Passengers: 1.8 Ulla von Brandenburg

April 01, 2008 to May 03, 2008

After studying set design and the visual arts, the German-born, Paris-based artist Ulla von Brandenburg embarked on an artistic career that combines two fields in a highly distinctive way. Her prolific practice includes drawing, video, film, installation, wall painting, and performance to create complex, multilayered narratives. Her works often relate to turn-of-the-century occultism, expressionist theater, magic, the circus, and pre-Freudian psychoanalysis—a world between reality and artifice. Best known is her series of tableaux vivants shot on Super-8 film showing a seemingly motionless arrangement of people who hold their precise positions for the entire duration of one roll of film. Only the rare blink of an eye or gust of wind on a curtain reveal that we are watching a film, and not a still image. The cast usually consists of the artist's friends, many of whom are artists themselves and von Brandenburg's frequent collaborators, thereby creating additional layers of reference and meaning.

Theater and its Double
by Jens Hoffmann

Known for her film works based on the idea of the tableau vivant or 'living picture,' popular in the nineteenth century, Ulla von Brandenburg's work can be described as a combination of tropes from the spheres of fine art and theater. In her films, live models are carefully posed and lit in compositions that are reminiscent of either a painting or a photograph (quite often with specific art historical or theatrical references for the individual poses and the mise en scène). Her works on paper and wall drawings similarly feature attitudes, details, and references to historical source material taken from these two disciplines..

Von Brandenburg has said of her interest in theatrics: "For me it is not theater itself which is interesting. It is more the elements that theater consists of and how theater functions…the conditions and settings of theater in general." The artist draws attention to the ephemeral in theater and the shared experience between actors and audience of this brief, unrepeatable moment in time. Referring to the experience of viewing a theatrical event von Brandenburg has stated: "The moment of mimesis and identification and repetition is very interesting. These stories and dramas with feelings and psychological dispositions are repeated, learned by the actors, so these are not 'real' feelings but 'learned' feelings and yet at the same time you can identify with the hero or one of the actors. It is a form of anticipation despite repetition and distance." Von Brandenburg formalizes these differences in the real and it's staging, drawing attention to the complexities and layering that are involved in any depiction of 'reality'.

Her most recent film, 8 (2008), is the most complex to date both in terms of the cinematography and the staging of image and dramaturgy. Uncharacteristically, given the artist's normally static scenes, here von Brandenburg uses the iconic cinematic device of a single tracking camera shot throughout the length of the nine-minute film. While the use of the single shot recalls the recent work of Aleksander Sokurov's Russian Ark (2002) or the historical precedent of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (1958), the atmosphere in von Brandenburg's 8 is entirely contemporary. Her characters, as is always the case in the artist's films, are her friends and peers and no attempt is made to disguise their location in the early twenty-first century. Yet the extreme stylization of the scenes of solitary figures (with two exceptions) is suggestive of the romantic and nineteenth century notion of individual self-absorption.

Situated in the empty rooms and halls of a seventeenth century castle, von Brandenburg's film traces a figure eight as the camera moves through the various rooms of the castle encountering along the way a sequence of images and characters, all of which are signature devices within the artist's oeuvre. As the film reaches its apparent end, it ultimately begins again, in an endlessly repeating mobuis loop. Von Brandenburg's film begins (and ends) with a shot of a seventeenth century painting of a castle within a landscape setting—in fact this is the very edifice within which the film takes place, thus the notion of interior and exterior is immediately brought to bear on the relationship between subject and space.

Moving through the castle, various actors, agents, and objects are encountered: an enigmatic woman looking out of the window holding a pair of gloves; a man with a mobius strip wrapped around his wrists; a sculpture by von Brandenburg of two walking sticks (previously shown in the Passengers group exhibition); a woman wearing a mask (the artist describes her as the 'muse of theater'); a sleeping man with a handkerchief over his face (the only movement of a 'figure' as the handkerchief billows from the exhaling breath); a theatrical scene (with a seated audience) of a dying man; and a penultimate return to the woman we saw at the outset at the window, yet now she has left and only the gloves that she held remain.

Finally, we return to the painting that depicts a landscape view of the castle, which we now notice is populated with equally dramatized and staged figures. The film ends with a close-up of two fishermen posed against a river in front of the castle casting their lines in a way that is entirely mannered. This scenario calls attention to the poses and artifice of all that precedes it in the film and suggests an endless tension in the performance (both learned and staged) of the layered reality of life.