The Autobiography of Art Cinema
Review by Leonie Wild, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, November 22, 2007
"Over Lake Constance to Mongolia: All-rounder Ulrike Ottinger is celebrated in Berlin with a retrospective and an exhibition
In order to enter the worlds of Ulrike Ottinger, the visitor goes through a frame that belongs to the backdrop of "Dorian Gray in the mirror of the tabloid press", her film from 1984. Inspired by Gustave Moreau, symbolic painter of the Fin de Siècle, placed she shot him while filming in the barren landscape of Fuerteventura and posted three goddesses of fate in him. And so the entrance to the exhibition symbolizes one of Ottinger's characteristic positions: her playful relationship to reality, fueled by the question of how landscape and industry change through staging. As if you were entering the cabin of an airplane taking off and leaving the usual ground, you are stepping through the backdrop of Ottinger's cosmos, which blurs "reality" and "fiction": for example, when she photographs a dwarf in front of the gates of the Berlin Olympic Stadium, where an opposite, misanthropic body image was propagated at the 1936 Olympic Games.
Ottinger, before her career as a filmmaker and director in Paris in the 1960s as a visual artist and later as a gallery owner at Lake Constance, has not used photography since her puberty in the context of painting and film merely as an addition, but as an independent form; what earned her participation in Documenta X and XI and exhibitions worldwide; she already arranged group photos in Paris, the motifs of which she then brought to the canvas; and the photographs taken in the context of their films are not simply "film stills", mere snapshots of moving images. They lead a double life as new productions. Long before "location scouts" became unintelligible actors on the set, Ottinger discovered the barren, barren corners and crumbling industrial architecture of her new home in Berlin and often only used the places discovered during this busy search for film work years later. For example, a West Berlin prefabricated housing district, in front of whose ghostly dead backdrop she filmed on the one hand for "Portrait of a Drinker" (1979), where, however, the photograph "Circus in Gropiusstadt" was created, with a travestite on the wire rope, observed by dwarf and pig. The meticulousness with which Ottinger prepared her feature and documentary films is demonstrated by the screenplays that burst with material and resemble folios. They gather their sources of inspiration on large-format, yellowed paper: sketches, comics, newspaper clippings, their own and historical photographs. Instead of pushing the film text into the foreground, it is merely an equal fragment. The scripts on display, including those for unrealized films such as "Diamond Dance" and "The Blood Countess", have the rank of fantasy props. Like the "picture score", 114 photographs arranged in a panopticon from the context of "Freak Orlando" (1981), which put exotic colonial pictures alongside war, architecture and art photography.
As much as Ottinger was looking for absurd realities in Berlin, she was looking for exoticism on her numerous trips to China and Mongolia - another focus of the exhibition. Her photographs, taken there since the 1980s, from a China that was not yet attracting Western interest as an upcoming "global player", document everyday scenarios such as a street library and the Forbidden City, deserted, frozen in a cold that is out of the ordinary flows. "Cheerful complicity" is the word Ottinger uses to describe her connection to the motifs; that cheerfulness does not make a Mongolian bear slayer or an old couple in front of his yurt have any aura of "strangeness". And even staged photographs from the context of "Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia" (1989), such as the one in which Irm Hermann is enthroned over a Mongolian family, do not reproduce stereotypes.
A photographic oeuvre documented since 1970 inevitably forces the exhibition to forego: Ottinger's Berlin pictures, which she created in 1990 in the run-up to monetary union, wall scenarios that may be dispensable because the artist disappears behind them. However, the fact that photographs from the context of their debut "Madame X - An Absolute Ruler" (1977), either instrumentalized or frowned upon by feminist film science, is neglected is just one example of how the exhibition refuses suggestions, and in what biographical and theoretical context Ottinger acts. If the Berlin retrospective on Cindy Sherman warned visitors of "hurt feelings" and exposed the artist even more, Ottinger experiences the opposite: she is covered up, her biographical driving forces remain undisclosed. And so it was with her, on a tour of the exhibition, to tell about her cosmos: of the fascination with Mongolia that had already developed in childhood, spurred on by a painter on Lake Constance, a friend of her father, by a children's book and the Longing for the stranger. She playfully shared anecdotes such as the feedback from Chinese students who saw scenes from their country in their 1985 documentary "China. The Arts - Everyday Life" that they had previously been denied. Laurence A. Rickels, who has been accompanying Ottinger's work since 1990, also makes the connection in her recently published biography from her childhood in the early 1940s as the daughter of a Jewish mother to the first steps as a visual artist and later on trips to Asia manipulative attempts by the authorities to boycott the shooting, destroyed footage and Ottinger's talent for improvisation.
Her photographic work does not remain pale in the Museum of Film and Television, even if the biographical context is missing. But she is given the status of a projection screen, an all-rounder mysteriously bursting with imagination, without showing what her art is missing out on: her own access to marginality and the refusal to be so seductive exoticism. – Leonie Wild