A busy Sunday afternoon in the Stedelijk Museum does not offer the best conditions to view Ulla von Brandenburg’s new work ‘La Maison’, 2007, being given its European premiere. Too many visitors peeping in between the loosely hanging, coloured curtains that are ordered in a strict architectural pattern. In the middle of this labyrinthic structure a ‘room’ is created in which a crooked screen reflects a 16mm projection—probably a brutal visitor accidentally stepped into the back of the screen in an attempt to enter the space from behind.
But if we think away all these disturbing circumstances, what is left is an aesthetically interesting piece. The black and white film, shot in a single take, journeys through the different chambers of a 19th century castle, on its way passing various scenes. Described as tableaux vivants in the Performa 07 festival in New York where the piece was first shown, these scenes are not formed by a group of people standing as still as possible, but by clever editing techniques which freeze action.
The effect is magical, and reminiscent of both Alexander Sokurov’s one-take film ‘Russian Ark’, 2003, shot in the magnificent spaces of the St Petersburg Hermitage, and of wildlife documentaries in which the camera follows the view of a bird or flying insect through its surroundings.
But there is more. Not only is the static, contemplative state of mind of the characters in the scenes intriguing, but so too is the reference to art historical icons.
The film begins by zooming into a painting of a garden scene in one of the rooms of the castle, while the settings in the other rooms also refer to paintings both in their actual set-ups as well as their art historical references.
For example, the couple playing a game of cards recalls the famous painting by Paul Cézanne, ‘The Card Players’, 1890, others bring to mind the illusory paintings of René Magritte and his contemporaries.
There is a woman standing in front of a mirror which reflects, not her face, but the back of her head covered with hair. A man is sleeping in a chair with a breathing handkerchief going up and down over his face but in fact the man is not breathing at all. A figure totally wrapped in cloth, like a mummy, is placed amongst a collection of furniture.
The longer one views the ongoing loop through the chambers of the castle, the more symbolism is apparent. The scene of a family gathering around the death bed of a young man reveals von Brandenburg’s preoccupation with death, while the scene of a boy holding a rope between his hands in the form of a lemniscate, or ‘8’ as the title of the film suggests, regards this in a more infinite manner.
Even the setting, with its architectural structure of textiles in colours based on the theories of Bauhaus and Lüscher, makes reference to the path we follow through the chambers of the castle; the room with the painting parallels the room with the screen, our centre of attention. It is also a reference to the labyrinth, a symbol of the indefinite passages of life, which becomes a framework for us, the viewers’, and our individual, perpetual preoccupations.
Nathalie Zonnenberg is a curator and writer based in Amsterdam