Ulla von Brandenburg, Elisabeth Dmitrieff, 2018, watercolor on assembled paper, 39 3⁄8 × 31 1⁄2".

Ulla von Brandenburg, Elisabeth Dmitrieff, 2018, watercolor on assembled paper, 39 3⁄8 × 31 1⁄2".

Ulla von Brandenburg

The title of Ulla von Brandenburg’s recent show—eighteen letters in seemingly random order, neither alphabetically arranged nor legible as a unit another way—was also that of the film shown there: C, Ü, I, T, H, E, A, K, O, G, N, B, D, F, R, M, P, L, 2017. While one wondered what this might be an abbreviation for, and how it might relate to the other works in the space, the series of vowels and consonants subliminally leaked into one’s consciousness, as a sung melody that quietly filled the gallery as the soundtrack of the ten-minute-long (looped) 16-mm film. The film was projected onto one of the sections of fabric with which the artist had clad the gallery’s walls: One room was bedecked in pale green-gray, another in warm orange. Rectangular, darkened fields on this dyed fabric (applied using ink in matching colors) created an impression of vacancy, as if paintings had once hung there for years. In keeping with this theatrical staging, a loosely arranged group of framed watercolors leaned against these cloth-covered walls, among them the portraits George Balanchine, Anita Augspurg, and Elisabeth Dmitrieff, all 2018—depicting, respectively, the choreographer, the activist from the early phase of the women’s movement in Germany, and the revolutionary of the 1871 Paris Commune. They belong to a kind of imaginary ancestral portrait gallery of mostly female personages who were historically significant but are largely forgotten today. Rounding off this mise-en-scène were various objects, also arranged along the walls.

The film is von Brandenburg’s second in color—previously she worked in black-and-white—and shows a sequence of close-ups of extremely diverse textiles: skirts and dresses, all choice pieces from the 1920s to today, and all from the artist’s private collection. Their sumptuous textures burst into bloom one after the other, each garment filling the frame almost completely before gliding out of view, by turns to the left or the right, in an uninterrupted sequence of entrances and exits of textile actors, as if curtains were opening one after the other, allowing the gaze to penetrate deeper and deeper, without ever revealing anything final. The gliding motion, so strangely driven in its regularity, elicited the sense of a ghostlike floating; one saw the most various patterns, fabrics and arrangements of folds, but no bodily forms to fill them. The film was an abstract, endlessly developing ballet of planes of color. In fact, the artist made the work by having pairs of performers carry items of clothing hanging from poles in front of them; in turn each duo approached the camera and then disappeared out of the picture before lining up again with another garment.

The series of letters in the title, dissolved into mantra-like song, seemed like a riddle posed in parallel to the images. Starting out from a German translation of the poem “Conversation with a Stone” by Polish Nobel Prize winner Wisława Szymborska, von Brandenburg rearranged the letters used in it as if they were building blocks—extracting its essence, so to speak. The artist assigned each of the letters a pitch to create a score that she then performed with two other singers. In the poem, a first-person narrator knocks “at the stone’s front door” only to get the answer, “I don’t have a door.” While this scenario of contrariety speaks of a fundamental inaccessibility, the film evoked an endlessly unfulfilled process of moving farther and farther into pictorial space, curtain after curtain: Here it was an exit, rather than an entry, that was denied. As so often with von Brandenburg, everything thus ultimately led back to the staging itself—to a theater of images, each of which refers only to another behind it, ad infinitum.

Translated from German by Alexander Scrimgeour.