Jessica Morgan on Ulla Von Brandenburg

By Morgan, Jessica | Artforum International, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview
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Jessica Morgan on Ulla Von Brandenburg


Morgan, Jessica, Artforum International


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 siecle (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.

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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-Saens 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.

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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 seance; 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 Cezanne'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.

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