URSULA SCHULZ-DORNBURG
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Sonnenstand

Ursula Schulz-Dornburg's photographic project Sonnenstand depicts the interiors of nine 10th-century hermitages located close to the popular medieval pilgrimage route westward across northern Spain, from near Barcelona to Santiago de Compostela on the Atlantic coast. Isolated and long-deserted, these hermitages (ermitas in Catalan) were built by individual monks who left their monasteries in order to live and pray alone.
Sonnenstand, which means "position of the sun" in German, is about the intricate relationships between light and architecture and the complex ways that Islamic and Christian cultures delineate them. This series evolved from Schulz-Dornburg's fascination with both Arabic and Jewish influences on European culture. She chose to work in northern Spain because the Christian and Islamic religions converged there between the 8th and 11th-centuries. In art, this historical development is best symbolized by the Mozarabic arch, an architectural element brought to Europe by the Moors at that time. It appears in many historic structures throughout Spain.1(Islamic cultures incorporated light in architecture in part because they did not allow representational images in mosques. Early Arabic interest in astronomy also helps explain a complex appreciation of light in their art and architecture2) Many of the hermitages that appear in Sonnenstand contain Mozarabic arches.3
Ursula Schulz-Dornburg's stunningly sensuous photographs made for Sonnenstand dramatically depict the movement of light streaming into the tiny hermitages through arched windows at different times of day and during different seasons of the year. These pictures can be appreciated both as sequences of individual images and as groups. In Schulz-Dornburg's photographs, light enters the hermitages through small apse windows that face east. A bright beam is often projected on floors and walls, usually dictated by the shape of the windows.⁴ The projected light is most visible when it illuminates the dust raised by the artist.
Born in Berlin in 1938, Ursula Schulz-Dornburg studied photography at journalism school in Munich from 1959 to 1960. Although Schulz-Dornburg did not choose photography as a career until some years later, she worked with hospitalized heroin addicts in the 1960s, using photography as a therapeutic tool. In 1967, when her family lived in New York, she actively looked at new art. In 1969 she moved to Düsseldorf, a German city with a lively art scene. In 1972 she met American artists Dan Flavin, Michael Heiser, and Walter DeMaria at the Venice Biennale. She was particularly impressed by DeMaria's Calendar, 1971, a work of art consisting of one stationary and one moving stick. She saw this as a brilliantly simple representation of the ever-changing relationship between time and space, a theme that soon became central to her own work.

But it was Ed Ruscha's photographic book Every Building on the Sunset Strip, 1966, that most influenced the first photographs Schulz-Dornburg made as art. Her multi-image project, Curtains at the Piazza San Marco in Venice, 1974, depicts the curtains lining the shops in the Piazza San Marco. Instead of imitating Ruscha's cool stasis, however, she captured the movement of the curtains and changes in time on the Piazza San Marco under varying conditions of light and wind. Schulz-Dornburg later wrote about Ruscha's book, stating, "His sequential planning and 'uncensored montage' of an existing architectural pattern along a given lane added a conceptual strength to the banality of the object — which I found very inspiring."

In 1976, in an effort to save a venerable architectural structure from demolition, Schulz-Dornburg photographed striking vistas of the Palace Pier in Brighton, England, as the tide shifted and light changed. Two years later she produced breathtaking images of a large shrine-filled field in Pagan, Burma, each taken under dramatically different light and from various viewpoints. These reveal the magical interplay between the vast array of pagodas and the landscape.
In 1980, just before the Iraq-Iran War, Schulz-Dornburg journeyed through old Mesopotamia, along the ancient bed of the Tigris River between the Iraqi cities of Baghdad and Bosra. Her aim was to return to the roots of human culture and mythology at this historic site. Her record of the procession of reeds, mud huts, people, and animals she found along the river — as in the days of Babylon — was, like her work in Pagan, a quest to experience and convey the unity between humanity and nature, the earth and the cosmos, the temporal and the eternal. Following her visit, Saddam Hussein's soldiers drained the water and burned the huts in this region, making her photographs an important, though unintended, memorial to this ancient landscape and culture.
Schulz-Dornburg's last — and still evolving — project before Sonnenstand was Ewiger Weizen, 1989, a series of "portraits" of wheat. In this work she saw both wheat and architecture anthropomorphically, revealing human "faces" that reflected the cultures of their origin. Inspired by the German photographers Bernhard and Hilla Becher, she first photographed sixty different varieties of wheat and exhibited them in a grid of three rows. She then photographed wheat seeds, using a special technique to depict the sides and front of each seed simultaneously. She printed these images very large. As she recalls, "The ... Bechers were a formal inspiration. Reading and recording the 'wheat' portraits as an architectural construct, in order to be compared, had to be submitted to the rigor of consistent size, lighting, and background. {Joseph} Beuys, on the other hand, supplied simple groundwork for the 'issue' of my work, being an artist who tirelessly raised the ecological issue with all its spiritual and political connections."

