Annette Deeken: "Like the Color of the Sky after the Rain"
Ulrike Ottinger's Poetic Imagery
In a train compartment of the Trans-Mongolian Railroad, Lady Windermere says, "In the Cabinet des Estampes at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, I saw an amazing gravure that showed how Louis XV had his entire royal court dressed in Chinese costumes in order to amuse himself." The Mongolian woman with whom she is having the conversation replies, "By contrast, a painted mirror in our summer palace shows Chinese court ladies drinking tea in Rococo costumes." A fascination with that which is foreign and cultural exchange has a long history. In her film JOHANNA D'ARC OF MONGOLIA (FR Germany, 1989), Ulrike Ottinger adapts such topics with an overwhelmingly playful lightness. The film dialogue outlined above also reflects her careful working method. We can vividly imagine Ulrike Ottinger strolling through the Parisian prints and drawings department, thoroughly studying every object. She may even purchase graphic reproductions in order to have the motifs readily at hand. Undoubtedly, it often happened like this, or similarly, in many parts of the world, because when we look at her work books, we sense her joy in visual ideas and her desire to break off to new horizons within the artistic arrangement. Ulrike Ottinger lays out such a work book for every film, sometimes in handwriting, sometimes as a typescript. However, her visual acquisitions - found in photographs, art reproductions, picture postcards and scraps of images with their own imaginary worlds - merge with her own drawings, stage directions and film ideas. Her illustrated work books are essentially travel diaries; a mixture of provisional notes and individual artistic sources of inspiration, so typical of this art genre. In Ulrike Ottinger's case, we could already go on a journey on paper. Moreover, and best of all, is that her photographs and films live up to what her work books promise!
Ulrike Ottinger once said, "Although my mother translated films for the French, I grew up practically without movies." Perhaps the secret to her cinematic art lies hidden in this fact and she simply invents the cinema anew. In any event, she breaks down preconceived ideas about what cinema is supposed to be. Against all resistance, she has consistently adhered to the realization of her own ideas in film for decades, knowing well that one cannot escape public taste with impunity in a commercialized cinema landscape. Perhaps she had in mind the words of the American avantgarde filmmaker and theorist Maya Deren, who wrote at the end of the 1920s (published in the Poetik des Films): "If one tries to emulate commercial production methods, in the end one will most certainly have a commercial product, because it will always be a Ford on the assembly line of the Ford plant and not suddenly a bicycle." Ulrike Ottinger never subjected herself to the supposed constraints of genre cinema. She is the only German filmmaker, who realizes all of her films under her own authority, from the idea and the conception through the direction and even including the camera work. Yes, and she is also her own producer. Thus, she could be called a true film auteur, if the concept was not so narrow when taking her ambitions in their many art forms into consideration. A designation as a film artist is certainly more appropriate, simply because her works are so far removed from the conventional expectations of motion picture films.
Theater Clouds and Other Pictorial Fantasies - Méliès Sends His Regards
Her artistic autonomy and originality is comparable to that of George Méliès, who directed the Parisian Théâtre Robert-Houdin at the end of the 19th century. It was renowned for his automatic machines and illusionist special effects, before he became a pioneer of cinema augmented by rich professional tricks in the truest sense of the word. This ingenious, pioneering film artist sparkled with imagination. He carried over the methods of theater and photography into film, designed the costumes and stage sets, stood behind the camera and financed everything himself. In his colorful settings, the audience saw the moon made of papier-mâché, the unprecedented and absurd combination of real people and artificial scenery; they were both astounded and delighted.
Ulrike Ottinger produces a similar effect. For example, withered tree trunks in fog are quite unmistakably painted on a rolling backdrop in the first part of JOHANNA D'ARC OF MONGOLIA, giving the audience the illusion of a train ride in motion. The railroad station also reveals itself as an artificial structure. The inspirational energy that this visual world unfolds can perhaps best be seen in some of the photographs created in 1983 within the context of DORIAN GRAY IM SPIEGEL DER BOULEVARDPRESSE (FR Germany, 1984). Ulrike Ottinger has rightly called it an "opera." In these images, for which she set up baroque theater architecture in the middle of a real landscape on the island Fuerteventura, is a gigantic, opulently painted scenery frame with an upper border of clouds placed before the bizarre natural curvatures of reddish brown volcanoes or on a black lava beach. In a wonderfully strange reversal of the baroque scenery, for which wind and wave machines were once invented, the sea and waves are used as elements of an art landscape here.
