Ulla von Brandenburg’s films, works on paper, room installations and performances make use of poses and gestures from the visual troves of theatre, photography, the circus and the art history which she assembles and collages in her works into pictures. In these, it is not the historical quote as such that is important, rather social regularities and conformities which allow us to experience these forms always in a formalised, frozen way and which also flounder on their motionlessness.
In Reiter (2004), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s interest in tableau vivant, which he used as a literary figure in Elective Affinities, 19th century games, the painters Veronese and Klossowski and masks and decorative pieces from the Commedia dell'Arte all play a role at the same time. Ulla von Brandenburg interweaves these into an uneventful tableau vivant captured on film, in which only the tiniest movements of the figures as they breathe and the wind betray the moving picture medium.
In other films, also associated with tableaux vivants, figures borrowed from different works of literature and paintings form groups of various conformations; in Der Brief (2004) around a reader of a letter; in Mi-Carême (2005) the observer gets stuck in a situation which reminds us of a dynamic encounter group where a masked figure stands in the middle of a group of seated figures, at their mercy; a motif that the artist borrowed from carnival rituals. Then in the film Around (2005), the camera circles a densely packed group of people; neither the one searching nor we manage to see the faces of the figures, turning in a circle as though under a spell. Group ritual, magic, occultism, hysteria, sickness – universal regularities and conformations of human behavior have an effect in all of the artist’s works and create curiously emotionless images of formalised behavior.
Anna-Catharina Gebbers writes the following on the artist’s work: “The motif of the mask, which appears frequently in her works, calls to mind the masks of Nietzsche and the revolutionary use of historical masks that Benjamin suggests was typical of the Surrealists. A mask provides emotional space for portrayal and a reflective distance, as does the transfer of pictures into another medium, collages or the historicising mode of representation. Ulla von Brandenburg’s works do not really refer to a specific historical period, but rather they debate the changed cultural significance of picture, language and representation. She emphasises the formal orchestration and the element of transferal as such. The visual axes form a stringent composition, the poses and gestures seem theatrical, unnatural and pretentious. A celebration of theatrical and artistic competence, which provides a cultivated distance, is set against what Richard Sennett terms the ‘tyranny of intimacy’ in artistic biographical processes.
This subtle distancing from Modernist conceptions of authorship and mastery based on expression and subjectivity, and from the construct of pure visuality in the artwork, refers to the methods of conceptual art. It is not the artist’s individual signature that comes to the fore, but much more the role of the observer, who produces the closeness of the work in the act of perceiving it. Tableaux vivants often absorb the neutral background of the white cube in which they are presented. The observer also swims in it like a disembodied eye – white cube and stage space merge into one. Von Brandenburg, like Warhol, answers our methods of perception, which according to Benjamin are shaped by flippancy and repetition, with a prolonged moment: Nothing happens in the pictures. The figures pictured are waiting.
Kunsthalle Zurich thanks: Präsidialdepartement der Stadt Zürich, Luma Stiftung