Sonnenstand is rooted in the medieval experience of time and light. During that period in Spain light organized time for the monks, telling them when to pray and when to conduct other daily and seasonal activities. Such consciousness of time, organized by nature, paradoxically imparted feelings of infinite timelessness, of a time that went on forever. This concept of infinity informs all of Ursula Schulz-Dornburg's work. For example, in Sonnenstand the movement of light through space and time is a continuous, infinite performance. Schulz-Dornburg's pictures are ordered in daily sequences that follow the sunlight entering and traversing the interior spaces of the hermitages. She documented the angle of entry during different times of day and different months of the year. Each sequence begins when the angle of the sun allows its first entry into the interior darkness. Each ends when the sun can no longer reach inside the structure. Schulz-Dornburg's grids reflect the earth's passage around the sun, measuring — like a sundial — both the time of day and seasons of the year.
In Sonnenstand Schulz-Dornburg also demonstrates her long-standing interest in sacred places and spirituality. The sunlight entering arched windows dramatically transforms darkness into light, dividing the interior spaces of the hermitages into abstract areas of black and white. Sacramental moments are created by the movement of light across these sacred spaces and by the configurations formed as light streams through the windows. This is especially true when Schulz-Dornburg photographs light resting on altars. The representation of light in these pictures often suggests a compelling physical and spiritual presence, perhaps even the presence of God. Turn-of-the-century English photographer Frederick H. Evans made platinum prints depicting the interiors of British and French cathedrals, also bathed in light. These works similarly suggest the presence of the divine in sacred architecture.
Sonnenstand continues Ursula Schulz-Dornburg's revelatory investigations of time and movement. She has often photographed the remains of ancient civilizations and routes, emphasizing dynamic relationships between natural landscapes and man-made architecture, as well as the social, cultural, ecological, and spiritual contexts that subsume and unite them. In previous work, Schulz-Dornburg conducted her investigative journeys outside the architecture she photographed, moving through the landscape to depict a subject. For Sonnenstand, however, she could not meaningfully find a way to reveal her understanding of medieval architecture in this way so she moved inside, creating interior landscapes that masterfully captured the movement, or "pilgrimage," of light. This process also allowed her to address some fundamental photographic questions: how does light transform interior space; what does light look like in a room; and how do changes in light affect an interior landscape?
Ursula Schulz-Dornburg has relayed the ideas of modernist American architect Louis Kahn, who believed light was the "mediator of all presence." Kahn observed that, "It is at the point of intersection between silence and light that the sanctity of art lies." He preferred buildings, like those found in ancient Egypt, in which light enters indirectly and is retained, rather than those in which light comes through transparent walls. Schulz-Dornburg also credits the American artist James Turrell — whose personal experiences of light in the mud houses of Pueblo Indians influenced his work — as an inspiration for her own interest in light and space. A Turrell print from his Roden Crater project hangs prominently in her studio. However, Turrell usually constructs his forms, which tend to be geometric, whereas Schulz-Dornburg finds her subjects "archaeologically" and is more interested in natural forms. She has also been inspired by Walter DeMaria's The Lightning Field, 1977, which dramatically exhibits the effect of light at sunrise and sunset on the tips of a large array of steel poles placed in a grid in the stark New Mexico landscape.
Like previous projects by Ursula Schulz-Dornburg, Sonnenstand looks at the past with a new consciousness. Her photographs brilliantly recreate the physical and spiritual world of the medieval hermit, the monk whose universe was a cave-like structure in which light organized the day, creating both spiritual inspiration and expression. Simultaneously, through a broad meditation on archaeology and aesthetics, architecture and the human condition, light and movement, as well as present and past, her photographs in this series have an astonishing clarity of their own that is both distinctly modern and unquestionably timeless.

 

Joshua P. Smith, an independent curator in Washington, D.C.


Notes:
1. The word "Mozarabic" refers to Christians who kept their faith while living under Arab domination or influence. These "Mozarabs" often borrowed freely from Islamic culture, and the "horseshoe" arch came to symbolize Mozarabic architecture.
2. Many Egyptian structures, including the Pyramids, were purposely constructed to look different in varying light and with astronomical considerations in mind.
3. A beautiful Mozarabic arch is seen in Hermitage 1, Santa Maria de Marquet, (cover).
4. A particularly dramatic example is Hermitage 7, San Juan de Busa, in which the three "toasts" inside are formed by three small Mozarabic windows.
5. Interviews by the author with the artist in Munich, July 1994, and in Düsseldorf, April and June 1995, were very helpful in the preparation of this essay.
6. Correspondence with the artist, September 12, 1993.
7. Ibid. Ursula Schulz-Dornburg continues to share an avid interest in ecological, as well as anthropological, issues with another Düsseldorf artist, Lothar Baumgarten.

© Ursula Schulz-Dornburg