In Ulrike Ottinger's work, we consistently find a playful combination of real elements that do not seem suited to one another. For this purpose she doesn't even have to transport scenery throughout the world. We look at a weathered wooden frame that stands in a barren grassland steppe, in an empty area so to speak. It directs our view onto a decorative red dress box and to a Mongolian woman in traditional garments. She looks out to the side of the image, as if she is waiting to make an appearance from the left. An opera could now begin. However, it's a documentary image - found reality - simply discovered and brilliantly cropped. The photograph is called "Jurtentür" (Yurt Door), created in 1991 in the context of the film TAIGA. EINE REISE ZU DEN YAK- UND RENTIERNOMADEN IM NÖRDLICHEN LAND DER MONGOLEN (Germany, 1992) and in the film we also see what the subtitle of the photograph designates, the "Aufbau der Jurte am Bagchtara Gol" (Construction of a Yurt on the Bagchtara Gol).
Traveling with the Camera - The Lumière Brothers Send Their Regards
A caption in CHINA. DIE KÜNSTE - DER ALLTAG (FR Germany, 1986) reads: "How the farmers transport their goods on the >Golden Horse River< and sell them at the market in Chengdu." We are in the province Sichuan, in March 1985. The camera is on the right at the edge of the street and is focused from an oblique angle on a nearly endless caravan of cyclists, who emerge from the depth of the space, pedaling hard against the wind. On their bike racks the Chinese juggle the most unwieldy and heaviest burdens with acrobatic skill. It is a simple scene of the difficult daily life of farmers. The camera pauses for a long time in the chosen position as if dreamily averted or spellbound by the magic of the event. There is no re-recording, no zoom lens, and no close-up. It is a powerful image in all effects, which we can consider at leisure.
The French philosopher Roland Barthes believed that reflectiveness is foreign to the medium of film. "I cannot take the liberty of closing my eyes in front of the screen, because otherwise, I would no longer find the same image again when I open them. I am forced into continuous gluttony […]." This is not the case with Ulrike Ottinger. She has turned the cinema of gluttony into a cinema of culinary pleasure. Her documentaries grant an intense view, making allowances for curiosity, as well as thoughtful observation. We could even close our eyes without losing trust in her images. However, this would be a pity, because Ottinger's images are beautiful in a poetic way. The most prosaic, everyday life seems to be capable of transformation into a visual poem through the choreography of her images. There is a scene in EXIL SHANGHAI (Germany/Israel, 1997) where it's raining, and where countless red, yellow, blue, green and gray hoods and rain capes cycle toward the camera. Here and there the Chinese briefly look up. Curious, or at least surprised, they make eye contact with the woman behind the camera, who courageously stands in the middle of traffic to let us share the experience of the endless parade of cyclists. We are delighted by the ever-increasing, new spots of color and the almost dreamy, momentary pause of the camera. We urge to yell "Watch out!," because it seems as if one of the cyclists might collide with the tripod any second. It's as if we are on the spot, much like long ago during the filming of the first streetscapes of cinema history.
Ulrike Ottinger's camera work is reminiscent of the camera operators following the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière; those film pioneers, who deployed the cinematograph throughout the world after 1896, in order to film city and travel images for the new medium of the cinema. Ulrike Ottinger shares with them an interest in views at intersections, lively squares and markets, in skilled crafts and everyday life. She also shares with them the style of transforming a camera angle into a precisely framed image, in which the camera remains motionless in the full shots for a long time, patiently observing. We only see what we observe. There is also a third commonality with the inventors of the cinema - the stylistic device of traveling. It is an elementary technique, to be certain, because the running camera only needs to be moved by a means of transportation in order to take the viewer along on the most wonderful journeys. The Lumière brothers' operators filmed this way at first, over and over again, because no other cinematic method can more effectively take the viewer so far away and also convey to him a feeling for the duration and the speed of the journey.
