New York

Ulrike Ottinger

David Zwirner | 519 West 19th Street

ULRIKE OTTINGER'S 1978 Portrait of Two Women Drinkers describes a silent encounter between strangers on opposite sides of a café window. The immaculately and fashionably dressed figure in bright yellow inside the café raises a glass of cognac to the shabby-looking woman outside, who touches the window in a gesture of eager longing. Ottinger, a prominent force in the New German Cinema, shot this picture during the making of her 1979 film Ticket of No Return, a meditation on Berlin and drinking. It is not a still from the movie: Ottinger describes her photographs as “visual notes” that help her develop the final product. In effect, they are an integral part of her process as a director, functioning much as sketches do for painters. But they also demonstrate her proficiency in another medium. Portrait of Two Women Drinkers and the more than seventy other photographs recently on view employ fantastically colorful images, strong contrasts, and a striking mise-en-scène in order to deliver a sharp critique-in this instance, a deconstruction of the role that class plays in alcoholism. The exhibition included Ottinger's photographs from the sets and locations of her early and transitional films, from Madame X: An Absolute Ruler, 1977, an extravagant lesbian sci-fi pirate adventure, to Johanna D'Arc of Mongolia, 1989 (which showed in the back room of the gallery), a riveting travelogue that charts the adventures of a group of Western women who are abducted from the Trans-Siberian Railway by a renegade band of Mongolian females. The films hybridize science fiction, adventure, documentary, and fantasy in complex, nonlinear narratives. With the exception of one portrait, the photographs capture theatrically staged compositions in which, as in the films, the lavishly costumed figures stand out against backgrounds as diverse as industrial landscapes, craggy shorelines, and the green steppes of Outer Mongolia. Freak Orlando, 1981, perhaps Ottinger's least accessible, most problematic work, is a Felliniesque “circus” movie that includes a large coterie of “freaks”; the photographs from that production depict dwarves, midgets, and people with pathological conditions, such as Therese Zemp, the “Living Torso,” whose stunted body is placed atop a pedestal. Pictures from the making of Ticket of No Return also feature a variety of circus performances. In contrast, The Image of Dorian Gray in the Yellow Press, 1984, is a demanding and highly ironic critique of mass media, with fashion model Veruschka cross-dressed as Oscar Wilde's unaging protagonist. In an image from this project, actress and former collaborator Tabea Blumenschein appears as the scantily clad, elaborately headdressed Andamana, Princess of the Happy Islands, while in another Veruschka is cast as Don Louis de la Cerda.

But while fantasy and the surreal dominate Ottinger's early projects, the end of the Cold War seems to have had an important impact on her work, moving it away from extravagant narratives toward a realism of everyday life. We see this tendency already at play in China: The Arts—The People, a Travel Log, 1985, where a new documentary sensibility emerges that at once harks back to Ottinger's early aspirations to pursue a career in ethnology and anticipates her '90s nonfiction films: Countdown, 1991, a meditation on German reunification; and Exile Shanghai, 1997, a study of Jewish émigré society in 1940s China. Yet Ottinger chose not to include any photographs or material from her later films in this exhibition, perhaps suggesting that the subjects of her photos should only be professional actors consciously posing for public consumption.

Also on display were several large working storyboards from Ottinger's earlier productions. Included are postcards, maps, designs, fragments of notes and dialogue, scenic descriptions, and blocking notes. More so than the photographs, these records, similar to scrapbooks, are fascinating as documents that provide insight into the image-making process. Indeed, on the first page of the storyboard of Madame X, Ottinger includes a citation from Oscar Wilde that may serve as a guiding principle for all her work: “The secret of the world is the visible and not the invisible.”

Alexander Alberro