Ulla von Brandenburg works at the intersection of film, drawing, installation and performance, creating a highly imaginative and poetic body of work that reveals her background and interest in both fine art and theatre design. For the 19th Biennale of Sydney, von Brandenburg presented a large new mixed-media, site-specific work on Cockatoo Island combining sculptural and filmic elements.
Street, Play, Way (2014) combines an interest in the stranger-in-our-midst narrative with the idea of the street as a microcosmic family or community. We are asked to suspend disbelief for a short period of time, moving through her installation as the stranger does the street in her film component Die Straße (2013) to encounter people, rituals and uncanny occurrences alongside him.
Using a steadicam enables von Brandenburg to float her filming, dislodging it from anchored realism to transpose it to a kind of magical realism. The carnivalesque is evoked, as are Jungian archetypes – the old woman, the trickster, the child, the devil – to indicate that the stranger may be journeying to find those parts of himself located within the family of traits represented by the street’s inhabitants.
Shot in black and white to enhance the sense of timelessness and non-place – to create a fictionalised, theatrical space – and situated in a prop architecture made from rudimentary flats arranged as an encapsulated streetscape, von Brandenburg’s scenario brings the audience into the immediate context of the stranger’s visitation. All the while the community sings a song – in German, in the style of a children’s nursery rhyme. Written by von Brandenburg, the refrain is the creation of automatic writing and borrowed snippets from remembered childhood songs.
A recurrent theme throughout von Brandenburg’s practice is an exploration of the point at which illusion and reality meet. The tableau vivant, or ‘living picture’, was a popular nineteenth-century dramatic technique in which a group of people are arranged in a highly staged, static tableau, often lit theatrically. The tableau vivant perfectly encapsulates von Brandenburg’s interest in the marriage of art and theatre, and occurs frequently in her work: appearing as if a painting, yet borrowing the artifice of theatre. In the film Reiter (2004), a group of actors appear together in an outdoor scene. Viewers must look carefully to discern their movements. Although seemingly uneventful, with closer examination an uncomfortable uneasiness evolves. This interest in darker psychological undertones pervades much of von Brandenburg’s artwork and, despite the constructed and manicured surface, all is not what it seems.
Von Brandenburg commonly employs clothing, props and black-and-white film stock to create a sense of timelessness in her films. This is often offset by setting her work in specific environments, such as Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye in Singspiel (2009). Singspiel explores constructed behaviour through gesture and performance. After walking through an architecture of colourful curtains (another nod to theatre, and a frequent occurrence in von Brandenburg’s installations), the audience discovers a film portraying relations between family members in the modernist house. Again, von Brandenburg removes narrative and dialogue by overlaying the film with a dramatic soundtrack. (Singspiel takes its name from a form of German-language drama.) The tensions of the soundtrack and consequential silence of the family create a sense of unease to counter the utopian aspirations of Le Corbusier’s architecture.
Solo exhibitions of von Brandenburg’s work have been held at Vienna Secession (2013); Kunsthaus Hamburg (2013); Pilar Corrias, London (2012); The Common Guild, Glasgow (2011); Chisenhale Gallery, London (2009); Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin (2008); Stedilijk Museum, Amsterdam (2008); CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, San Francisco (2008); and Palais de Tokyo (2006). Her work has been featured in major international group exhibitions, including ‘Film as Sculpture’, WIELS Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels (2013); ‘Tools for Conviviality’, The Power Plant, Toronto (2012); 11th Biennale de Lyon (2011); 53rd Venice Biennale (2009); 2nd Turin Triennale (2008); Yokohama Triennale (2008); Performa 07, New York (2007); and ‘The World as a Stage’, Tate Modern, London (2007).
Ulla von Brandenburg, Street, Play, Way, 2014, mixed-media installation with HD video, 11:20 mins, black-and-white,sound. Installation view of the 19th Biennale of Sydney (2014) at Cockatoo Island. Courtesy the artist; Art:Concept, Paris; Pilar Corrias, London; and Produzentengalerie, Hamburg. Created for the 19th Biennale of Sydney. This project was made possible through the generous support of The Keir Foundation. Photograph: Ben Symons