Ulrike Ottinger developed this form of arranging the composition into her own camera aesthetic in EXIL SHANGHAI. It shows frontal traveling, for example, where the picture axis corresponds to the direction of the traffic. We're traveling by car at a leisurely speed in the middle of three lanes and are passed by a truck on the right, while above and next to us the piers and trusses of an old iron bridge go by. Then there is lateral traveling, in which the camera films at right angles to the axis in motion, so that an image similar to the moving panorama is created. This was quite a popular attraction among travel media during the 19th century, in which an image painted in watercolor or oil on paper or canvas, wound on spools, would slowly unwind into scenic townscapes or natural landscapes. Ulrike Ottinger has transposed the classic picture division of this forgotten medium onto film with enormous accuracy, by slowly following a horizontal line from a moving car - in this case a bridge railing, which runs through the lower half of the image. Then there is a courageous variation of lateral traveling, in which the direction of the traffic is changed with a moving camera. We ride, no, actually we literally float through the port of Shanghai, toward the riverbank with its skyline; more than two film minutes long to the right and then back again in the opposite direction, this time very close to the bank so that we can study its façades at leisure. Altogether the scene comprises four minutes and twenty seconds without a cut. Here, it becomes obvious that Ulrike Ottinger composes images and does not film through mere camera angles. Her aesthetic of traveling doesn't even require a means of transportation. In her most recent film, PRATER (Austria/Germany, 2007), Ulrike Ottinger employs every conceivable type of camera ride, because we are at an amusement park, where imagination and kinetic arts characterize highly imaginative sharp-angled curves. The camera, unleashed in this way, prepares a special kind of viewing pleasure. Sometimes it focuses our view on the roller coaster at dizzying heights, sometimes the giant carousel called a wave swinger shoots us out to the side, or we cruise with the camera through darkness of the ghost train ride. The poetry of someone like Rainer Maria Rilke reverberates in these excitingly dynamic images: "And on it goes and hastens to be ended, / and aimlessly rotates until it's done. / A red, a green, a gray is apprehended, / a little profile, scarcely yet begun."
The Poetics of Real Time
Somebody crouches on the ground, a small boy wears a military uniform, a young woman sweeps, men sit on the asphalt in front of large cloth bundles, Mao's portrait on a red façade - these are images from CHINA. DIE KÜNSTE - DER ALLTAG. Ulrike Ottinger once asked herself, " What would happen if, during a trip, we tried to observe and collect everything that we experience on the streets? Is it possible to get a picture of the whole?" As in her film work books, she also compiles iconographic documents with her camera: A telephone sign; nimble fingers flitting over an abacus; a confectioner conjuring up fragile figures; emaciated men dragging tremendous burdens up a mountain. Ulrike Ottinger attentively registers even the smallest detail along the wayside. Moreover, her discoveries are nearly bursting with the sensual pleasures of seeing. She has recaptured visual curiosity and given back the cinema that imaginative strength, which it once had when it was still a carnival attraction (see PRATER).
Ulrike Ottinger has proven herself to be a documentarist of great formats in many of her films. Her travel films are astoundingly long, when measured against viewing habits such as the conventional one and a half hour dramaturgy. To convey travel experiences and to represent lifelike normality in real time seems unnaturally stretched out, because the usual frequency of cuts is normally based in seconds. CHINA is 270 minutes long, EXIL SHANGHAI is 275 minutes and TAIGA clocks in at 501 minutes. Why shorten cinematic time even more, however, where it is only a small part of the long real travel time in any case? One doesn't move at a fast pace on the long grass meadows of Mongolia. "There are five-minute films that are too long, and there are four-hour films that are too short," Ulrike Ottinger once said.
There is no uniform dramaturgy of time in life, but much that is interesting and worth observing. Ulrike Ottinger has adhered to this basic principle with rare consistency. In a Peking pharmacy called "General Charity," she lets us watch the performance of a ballet for ten fingers, where the female employees divide up innumerable herbs and small amounts of powders into small, ever more colorful, proportioned heaps that will eventually be tied into tiny packets. Ulrike Ottinger's travel experiences are communicated in real time, as if the camera were live. In EXIL SHANGHAI we watch a young Chinese man kneading dough. He juggles his roll of dough, lets it dance, pulls on the dough, rolls it, and pulls on it repeatedly. For almost two film minutes, we become witnesses to this handcrafted art and eagerly wait to see what it will become. Only someone who is truly interested in the people, who wants to know how they cook, work, dress and spend their day, is capable of so much patience. By the way, in this scene noodles are being produced.
