Katharina Sykora: Ulrike Ottinger – Sessions

'There's still always a first time. Reading, the imagination, the confrontation with reality. Must imagination shy away from encountering reality, or do they love each other? Can they become allies? Do they change when they meet? Do they swap roles? It's always the first time.'  (Lady Windermere, in Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia.)

Ulrike Ottinger took her first photograph at the age of nine, on a canal boat in Amsterdam. Two Indian gentlemen, one in a trench coat, the other wearing a turban with a well?tailored suit, smile for the camera. When she asked if they would mind having their picture taken, they kindly agreed.

Every one of the thousands of photographs that Ulrike Ottinger has taken since then is a first picture. It always refers to something beyond itself: to the reality that precedes it; to countless images from the repositories of the arts, of everyday culture and of myth; and to the visual cosmos of her own increasingly dense œuvre. These photographs are encounters between things found and things invented. They are arenas in which reality and fiction, past and future, wish and fulfilment, transform each other.

Each of the photographs also incorporates within its image the roles of the camera and of the photographer. There is a startlingly strong sense of a receptive and formative presence, although, curiously, there are almost no self-portraits. The artist's subjectivity has migrated into the form of the images. There, it assumes constantly changing guises and clothes itself in new and surprising camera perspectives. Sometimes the perspective adopts the voyeuristic viewpoint of a photographer for the yellow press who shoots to satisfy the sheer lust of sensationalism, as if the camera were a gun - or that of a producer of cheap photo novelettes so startling in their impact, that we don't even miss the absent speech bubbles. At times we meet the calculating eye of the glossy magazines, with their supercooled fashion photography that pins down bodies, clothes and interiors within a single, flawless, two-dimensional surface. Another time, we meet a highly sensitive, retiring, ethnographer's vision that allows its subjects to present themselves in their own way, to look back at the camera or to refuse eye?contact, while never concealing that the artist is captivated by what she sees. Not least, we see the pride in the eye of the lion-tamer, circus manager, stage director and cosmologist who, within the arena of the photographic tableau, has successfully performed a wild?beast act with several species at once. For a fraction of a second, creatures that would tear each other to pieces anywhere outside the space/time frame of the photograph are compelled to hold still and compose themselves into a well?balanced image. These tableaux vivants are virtuoso balancing acts-Stills-in which the protagonists always seem to be on the point of breaking loose from the frame. Within the ephemeral shrine of a staged photograph, the wonders of Nature and Art are displayed like the treasures of a 'cabinet of curiosities'. Mr Average, with his salesman's briefcase, meets a leather queen; dwarfs and little people from myth, legend and freakshow encounter a female trio of keen conference attendees in hound's-tooth check; and the three nude Virtues of Journalism keep a date with Marilyn the trained spotted pig. Here inside the photograph - and nowhere else - seems to be the one perfect place and time for their rendezvous. The camera becomes a stage; every shot is a 'curtain up'; and the photograph turns into a monstrance, revealing to us that all the world's a theatre of the absurd.

But there is more to Ulrike Ottinger's photographs than the formative presence of the camera. 'I am a camera with its shutter open,' said Christopher Isherwood in 1935. In a similar way, for Ulrike Ottinger the camera becomes a second eye. As a tool of notation, the optical instrument records its surroundings and develops images as stages in an endless sequence of approximations to reality. As a part of the same process, reality itself gradually approximates to the artist's imaginary worlds: the photographic corpus as one great photographic Session. 

