“In a metamorphic, Sisyphean series of video works, Berlin-based artist Gabriele Stellbaum excavates threads of an imagined personal history which speak to the awkward contingencies of private lives in contemporary politics. This series of films is titled “I Bruise Easily.”

In “Honest Lies” and “Future Memories” two earlier films in the series, the settings seem elusive. Stellbaum is filmed on a train, walking through a forest, or driving round an empty car park, going on clandestine appointments, carrying a typewriter or delivering a mysterious manila envelope. The films conjure up a world that might or might not have a connection to random totalitarian systems like for instance the GDR’s secret police state or Nazi era, places where past betrayals always come home to spoil everything.

Both these films feature Stellbaum playing the role of a worker, a cryptic cypher dressed stylishly but demurely, always in a somewhat subaltern role, meekly completing her task, submissively contrite to an invisible (but ever-present) authoritarian order. She seems partially rebellious, often contrarian, frequently uncooperative, but always aware of a larger central ordering logic she cannot avoid. Escape seems futile.

In her new video work “Summer’s Frost” Stellbaum plays Miss Brodsky, a woman in her forties who is shown in a hospital, bandaged, sectioned, possibly arrested, under doctor’s surveillance, incapable of escape or release. She appears to be a worker who transgressed. She has been caught. Brodsky is cantankerous with doctors and nurses, drugged, half-lucid, half-catatonic. Imprisoned against her will, she will make her warders suffer. Her acts may have been political, terroristic, but she is being kept in a state psychiatric ward. The ordeals of imprisoned 1970s West German terrorist Ulrike Meinhof come to mind.

“Summer’s Frost” is constructed in a series of short, mysterious scenes which fit together to form a sort of jigsaw. The film opens with a shot of snow falling against a background of fir trees while unsettling avant-garde incidental music cues the audience that this video is working with the audio tropes of intrigue, danger, and the awkward resolutions of the psychodrama genre. These aural flurries instill suspense like Hitchcock and Bernard Hermann’s macabre and suggestive incidental motifs.

Stellbaum’s film cuts to a female doctor in her office on the telephone, speaking in Spanish discussing an “activist” with a colleague. The scene suggests international espionage and/or governmental betrayal. As Brodsky enters the room, the doctor suddenly switches from Spanish to English and changes her tone to one of subtle interrogation. This opening sequence alerts us to many clues in the film. Brodsky is a former worker who has betrayed her employer or the state and she is now an unwilling interviewee. She is less helpful to the doctor than she had been in earlier meetings. Brodsky is now defiant, questioning the state, the interview itself, the surveillance she feels she is under.

In a later dream-like sequence, Brodsky is filmed alone in a snowy landscape at the edge of a forest, with an expansive snow-covered clearing before her. She takes off her winter coat and shoes and leaves them in a neat pile. She is wearing only a slip. She then walks underdressed and barefoot across the snowy plain. The shot runs for two long minutes. This long footage is filmed in real time as Stellbaum’s icy-footed figure recedes to the point of invisibility. There is no clear explanation for this strange walk. Perhaps it is a dream sequence. Perhaps emblematic of a internal voyage this character has made out of normal human behavior, -her retreat seems a journey away from rationality and into loss of identity within the context of her medical confinement.

In a final sequence, Brodsky is surrounded by her medical captors on a hospital bed. She seems familiar with at least one of her captors. She suddenly screams at a bespectacled bald older hospital warder “It’s you, you traitor!” The exact connection between these two characters is never made clear but the sense of sweeping paranoia is intense. -Is she delusional or is she revealing a wide-reaching conspiracy? “Summer’s Frost” leaves its viewers in a similar state of ambivalence. Brodsky plays on this contemporary role, the dissident as whistleblower, as prisoner of conscience.

Stellbaum’s video series explores the interface of dominant narratives and personal agency amid contemporary cultural contexts. For her the personal is always political and the political always in reflection finds its dirty work inflicted amid personal narratives of struggle, survival and awkward contradiction. Stellbaum’s characters “bruise easily” because they live in a violent political present.”

Rupert Goldsworthy