"Kannitverstan" (Can't Understand)
In addition to the unusual film lengths, it may also come as a surprise that Ulrike Ottinger does not add her own commentary to her documentaries on principle. However, this is good thing. Like paintings, which also don't supply instructions for their classification, we can leisurely enjoy her films. Far removed from the style of silent films, which were accustomed to providing talkative instructional readings, and in contrast to the conventional documentary film practice of constantly commenting on images and therefore undermining a simple immediate interpretation, her films provide the opportunity of making the scenes one's own, both visually and also aurally. What would a scene be without its natural noises, its sounds and tones? Undisturbed, we can listen to an opera in Sichuan for 22 minutes, or to the Chinese public address system, or to the gong of a Taoist cloister in the rain forest, for example. In addition, aren't we really startled when the few cars that were in China in 1985 suddenly start honking in the silence of the city?
Distinctively, Ulrike Ottinger excludes her own commentary, but certainly not text. Particularly in the films on China, gaudy characters are visibly resplendent on posters, road signs, shop windows and façades. From time to time the streetscape seems to be a sea of visual signs. What peculiar reading material for travelers who are not able to speak Chinese! This world of foreign characters exerts a magical attraction for Ottinger. With her camera she constantly traces new variants of this poetry of signs. The enigmatic characters are cleverly staged as a silent challenge to the viewer, to try and guess and search for indications of their meanings. And lo and behold, the camera unexpectedly finds deciphering aids, which stimulates the fun of decoding them even more. International pictographs also belong to this hunting game, as well as occasionally what is easily understandable. "Deutsche Werkstätten Shanghai" (German Workshops Shanghai) can be read in large letters on a façade in a photograph with the same title, as well as in her film EXIL SHANGHAI. This enjoyable confrontation of the poetry of signs with the position of the "Kannitverstan" feigns no linguistic proficiency where it simply does not exist; neither with Ulrike Ottinger, nor with (most of) the viewers. It is precisely this, which constitutes the authentic style of her type of documentary. We are unhampered when we identify with the views through her camera and are permitted to look around in yurts, village shops, cooking kitchens, at the markets and in temples. We can look, and be astonished, and unexpectedly be taken along on a great trip by both the moving and the stationary images. Perhaps all those characters just make clear to us how much Ulrike Ottinger's documentaries reflect real life, in which not everything is automatically comprehensible.
"LichtBildKunst" - The Art of Photography
Ulrike Ottinger's photographs are mostly created in close association with a film production. Although the settings and sometimes even the motifs often resemble one another, her photographs form an independent cosmos and are not in the least dependent on cinematic references. If we look at the photograph "Sänger Dawaadshij" (The Singer Dawaadshij), we see a Mongolian standing erect and serious in a nearly solemn atmosphere, in his tent-like yurt. He knows that he is going to be portrayed and he poses for the camera as agreed. The image is so communicative that we could read it for hours and would be able to detect all kinds of possible stories: from the chaos of the fabrics and patterns; from the painted chest and the suitcase on top; from the green box and the three books on it; as well as from the small, covered table and the bread on it. Once we start to pay attention to the colors, this photograph encourages us to keep looking further. We begin to break down the image and to understand its severely symmetrical composition: how the singer's red sash forms the center of the picture; how the bright red of the drill under the bed seems to flirt with the box opposite; how all the objects generally relate to one another by color in a precisely measured arrangement. From here, there are many ways to interpret the traces on display. One would lead to the film and to the performance of the singer in the moving image, but we could just as easily trace the use of the color red in the context of Ottinger's photographic work. In which case, we would come upon the photograph "Shanghai Gesture," be taken aback in amazement and be astonished by the love of detail and the artfulness used to transform banal objects made of plastic into a timeless still-life - and over the color red, which is a bright spot in the dreary gray of the winter street.