However, within the overriding process structure of Ulrike Ottinger's photographic œuvre, there are some image sequences that are more or less self-contained. For example, there are numerous improvised and staged portraits of the artist's friends, which have accumulated over the years to constitute an international cosmos of artists, actors and writers. Nearly all reveal a shared delight in self-presentation that transcends all role-play. Not for nothing did one of the early Berlin performance pieces by Ulrike Ottinger and Tabea Blumenschein have the title Deformer - Transformer. Her photographic sequences on single individuals undermine the very basis of the portrait genre. Valeska Gert, in her man's hat, striped sweater and dark glasses, looks like Eddie Constantine's Mafioso brother. Constantine himself, looking at the camera over his glass of beer, has the air of a barroom reveller. The metamorphoses of her subjects become a serial principle that serves as the driving force of the photographic sequences. This is most evident in the photographs of Tabea Blumenschein, taken in the 1970s. Her face becomes the screen on which the masquerades of the self unite with the viewer's projections. Countless images of femininity and a few stray images of masculinity emerge in her face, her figure and her costumes, but no original emerges. The ur-image is conceivable only as a negative, a photographic matrix, generating an infinity of new images as the effect of ever-new photographic situations. And so the silent movie diva takes her place alongside the top-hatted gigolo, the young Soviet blonde in her headscarf alongside the snotnosed Punkette in leather and rivets, the svelte drinker with her troubled gaze alongside the taxi driver in his check shirt.

From one image to the next, an endless succession of new personas is catapulted into the present of the photographic print. At the same time, there are also sequences that suggest a narrative flow. One series shows the protagonist struggling against the temptations of a medicine chest and its hallucinogenic contents; another records the brisk advances made by Veruschka von Lehndorff, alias Dorian Gray, in white shirtfront and bow tie, to the beehive-haired Tabea Blumenschein, alias Andamana, in a black-and-white polka dot 1950s dress. Instead of a narrative action, however, we see only the many successive facets of constant visual patterns. The photographic sequences thus condense the myths and bring out the banality of their content. And, because the myth undergoes its everyday metamorphosis, we enjoy looking at these images over and over again.

Ulrike Ottinger inflicts a profound transformation not only on her figures but also on her images. In the series of photographic images of Magdalena Montezuma, the homogeneous, painted mask of her face is distorted first by facial grimaces and then by reflection in metal foil. In this process, Montezuma's image melts into the surface of the photographic image. The photograph, like the face, appears to stretch to breaking point. Even the rectangular mirror tucked into the frame as an 'image within the image', despite its clearly defined boundaries, cannot withstand the media?exploding power of the photographic process. It persists only as a reminiscence of an earlier, and now fragile, form of image organization.

Ulrike Ottinger's Stills and Sessions cannot be understood outside the context of her painting, films, writing and theatrical work. In Paris in the 1960s, she was already using photographs of her friends in her paintings either as source images or as integral, overpainted components of a 'narrative figuration'. In numerous photographic Sessions, she develops images and narrative ideas that subsequently emerge, in modified form, in her films. Her urban photography of industrial architecture in Berlin is turned to account, ten years later, as a quarry for ideal film locations, settings for medieval processions and Inquisition scenes or for the evil intrigues of Dr. Mabuse the Press Officer, or for parades of Fascist storm troopers. These settings, which appear only fleetingly on screen, find their way into the big photographic tableaux in order to confront the viewer with their full demonstrative potential. On the other hand, when Ulrike Ottinger travels in China, Mongolia, New York or Southeastern Europe, her photographic eye, with its unerring sense of internal composition, teaches us to recognize regularity and beauty - but also discontinuity - in images of people, landscapes, and objects.

In her film scenarios, all this comes together. Newspaper photographs and kitsch postcards, the fictional narrative text and the recording and shaping process that takes place in the artist's own photography: all these here become a single palimpsest that takes shape on the page but also in the head. In all this, how much is strategy, how much reality, how much imagination?

Les jeux sont faits, and the game starts over again. Delphine Seyrig, who - in the guise of Lady Windermere, Virgil and an ethnologist - guides us through Ulrike Ottinger's film Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia, is the star witness for this visual technique. In a saloon car of the Transsiberian Railway, she speaks the polyglot prologue to the coming adventure, accompanied by a 360o pan across the opulent wall surface of the artificial, mobile shell in which she travels. At the end, the camera completes the circle and returns to her. But suddenly, in an infinitesimal moment of stasis - which we might call the moment when photography arrests the cinematic image - we see a rift in the trompe-l'œil backdrop. Brought to the surface, this is the rift in the medium of film that also stands for the gap between photographic images. This gap is what interests Ulrike Ottinger, because it is only in this hiatus that the next images - the alternative images - reveal themselves. 

© Katharina Sykora – translated by David Britt

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