PRINT Summer 2006


UNLIKE MANY ARTISTS TODAY who scavenge from every last scrap of modernist production, Ulla von Brandenburg has leaped over that period of utopian experimentalism, alighting instead in the preceding century. Von Brandenburg is attracted to the sophistication, escapism, extreme aestheticism, world-weariness, and fashionable despair that characterized the literary and artistic climate of the European fin de siècle (though in practice she looks equally to German Romanticism and the baroque metaphor of theatrum mundi). Rather than longing for ideological absolutes, the apparent impetus for the ongoing investigation of modernism, von Brandenburg is drawn to the sense of uncertainty associated with this previous moment’s expectation (rather than the actuality) of change, and how this anxiety manifested itself.

Tableaux vivants, circus motifs, and references to the occult as well as theater and dance pervade von Brandenburg’s work, in which the artist typically isolates and decontextualizes a pose or gesture from sources in literature, art, or history. And so a nineteenth-century photograph of a woman dying of consumption becomes a wall drawing; an illustration from a nineteenth-century book on etiquette is transformed into a tableau vivant; and a symphonic poem by Camille Saint-Saëns is the inspiration for a performance. The Hamburg-based artist always retains the historical specificity of her quotation—whether this is implied through period-style clothing, for example, or the use of well-known source material—but by eliminating the extraneous detail and transferring one medium to another she infuses the imagery with an undeniable contemporaneity. The resulting referential mix gives the impression that von Brandenburg sees her surroundings through the filter or ghostly presence of these historical tropes, as if our own time’s uncertainties summon the appearance of an earlier manifestation of doubt.

The process also creates an atmosphere of amateur dramatics or, perhaps more appropriately drawing-room entertainment. For example, Reiter (Rider), 2004, a tableau vivant captured on Super-8 film, features seven of the artist’s friends and acquaintances (many of them from her Hamburg art school days) dressed in contemporary clothing but posed according to von Brandenburg’s selected source material. She herself appears as well, holding the upright position of a figure in Giandomenico Tiepolo’s painting of the Venice carnival. Similarly, one person’s straddling of another who is on his hands and knees was inspired by a baroque illustration depicting a boy prince who made his servant perform this very task—but here it takes on quite a different sadomasochistic inference. Meanwhile, a woman seated on a chair wears a jacket embroidered with gingko leaves, a reference to Goethe, who wrote a poem about the tree—using its bilobed leaves as a symbol for duality—and who himself was involved in the creation of tableaux vivants.

A much larger group participated in Der Brief (The Letter), 2004, another tableau vivant that similarly compiles several references, some of which point back to von Brandenburg’s own work—such as a woman holding a glass of wine, who appeared in an earlier film by the artist (Ein Zaubertrickfilm [Magictrickfilm], 2002), and an embracing couple who copy a pose from Eislaufpaar (Ice Skating Couple), 2003, her drawing of an ice-skating duo. Also included is a group based on a nineteenth-century image of an occult séance; a scene made after an illustration of the rituals involved in joining a secret German Masonic-like association; and a couple playing cards who may have been lifted from Cézanne’s Les Joueurs de cartes. In both Reiter and Der Brief one individual stands while reading, perhaps from a script. Suggestive of a director or choreographer of the proceedings, the figure instills a reflexive note, reaffirming the performative quality of the work.

Von Brandenburg records all her tableaux vivants on Super-8 film for the length of a reel (approximately two minutes and thirty seconds). Watching the films one is conscious of a sense of diversion that must have been involved in producing such scenes, but there is nothing ironic or playful in the end result. As with all von Brandenburg’s motifs, the postures are highly stylized and clearly “not of our time,” but their reenactment (especially since the actors are both young and unmistakably contemporary-looking) reinvigorates our awareness of the attitudes of grief and surprise, or even more subtle demonstrations of subservience, assistance, and etiquette germane to the postures’ original contexts. The final image suggests a lexicon of poses that—though entirely staged, fake, and utterly inauthentic—remains strangely captivating, since each suggests a different emotional or psychological state. To what extent do we imagine ourselves through such theatrical tropes? To what degree have we internalized the staged behavior of emotional reaction? Or is it that for von Brandenburg these attitudes, or rather the desire to perform them, links us in some way to a previous moment that shared this interest in acting out? Similar perhaps to the art of Catherine Sullivan or Daria Martin, von Brandenburg’s work adopts the conventions of performance and role-playing to explore tensions among performers, their roles, and the audience.

Von Brandenburg’s use of staging and theatrical tropes relates to a process of abstraction that she employs in her graphic work. The artist’s watercolors and drawings, mostly executed on tissue-thin paper, similarly adapt motifs from art history, commedia dell’arte, and performance. Most successful when presented in a carefully organized group, the images function, like the poses in the tableaux vivants, as a glossary of theatricalized forms and associations. An exhibition of her work last year at Pavilion Projects in Montreal included a drawing in a peachy pale palette of figures on a stage; a black monochrome with two eyeholes to suggest a mask; a cutout silhouette of portrait statues on plinths; a watercolor of a Shakespearean sword-fight scene; several lengths of long, colorful ribbons tied loosely together and draped from a pin; and a circular quiltlike configuration of waistcoats and ties displayed on the wall. The exhibition title, “I am making a crazy quilt and I want your face for the center,” underscores an analogy von Brandenburg draws between the custom of quilt making in North America (a craft she became familiar with during a residency in Montreal) and her own manner of collaging imagery and ideas. Crazy quilts have a particular resonance for the artist: Made out of irregularly shaped geometric pieces of fabric salvaged from worn-out clothes, woolen underwear, bed linen, and so on, these quilts allow for the reading of personal life and narrative through the material fragments from which they were constructed.

The reference to traditionally feminine crafts—quilt making and the presence of hand-dyed ribbons and paper cutouts in her drawing installations—and above all the striking presence of female figures in von Brandenburg’s work suggest an interest in the conflicted role of nineteenth-century women and the continued complexity of the performance of gender roles and attitudes in contemporary society. Von Brandenburg’s women are frequently presented in a liminal state: on their deathbed, as in Untitled, 2003, a wall drawing based on an 1858 photograph by Henry Peach Robinson; in the midst of a séance; or, as in her 2005 film, Mi-Carême, in a state of trance or possession, dressed in a Mi-Carême costume mask (a medieval French masquerade that takes place during Lent and continues to exist in Quebec) and surrounded by onlookers whose voyeuristic gaze is possibly malicious. Our uncertainty about the position of these women, their potential vulnerability, aligns perfectly with von Brandenburg’s interest in shifting roles and meaning: Though commanding of attention, von Brandenburg’s female figures are often on the verge of hysteria or a loss of control—a state of powerlessness that nevertheless enforces their centrality in the action taking place. One of the artist’s most recent works best embodies this state of deferral or ambiguity. For Around, 2005, von Brandenburg filmed a tightly packed group of figures standing in the middle of a street with their backs to the camera. As the camera travels around the group the figures shift their position so that no frontal aspect is ever revealed. Around we go waiting for the glimpse that will reveal, well, what exactly? As with the tableaux vivants, we are left standing in front of the projection watching this group of performers, each of us struggling to find the “right” position.

Jessica Morgan is a curator at Tate Modern, London.