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“ill-timed moments” captures a short episode in the life of a middle aged woman brewing coffee in a her tiny kitchen. A small but unexpected incident leads to an intense liberating reaction. One by one she is destroying her old tableware. With an enormous focus she is taking herself out on the broken dishes, stamping them to small pieces with her feet. Her agitated clean-up action ends with smashing her head into the kitchen cupboards. The melodic sounds of her performance play a crucial role in this video.

ON GABRIELE STELLBAUM’S “SUMMER’S FROST” (2013)

“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

HONEST LIES

Hitchcock’s 1966 Cold War thriller Torn Curtain features character actress Lila Kedrova in a cameo role as “Countess Kuchiska” an older impoverished Polish aristocrat who helps a US scientist and his fiancée to escape East Berlin. She recognizes the two fugitives by chance on a crowded street and they go to a coffee shop to negotiate an exchange: “You are safe with me, I am not communistical. Now I am making you a proposition. Will you help me please, I need American sponsor.” –Kedrova plays the role of a small-time hustler to the hilt as she tearfully blackmails them, offering that she will get them to their escape point in return for their sponsorship for US citizenship.

This meeting catches much of the desperation and the powerless predicament of the ordinary citizen living under totalitarian rule, and also has some resonance with the film series by Gabriele Stellbaum “I Bruise Easily,” where a woman attempts to negotiate her way around the all-seeing eye of the autocratic state.

Gabriele Stellbaum’s latest work in this series is titled “Honest Lies.” Her film begins with the sound of skidding brakes as a mother and daughter seated in a small car catapult to a halt. They are pulled up short. The film then cuts between a Renault-4 driving endlessly round a deserted German car park at night and the same woman who elegantly dressed in a headscarf and raincoat takes a ferry across a lake and walks into a forest in bright sunlight to furtively collect and drop packages of papers from an empty wire garbage basket (–“a hateful orange-brown folder” as the narrator spits).
Unsettling neo-noir incidental music and a clipped female off-screen voice-over add to the film’s claustrophobic yet compelling circularity. The small car winds endlessly through the deserted garage as if searching for the right point of meeting amid its anonymous floors, and then finally at the end the screen finally fades slowly to black as the corridors continue.

Similar to a labyrinth, Stellbaum’s filmic structure leads us down into a winding Dantean underworld of thoughts, memories, fears, and imaginations of what is yet to come. The narrative is driven by the cryptic, half-revealed mutterings of a mother ruminating over actions she has taken that may soon be regretted. As viewers we are brought along for the ride but kept in a state of suspense, awaiting clues and secrets to be revealed.

This much is clear: The mother is betraying secrets to protect herself and her daughter. We are unclear if she is betraying the government or her neighbors or both. She began with a small assignment. The “limits of that responsibility” have since been “expanded.” The lies have become larger. She is now caught between moral imperative and personal expedience.
As the narrator states, “I do have a certain instinct for self-preservation.” -This line is perhaps the key to the whole film. There is both pride and self-excuse in this statement. The totalitarian state deliberately divides to conquer, coercing the populace into a state of retreat, so intent on survival that civic responsibility can be dismissed with the excuse of self-preservation.
In the East German state during Communism, according to reports, one in every six delighted in or benefited from or was blackmailed into informing the Stasi on the lives of their co-workers and neighbors. This situation creates a society spinning on lies, the fear of truths revealed, and the continual dread of betrayal.

In the post-Wall era, the binary model has changed, there is no longer the old school juxtaposition of the individual and the totalitarian state, this model has practically become retro chic itself. Looking back, this was a cleanly cut world of good vs. evil, and now it is gone for good. We have lost the luxury of the easily identifiable adversary. We find ourselves caught as participants in an all-encompassing system, which is neither good nor bad: the invisible hand reigning into our lives is just utterly amoral. And similar to Stellbaum’s vast, empty concrete structure, there’s many turns and many pointers and directions, but – as it seems – no exit. We’re victims, perpetrators and also collaborators in a bureaucratic global system that has now run out of control.
Unlike Stellbaum’s earlier solo works in this series, this new film now features three actors, the mother, her teenage daughter and a middle-aged anonymous-looking man (perhaps an undercover government official) who briefly joins the mother in her car in the night-time car park to hand her a folder. The man’s manner is brusque, matter-of-fact, adamant that either she will take the folder or there will be repercussions.

