Gerald Matt in Conversation with Ulrike Ottinger
GERALD MATT: You started out as a painter and later became famous as a filmmaker. You've continued to photograph, too. How do you see the relationship in your work between painting, photography, and film?
ULRIKE OTTINGER: I not only painted before starting to make films, I was also active in performance. For the paintings from the early 60s in Paris, I staged "Living Pictures" with friends, which I photographed and then transferred to canvas. My big triptychs with bande dessinée-type stories, as well as other paintings, were made like this. I also showed the books I was reading at the time in my Paris and Fontainebleau exhibitions, as well as a gramophone that produced sound collages while playing music from my old record collection. I pursued the collage and montage principle on the level of pictures, texts, and sounds. My photographic work, then just in black-and-white, was also involved with sketching and the documentation of reality. I collected a lot of everyday stuff from the Parisian streets to put in my pictures, sometimes as sketches but mainly photographed. My photos always had a double life: as autonomous images and as components integrated into my paintings. This continued when
I began to make films. For instance, there are staged photographs made with Tabea Blumenschein that date from ten years before Ticket of No Return which show an elegant lady experiencing various drunken adventures. Or, there are photographs of certain sites and structures in Berlin that I made years before Freak Orlando, which create a parallel world in the background of the story, telling the history of industrial architecture in Berlin. Then there are photographs made during a film shoot and which relate to the genre of the film still. And then there is my big collection of travel photographs, sometimes made totally independently of my film work, sometimes as preparation for it. So photography has various uses for me. The photos made in connection with films
I still see as self-sufficient objects, even though they're part of the total concept. Photography is a medium that I rely on a lot, like a painter relies on sketches. For example, I'll use it when traveling to make visual notes for screenplays or to conceive of complex compositions or small details. I try to find an appropriate form to express each theme and situation.
GERALD MATT: The striking diversity of your pictorial archive is also characteristic of this book, which provides a survey view of thirty years of your photographic work. The at once open and complex arrangement of the pictures attests to your great love of storytelling. What's the basis of your desire to present the world in constantly new forms, to create new images of it, and to tell
the (same) stories in renewed, surprising ways?
ULRIKE OTTINGER: I follow one of the oldest models of illustration and narration, which has always fascinated me: dramaturgical stations. This form has a deep connection to mankind's early experiences. All the epics adopt it. It follows very clearly thought-out and amazingly simple dramaturgical rules. There is
a skeletal structure that can be filled out with the past (what members of the group know in common of their history); with the future (their desires, hopes, fears); and with the present. All current events, whether joyous or disquieting, are thus worked through and find their appropriate form. This scaffolding is used to tell stories in all cultures. It's deeply involved with mnemonic devices. The early memory boards were simultaneously earthly and cosmic models. They served to orient and give the performance a highly condensed and abstract form. The differentiation between reality and the procedures used to give form to it - that is, to make reality into art - are totally conscious. In my artistic work - including the book and the exhibition Bild Archive - I employ and update this dramaturgy. Today we have to cover the basic structure of this scaffolding with new images and situations. It presents a great challenge that also exposes a division within humanity between those who are nomadic - refugees or migrant workers, who have to endure incredible hardships to come to terms with the constantly changing demands and dangers they face - and the settled and established, who are in the advantageous position of having less demands placed on their abilities to react mentally or physically. The skeletal dramaturgical structure needs to have both dynamic and static components, elements of the nomadic and the settled. This not only creates aesthetic tension, but also exposes a world of extreme oppositions, as well as what lies between them.
By also choosing this form for my book of photographs I was able to alternate between tableaus and narratives, while reflecting the structural relationship between what I see and how I present it. It's a model that allows for the most complex retrospection and foresight and that allows pictures to be both ordered and anarchic. The division into chapters, such as Theatrum Sacrum, Frames, Colour, Market, Food, Landscape, offers a sequence of themes that I've been working on in my photography and films for decades. So the borders between the chapters are porous. It's rather like osmosis. The photo of a department store with its everyday rituals could just as well be placed in the chapter Theatrum Sacrum. The street library with comic books in a provincial Chinese city could be moved from the chapter En Face to Daily Life. The processional motif that moves through my films and photos in the basic forms of victory parades and dances of death appears in various chapters.
GERALD MATT: The title of the most extensive chapter in the book and exhibition it accompanies suggests more by the term En Face than "portrait." "En face", in French, means "face to face," someone or something across from us, one thing or another encountering the camera, the photographer, and, above all, the individual, Ulrike Ottinger. The people you photograph can be close friends or strangers. You let them slip in and out of various roles, different genders, or to present themselves in an everyday manner. For you, what is special about and what is common to faces and individuals?
ULRIKE OTTINGER: What is specific for me about photography, as well as film, is that as analog media they create possibilities to reflect relationships between reality and fiction, between nature and art. This also determines the way I encounter people photographically. For example, I like to work with photographs that show the relationship of people to their environments. This is what I generally like to establish initially. Sometimes I go at it in the opposite way, beginning with details, but usually I start from the general. It's like in classical opera: when a character comes on stage to sing an aria, the first thing she sings is who she is, where she comes from, and why she's here. One establishes a character in relation to the surroundings and other people. Tense relational situations result. In my pictures, people are presented as individuals with all their particular qualities and traits, while also being figures in a broader play in which they all look at each other and present (them)selves. Every face, every person, is therefore unique in my photography because each picture develops out of something new that she and I bring to it.
