URSULA SCHULZ-DORNBURG
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DEUTSCH

ENCOUNTERS, ANNOTATIONS



My first encounter with a large plate camera was when I was still al school. I was helping my uncle, who was preparing photographs for a „book on stones“ that was to be published by my father, a geologist and architect. Later I learnt how to take photographs by studying at the Institut für Bildjournalismus in Munich between 1961 and 1963 and paying close attention to everything. I was always moving between two points of tension: concentrating on the inner dimension and feeling my way towards the external viewpoint. Architecture is a symbolic form that withstands all exertions. The house: a symbol engaged in a lifelong dream of discovering an „inner dwelling“, a „shelter“, a place of refuge.

In 1967 I spent a year in New York with my family. It was there that I sensed the first really powerful impulses from the American scene - Robert Frank, Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans - whose work also had an unmistakable aspect of social criticism, which fitted in with my training as a photojournalist. Later I discovered Ed Ruscha's Every Building on the Sunset Strip, with „his sequential planning and uncensored montage of all existing strength to the banality of the object — which I found very inspiring“ (from an interview with Joshua Smith in WashingtOn in 1996, in connection with my exhibition Sonnenstand, Stations of the Sun).

There were many encounters that determined the vocabulary I needed in order to find my bearings. But I have never learnt to follow examples systematically; I had too many clashes with authority when I was young. Through friends in Munich, in 1972 I became acquainted with Walter de Maria and the spatial and temporal dimensions of the work he was producing then. In the mid-seventies I collaborated with the architect Tina Sattler to create the series Vorhänge am Markusplatz in Venedig (Hangings in St Mark's Square, Venice) and Palace Pier, Brighton. It was in that period that I also discovered Lee Friedlander and his book The American Monument. A further encounter with this artist and his work took place in 1996 at the Art Institute in Chicago, when three parallel exhibitions coincided there, with Friedlander's Desert Places, Joel Sternfeld's On this Site: Landscape in Memoriam and my own Sonnenstand, Solar position.

And then, of course, there were also Karl Bloßfeldt and Bernd and Hilla Becher. In the mid-seventies I came across a small catalogue of black and white landscape photographs by Marcia Resnick. The extreme downward displacement of the horizon in those photographs, so that it almost touched the edge of the picture, made a profound impression on me and probably had some formal influence on the project on which I was working then, Ansichten von Pagan (Views of Pagan), 1979, and also on the later project Verschwundene Landschaft (Vanished Landscape), 1980, carried out in the lower reaches of the River Tigris in what is now Iraq (in both cases, in collaboration with the sculptor Rudolf Knubel). For me, this horizon is the zero line of humanity.

I have always worked in sequences, as I had particular ideas in my head that I wanted to relate. And I have always worked with a broad time span. The experience of time became a thematic element.

Through the physical experience of distance, space and representation as conveyed to me by the work of Richard Long I received powerful confirmation of the meaning of travel. Travel is important for me: the further one goes, the clearer positions become. "An intense new experience of the world always occurs in unforeseen places" (Jeff Wall). Or, in the words of Per Kirkeby: "When I move, I break away from all sorts of local provincialisms. What is international or non-provincial is to be found in the air between particular places, and through traveling one at least passes through a kind of bank of mist that has some similarity to it."

But there is yet another "parallel universe" in my life. After training as a photographer I studied social education. I made a book about adventure playgrounds in Amsterdam, 1969, and I worked for the Youth Institute in Munich. For many years I also worked with heroin addicts, using photography for awareness therapy. This had been suggested to me by the early work of Christian Boltanski and his self-portraits. The results were not very encouraging, and I stopped that work in 1984. That year I received a commission from the Dutch Ministry of Culture to carry out a project in Indonesia, together with two ethnologists and an architect, on "Religious symbols in the architecture of Tana Toraja" in Sulawesi. As a result of this project, the book Banua Toraja: Changing Patterns in Architecture and Symbolism Among the Sa'dan Toraja, Sulawesi, Indonesia was published in 1988.