Or we could compare the photograph of the aged reindeer nomad "Ökijig" with "The Kalinka Sisters." They are two identically composed photographs from Mongolia, in which Ulrike Ottinger's precise coloration, use of graphic line and the narrative potential of her images can be read. Although they were created in completely different contexts and years apart, the two photographs can enter into an intensive dialogue with one another. Who is bothered that the Kalinka Sisters are characters from a feature film, from JOHANNA D'ARC OF MONGOLIA, and Ökijig was photographed during the shooting of the documentary TAIGA. Sometimes, we are inclined to laugh at the practical joke that Ulrike Ottinger plays on our sense of perception. Nevertheless, we also tend to spontaneously judge certain images as artistically contrived grotesques. For instance, "Ringer auf dem Fest des Hammelbrustknochens" (Wrestlers at the Wether Breastbone Festival) is a group photograph set in a monotonous grass area that among other figures depicts five strong young men, who are both bizarrely and scantily dressed in the traditional headgear, unattached sleeves and short underwear. Are they creatures of a rich imagination? No, the image is an authentic ethnographic document of Mongolian culture. Why should the "Begegnung im Grasland" (Encounter in the Grassland), a similarly arranged and no less comical group portrait than the Kalinka Sisters, be classified as fiction? The authenticity of this group is as probable as that of the other. In this case, however, the three women in evening dresses and sunglasses, who have joined a Mongolian group in the Mongolian steppe, are fictitious.
We could also consider the photograph "Mögen unsere acht Sattelriemen reichlich Beute tragen" (May Our Eight Saddle Straps Carry Ample Booty). Once again it is characterized by a strict division of the image. On the left are two Mongolian hunters, on the right a white horse, with a row of trees and a mountain range in the background along the horizontal. Time appears to stand still in this genre scene. The fall of light is almost unreal - an approaching thunderstorm and the low position of the sun provide extreme contrasts, as if from spotlights that blind the shrill white of the horse, while making the row of trees flash in a poisonous green. Considering how artificial the effect of this arrangement seems in its apparently unnatural lighting, it is hard to believe that this poetically saturated image was made with a camera in an open landscape and not with a paintbrush or as painted scenery created in a photo studio. This is what creates the aesthetic attraction of the photographs. Ulrike Ottinger shows us what is - and what could be. Natural and artificial worlds flow imperceptibly into one another in her images. Just like photography and film, fact and fiction intrinsically become a part of one another, and it is highly amusing to be able to trace this network of relationships.
In contrast to her documentaries, many of her photographs seem conspicuously stylized. A breath of poetry blows through this imagery, which shows a special esteem for the human portrait. Ulrike Ottinger never embraces the gesture of the coincidental or of catching something by chance with her camera. She respectfully prepares the stage for the people whom she meets on her journeys, in order to represent them as they would like to be seen.
They pose for the camera full face and gladly in their Sunday best, obviously conscious of participating in the creation of an image for their contemporaries and for posterity. Many of her photographs seem to practically explode with color. We see people in traditional dress with clear, strong colors. Simultaneously a feast for the eye and an eloquent testimonial, Ulrike Ottinger intensely understands how to combine her search for visual treasure with thorough ethnographic and cultural historical studies, because the poses and the daringly colored fabrics belong to elementary Mongolian aesthetics.
Travel, films and photographs are three variants where Ulrike Ottinger encounters different people. Rather than a cool, distant attitude, her images always resonate a very respectful standpoint from which she uses her camera to capture people and their living situations. In her photographs and films, it becomes apparent that they originated in an atmosphere of mutual astonishment and warm-hearted openness. One can vividly imagine the many encounters that Ulrike Ottinger has described in her travel diary "Taiga," for example: how she danced the foxtrot with a Mongolian woman in Ulaanbaatar to the applause of a wedding party; or drank milk schnapps in the yurts; and because photographs are a precious commodity there, how she snapped photos of the natives with a Polaroid camera - with the "apparatus that shits pictures," as the Mongolians say. Its easy to imagine how she compiled her visual findings piece by piece in order to conger an image of the Prater for us, the oldest amusement park in the world, which in truth is a trip through the history of the travel media and through the archeaology of cinema. Whoever travels along with her through her pictorial cosmos must be prepared to be altered. Or, as the Frenchwoman Delphine Seyrig, who plays Lady Windermere, says at the end of JOHANNA D'ARC OF MONGOLIA: "Your return is like a rebirth, strengthened by a new, subtle, oppositional force... radiant like the color of the sky after the rain.