GERALD MATT: The people you've worked with most extensively and intensively, such as Tabea Blumenschein or Veruschka von Lehndorff, are generally very beautiful. What does beauty mean to you and what roles do the grotesque, the other, the absurd, and the strange play in your work, especially your portraiture?
ULRIKE OTTINGER: For me the two are connected inseparably. That's why I like to juxtapose or combine them in pictures. This reveals that the beautiful, as Karl Rosenkranz has described it, derives from the ugly, as the result of a process that strips the everyday of its flaws. Beauty is primarily an ideal, and so an artifice which occasionally appears in reality, where we have searched for and found it. Conversely, the ugly only appears in contrast to the beautiful as difference and differentiation. If beautiful faces and forms tend toward the static, then these other, unsettling bodies derive their amazing complexity and liveliness from the friction they generate rubbing up against the beautiful. I'm interested in both extremes, but even more so in transitions between and contaminations of them. Tabea Blumenschein behind glass on the cover of this book is compressed into a pretty picture. In the photo sequence, The Scream, this icon is successively transformed. The face moves in mime-like expressions that border on grimaces. It's only in the complementary references to one another that it becomes clear that beauty, too, is an artificial attitude and ugliness derives from it dynamically. Deformation is a suggestive commentary on ideal form, and vice versa. In my film Freak Orlando, and the photos that go with it, this relationship is a central narrative theme. Dwarves and giants, two-headed people, and women without abdomens are the main protagonists of a cosmos inhabited by real and imaginary beings equally. Like the title character, they are sent through historical metamorphoses until they reach their destination, a festival of the ugly in northern Italy. Where the ugly rule, the beautiful become outsiders, curiosities. And so that icon of the French cinema, Delphine Seyrig, dressed in a Playboy Bunny costume, wins the grand prize: in an ugliness competition, the beauty is the real freak. What the final episode thematizes narratively, also interests me as an aesthetic question. So I made many photographic studies of the lead actress in Freak Orlando, Magdalena Montezuma,in which she is transformed by leather or metal prostheses into a monstrous being. Or, her regular, clearly made-up features undergo metamorphosis in a funhouse mirror into an abstract schema. Form and deformation for me are central because they often only become visible in their interaction, through artistic work with beautiful women.
GERALD MATT: In a sense, the chapter headings in the book also alternate between content-oriented themes and categories such as "colour" and "frames." What importance do these formal aspects have, particularly for your camera work?
ULRIKE OTTINGER: Colours are very important for my films and photographs because they convey moods that can be independent of or supplementary to the people, things, or landscapes represented. This pertains not only to individual colours but also to how they are juxtaposed to one another, such as the extreme differentiation of colours in Kabuki, where they appear very clearly, placed next to each other, without blending. Or sometimes I make them variable, dissolving flecks of light and colour in an almost impressionistic way. In the pictorial sequence in the chapter Colour, I worked out a gradual diminution of the colours - similar to that in my film Ticket of No Return - which moves from red to yellow to blue to silver. The film opens with the entire frame filled with red. Then the red detaches from the camera and becomes evident as the protagonist's coat and hat, just as she embarks upon her great adventure under the sign of Aller - Jamais Retour. The elegant drunkard emerges from the stations of her journey bathed in ever new and contrasting moods, which materialize optically as dye-baths. Tabea Blumenschein's costumes fade from glaring red and yellow to mundane blue and finally to a translucent, shimmering silver. The silver prevents the figure from taking on any more colour but it reflects her surroundings all the more powerfully. The theme of mirroring is therefore contained within that of colour. I like to work with reflective surfaces like glass, water, mirrors, foil, and fluids. They make it possible to create images that stand for anything that is doubled, flowing, and dissolving.
Frames have a similar role in my images. I regularly visit collections and museums. When I lived in Paris for eight years, I went to the Louvre once a week, sometimes just to see a single painting. I was very involved with pictorial composition. The photo on the cover of this book's dust jacket shows Tabea Blumenschein behind the glass door of an airport that looks like a glass cell.
I work a lot with this kind of framing and demonstrate that it's always a matter of picture making. The clearest example is the theater frame in my film Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press. The illustrations painted on it, in the style of the fin-de-siècle painter Gustave Moreau, attest to the exoticism of the colonial opera. Scenes of an opera performed within the frame are set in the early stages of the Spanish Inquisition and deal with the conquest of the Isle
of Bliss. It's a multi-faceted construction: outside the frame there's the story of Frau Dr. Mabuse, the boss of an international media concern, and Dorian Gray, her student, victim, and rival. I placed the markedly artificial theatrical framework in a natural landscape. The curtain opens and nature becomes an operatic stage. Another shot shows a wall of rock with a cavity that with the addition of drapery becomes a theater box. From there, Frau Dr. Mabuse and Dorian Gray watch themselves in the opera, in their roles on stage as Grand Inquisitor of Seville and the young Spanish Infant. There's a view into the frame but also out from it. And there are the characters' own views of themselves. Art frames nature: the sea in the background is real but the clouds and sky are painted parts of the frame. I like to work with these kinds of trompe-l'œil effects. It creates the possibility to reflect the relationship between art and nature.
GERALD MATT: In conclusion, what would you say characterizes you as an artist?
ULRIKE OTTINGER: I think it's the ability to condense artistically those things one sees and experiences and make the essential visible. Or, to rearrange things in reality playfully, creating new worlds, so a more focused view becomes possible.