In the work on the temples of Pagan in Burma in 1979 the aim was to convert their mythically oriented arrangement, based on strong, orderly relationships, into a suitable concept for photographic representation. A process-based concept was also developed in Verschwundene Landschaft, 1980, the vanished landscape of the Tigris in ancient Mesopotamia: following the course of the river and the alterations in landscape, vegetation and architecture. Roaming around archaeological sites — as in the case of the temples of Pagan - was not possible here in this sequence, because in April 1980 Iraq was already making preparations for war against Iran. In my project Weizen (Wheat), 1988, for the first time I presented photographs explicitly in the form of an installation.

This procedure continued in Sonnenstand, 1991-92, the „external" theme of which had to do with the early traces of Arab-Christian culture in the north of Spain. It took me some time to realize that there was another possibility of movement, and that I could transform the horizon into space. It was possible to represent the rotation of the earth during a single day and its circular movement around the sun in the course of a year, in the form of rays of sunlight and their „roaming" in space and time. Here, light is the decisive element; but, in accordance with the very different circumstances of each particular place, space also achieves its specific appearance in light, depending, for example, on the thickness of the mortar-clad walls, the size and shape of the window, or the precision of its orientation towards the East, and also depending on the geographical situation and the vegetation. Another decisive factor, and not the least, was the way in which the light fell on each altar.

My interest in the Byzantine influence on our western culture led me, in 1996, to start working on places in Armenia where the first early Christian monasteries were built, some of them on the sites of pre-Christian places of worship. The result was Grenzlandschaften (Borderscapes), 1998-2000, pictures of caves and their interiors in the Transcaucasus, along the border between Georgia and Azerbaijan. Unlike Sonnenstand, what occupied the foreground here was space, the cells dug out of the rock, the stone surface, the vulnerability, the materialness, the physical quality of their architecture. In my search for places with these characteristics, making excursions on lonely plateaus, I was struck by the bus stops that I came across, like strange architectural objects lost in the landscape: they are the Transitorte (Transitsites), 1997-2001. Although, in most cases, all that remains is the notion of a structure that gives shelter, these "signs" nevertheless offer a possibility of orientation — which becomes evident in the body language of the people waiting there.

St Petersburg, June 2000. I had asked the appropriate authorities for permission to take photographs in the metro. I spent the time that I had to wait for them to take their decision in the nearby Museum of Arctic and Antarctic. There I happened to come across the dioramas that recall heroic situations in the Soviet involvement in the Arctic. That gave me the impulse for the Erinnerungslandschaften (Memoryscapes), 2000-01. At the same time, those images are directly associated with my earliest memories from the time of the last year of the war: a snowy landscape, the wounded being transported on sledges, tarpaulins on the snow. This remembered scenario is complemented by stills from films that my uncle kept in large boxes in our library. They were pictures from Expressionist mountain films made in the twenties and thirties, such as S.O.S. Eisberg (S.O.S. Iceberg), Die Weiße Hölle vom Piz Palü (The White Hell of Piz Palü) and Stürme über dem Mont Blanc (Storm over Mont Blanc). I photographed the dioramas with an amateur camera. The blurred quality was important for me, in order to give the impression that I myself had been in that landscape. In other words, converting one's own projection into reality. As I said earlier, the internal and the external viewpoint.

January 2002: a one-week trip to Saudi Arabia to research for a photographic project. The old incense road, which later became a pilgrim route between Mecca and Damascus. And also the Hejaz Railway, built by the German engineer Heinrich Meissner between 1899 and 1907. It became famous through the activities of Lawrence of Arabia, and in 1917 it was destroyed. Nothing remains but the halts where no train now stops, in the middle of nowhere. The tracks have been pulled up, the line they followed forming vague trails of traces in the desert.


Ursuala Schulz-Dornburg


exhibition catalogue: A través los Territorios / Across the territories / Fotografias / Photographs 1980-2002 / Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno / Valencia

 

© Ursula Schulz-Dornburg