Totalitarianism’s game of control and surveillance relied of the complicity and understanding of both perpetrator and victim. Michel Foucault writes about the changes in societal policing brought by Bentham’s 1791 prison model, the Panopticon, “the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at any one moment.” Foucault argues that everyone is aware of being watched, they are also self-policing, reducing the state’s workload. This decentralized self- policing introduces suspicion of whole categories of society. Foucault notes “This architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they themselves are the bearers.” In the new totalitarian state, the inculcation of fear relies on circularity, there is no escape, it is a closed system. Stellbaum’s small Renault is lost in the hi- resolution stop-motion digi-architecture of the huge desolate concrete car park at night. The normal daytime users have gone home and the night-time dissident is spotlit in the neon lighting, trapped and hyper-aware of the one-way system in which she is ensnared, now endlessly implicated by the official and his hateful incriminating bureaucratic folders.

In other sequences inside the car, the woman’s only companion is her teenage daughter who sits mutely in the backseat protected and under maternal control. The daughter is smiling, amused and uncomprehending as to why they are driving endlessly around a car park at night. She must never know her mother’s secret or the danger they are in. She too is hostage –to her mother’s fears.
The inclusion of a mother-daughter relationship in this film adds another thread to Stellbaum’s narrative beyond Stasi-era East Germany. The narrator states cryptically at one point, “Subversion of society is possible only for a mere few – preferably those without children or anyone to love… In my architecture of lies it will have been better to avoid close friendships or contacts.” Stellbaum here alludes to a different state of exception: the terrorist. Spies live undercover and their families generally remain anonymous, but the known terrorist’s family members are vulnerable to attack. In a war of no-negotiation, the collateral damage can be extensive. Post-war German history attests to the vulnerability of the children of the terrorist Baader-Meinhof members when the group became fugitives. The dissident mother must always struggle between personal and ideological concerns.
In such a setting, like Hitchcock’s Countess Kuchiska, Stellbaum’s protagonist catches the viewer in a heart-rending bind. In a nighttime car park, a woman driver is caught without any means of escape. She needs help, her hands may be dirty from the things she has done, and the stories she is telling us are puzzling and incomplete. Are they truth or lies? The viewer becomes caught up in her escalating dilemma, and starts spinning round with her on a roundabout with no exit.

by Rupert Goldsworthy

Please press both play buttons. As part of the concept, the videos do not need to play simultaneously. In the video installation the videos played randomly.

„The Blind“ is adapted from Maurice Maeterlink’s surrealistic theater piece, The Blind. Stellbaum has altered the score and invented a libretto. (Gabriele Stellbaum plays all of the characters.)
„The Blind“:

After their guide mysteriously disappears, a group of blind people traveling in a forest are stranded. Distressed about time, danger and their possible doom, they wait anxiously for the return of their guide who had in fact died.

The characters communicate across the screens, while at the same time creating a play of one person talking to herself, as if she is a poetic lunatic. The images appear emotionally restrained; their words are whispered, spo- ken without addressing anybody and sung in a stoic manner. The facial expressions of the blind do not agree with the customary meaning of the spoken words and generate a sense of unreality and obscure associations. The work explores how we define our world through sight and how the absence of sight redirects our experience though our tactile and auditory senses. Stellbaum integrates slowness into the movements of the blind, who reside in a more or less static position on stage, while their thoughts, expressed through the spoken or sung words create the real drama and the overall sense of isolation and lack of direction.