers, tractors, rivers, a grasshopper eating a leaf, then being devoured by insects, emerging larvae—first accompanied by bird sounds and then by a distant buzz saw, which we see later resting on a tree trunk—might suggest that nature’s cycle is a unifying theme. But we also see vehicles moving along highways, people who seem to be migrating illegally via boats—and that lone walker who might just be the artist’s surrogate traveling consciousness, attempting to piece together the disparate places, times, and experiences that constitute an individual’s life.

This idea seems, in fact, to be the unifying motif of Sea Vapors (2014), a gorgeous, lyrical mosaic in which a woman—shot first from the back of her head in close-up, and near the end from the front, but whose face we never fully see—lifts a cup (of tea or coffee?), ever so incrementally, to her mouth, every stage of her movement interrupted by a horde of disparate images, including other shots of her, until, as the bowl of the cup seems to fill the screen like some giant orb, she drains it entirely. This barely hints at the density of the work’s texture, in which dissolves and superimpositions are compounded by the flickering effect produced by the rhythmic intercutting of black leader. Schedelbauer describes it as an “allegory of the lunar cycle,” but, no less than her other pieces, Sea of Vapors suggests, in a condensed form, that the most mundane of gestures contains a world of associations and meaning, both those we experience consciously and those that remain beyond our grasp.

“Show & Tell: Sylvia Schedelbauer” runs Saturday, March 21 at 7:30 PM at Anthology Film Archives in New York.