My first encounter with the work of Ulla Von Brandenburg was seven years ago at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, housed in Dublin’s Royal Hospital, Kilmainham. Her film, ‘8’ (2007) is composed of a continuous tracking shot moving silently around the corridors and chambers of the baroque Chateau de Chamarande. The work generated an uncanny, almost palpably acoustic sense of feedback with the structure of the museum itself, with its long unbroken passages enclosing a central courtyard. It made an impression that has underscored my reading of her work since.
In Pilar Corrias, London, by contrast, where her current exhibition ‘Objects Without Shadow’ is showing, the gallery could hardly be less responsive to the former theatre designer’s architectural sensitivities. This is not necessarily a bad thing, at least not by design. Much discussion of her work has centred on its affinity with theatre which is by no means inconsequential. On the contrary, performance - its ritual, its space, the enclosure or expansion of same - is pivotal. However there is an interiority that can be overlooked when formal scenographies begin to expand. There’s little risk of that in a white cube; it’s the art equivalent of a recording booth; all resonance dies at the first wall it hits.
At street level there are seven monochrome prints - described as paintings - on stretched canvas of draped fabrics and textiles, each accompanied by props, ritual paraphernalia and small rudimentary sculptures. The ambiance of the two-dimensional pieces is more cinematic than theatrical - literally and figuratively, they are decidedly more akin to screen than stage. They’ve clearly been made using photosensitive material, which recalls early photographic techniques but their earthy hues and limited colour range make them look like tinted celluloid of the silent film era. Many of the accompanying objects appear aligned to a specific canvas – a stack of wooden hoops rests against one, a neatly coiled bundle of rope stands close in front of another, another still has a box of brightly colored spools of fabric in front of it.
In the lower ground floor basement the ‘film-performance’ ‘Sink Down Mountain, Raise Up Valley’ (2015) sees these props put into action. Black and white, silent except for music and select passages of dialogue, and, again, filmed in a single take as the shot moves from one interior to the next, it portrays a highly ritualised drama concerning the French Saint-Simonian movement of the early to mid nineteenth century, founded on the teachings of utopian socialist Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon. Actors in simple antiquated garb (costume is another point of significance as regards fabric. It not only makes curtains, which open to reveal a space of performance, as dress it adorns and identifies performers) move slowly and serenely about the stairs and rooms in a theatre in preparation for an event, conversing, greeting one another breaking occasionally into song based on the writings of Saint-Simon.
The cast of the film - all associated with Latvia’s New Riga Theatre, presumably the location of the shoot – enact the discovery of a woman messiah as prophesied by Barthélemy Prosper Enfantin (known to his devotees as Le Père) who assumed leadership of the Saint-Simonians after the death of Saint-Simon. Under Père’s guidance the movement - hitherto nominally Christian, but chiefly social-reformist and scientistic - grew increasingly religious. Both leaders were, by all accounts, charismatic but quixotic dreamers. Chief agent of many a financial, political and personal misadventure, for Saint-Simon even a desperate bid to end it all by self-inflicted gunshot to the head (several, in fact) left him partially blind but agonisingly alive. His successor’s costly and pointless excursions to the near east to find the messiah who would be Mère as he was Père precipitated the sect’s demise.
Saint-Simon and Pere are, in some ways in keeping with von Brandenburg’s historical protagonists who, here and elsewhere, often emerge from the contested borders between science and magic, politics and mysticism; fringe avenues that might once have fallen under the, now largely vestigial, rubric of ‘natural philosophy’. The aforementioned exhibition in Dublin, for example, referred heavily to Dr. John Dee, the Victorian mathematician and occultist who believed that he had decrypted the language of angels (‘Enochian’). It is this narrative interior that, somewhat counter-intuitively,the institutional space of the commercial gallery refocuses in a surprisingly complementary fashion.