claus löser - heimweh nach limbo /text

homesick for limbo – observations on ulrich polster’s videos and installations /by claus löser

All of the milestone in cinema history have derived their energy from a basic contradiction. Amid public proclamations of the greatest possible intimacy, they realize what in effect are impossibilities. By practicing exhibitionism they simultaneously create protective spheres for what is private and personal. Authentic films always act for this reason as accumulators of what are actually incompatible spheres. And through this they realize their utopias. From the profanity of our involuntarily experienced here and now, cinema is able thanks to its specific means of reflection to create something new, a third reality. In the ideal case this media-bound space emancipates from its author, creates a sphere of its own between so-called genuine reality and the apparatus for its intellectual mastery.

Transcendency holds sway. Which is to say: a state appears in which the artist is forced to concede a greater wisdom to his artwork than he or she is personally able to articulate in words. But cinema is merely a synonym of this subtle state, and one moreover that is being increasingly discredited. Its complex mode of production requires staff and materials in abundance, and thus a great deal of money. And the essentially banal phrases about how money corrupts weak characters can scarcely receive more dramatic proof than from a glimpse of the current film scene and its practitioners.

Jean-Luc Godard, more of an unknown in those circles, said in his remarks to his Every man for himself: “So which train should you take? At which station should you get on? How can you find a job that allows you to play a bit of music of your own instead of always just accompanying the others? That is exactly what it’s about. About autonomy. About the possibility of articulation, beyond the relentless sprawl of cycles of reproduction. It is not by accident that Ulrich Polster’s early artistic output was realized using the narrowest of film gauges, Super 8 film. Intended in the GDR for recording holiday impressions on the Baltic or celebrations by the Young Pioneers, from the late seventies onward the medium was vigorously maltreated by artists such as A.R. Penck, Helge Leiberg and Cornelia Schleime. With a childish glee that can still be felt, these trail-blazers toppled the at that time inviolable monopoly of real-socialist image production from its throne at Babelsberg (DEFA) and Adlershof (GDR television).

I got to known Ulrich Polster in the early eighties in his home town in Saxony, Hainichen, on one of those evenings replete with alcohol and informers that were spent showing each other our films. It was only logical that we hit upon the medium of Super 8, which had languished for some time in obscurity. The narrowest of film formats advanced to become the ideal medium for subversive articulation. Buying, exposing and screening the films turned out to be very practical. Fairly cheap to buy and simple to use (it always captured something), the fascination of the film derived moreover from the circumstances in which it was shown: anyone who wanted to see the products had to know first of all just where and when they were being shown. The creation of a place full of conspirative potential, which actually accompanies every screening of a film, underwent yet a further boost in value in the GDR – as in every totalitarian society. “Subversion in cinema starts when the theatre darkens and the screen lights up,  for the cinema is a place of magic where psychological and environmental factors combine to create an openness to wonder and suggestion, an unlocking of the unconscious… The auditorium becomes a shrine at which modern rituals rooted in atavistic memories and subconscious desires are acted out in darkness and seclusion from the outer world. The power of the image, our fear of it, the thrill that pulls us toward it, is real.” So writes Amos Vogel in his standard work Film as a Subversive Art. Once again it is no accident that Ulrich Polster photographed all 335 pages of this book in the early eighties in order to provide access to him and his friends to a work that was not available in the GDR.

When the East German subculture discovered this film stock as a medium for articulation, it executed a side-step that was to have a lot of impact. With what in fact was a ridiculous set of instruments – which could never be taken seriously by the “proper” film makers at the state film studios – the East German prohibition on image-making was circumvented. Tiny galleries, apartments and ironically even church premises transcended themselves to become the kind of sanctuaries Vogel describes and unleashed their subversive potential. With this make-shift technology, a high degree of dissent was posited vis-à-vis the prevailing imagery: an autonomous reality was pitted against the state’s indoctrinaire films. Counter-images, as Elias Canetti wrote in The Human Province, are more important than models. The counter-images created by the artists who used film in the late GDR resulted through their technical shortcomings in aesthetic merits of their very own. Since it was in any case impossible to attain the professional standards of conventional film makers, they perfected the make-shift. The narrow films were exposed repeatedly, scratched, painted over and perforated, and the erratic film transport system, the chronic discolouring, and the under- and overexposures expanded to become wilfully employed stylistic devices. It was a pretty paradox that precisely the unfinished, faulty and damaged material in these works brought about their most important creative side.

Ulrich Polster’s early Super 8 films films Metamorphosen and Crisis (both filmed in 1987 in Hainichen and Karl-Marx-Stadt – present-day Chemnitz) can be assigned on the one hand to this tradition of East German artist films. He, too, made specific use of interventions on the material level, painted over individual sequences, and experimented with the photographic negative and multiple exposures. In Metamorphosen he split the already narrow film down the centre and pieced the now four millimetre fragments together in new combinations – and arrived at his own forms of the split screen technique and cut-up montage. On the other hand, these films differ in content from those of his colleagues, because they have a clear analytic slant and revolve around psycho-social phenomena like the loss of communication engendered by the media, or interpersonal alienation. Polster is concerned less with self-presentation than with the attempt to subject the realities he finds to a process of vivisection by means of the cinematic perspective. To the brooding music of Kryzstof Penderecki, he directs his attention to the crises of personal being, and looks for possibilities for emergence and metamorphosis.

It is an experience in the East that remains quite noticeable – first as trauma, then as empty space. In Ulrich Poster’s current video pieces, we find a continuation of the experiences and stylistic devices from his Super 8 experiments. As regard content, he has in any case remained true to himself. And in formal terms a yearning for the “grubby images” of his own artistic past is unmistakable. Video images tend in principal towards an aseptic cleanliness. In order to overcome that, the videoist Polster has recalled the possibilities of optical mirrorings. But he places more emphasis on the deliberate use of errors and bewilderment than on employing all of the digital gimmicks that are now available. Even the choice of locations must be viewed from this angle. His gaze is directed chiefly to the east and the north, where he finds a backdrop that has still to be co-opted by the aesthetic dictatorship of western consumerism. When as in Subway (2000) he appears to have made a film about New York, he is more interested in the Russian aspect than the American. Frost cites Tarkowski, shows documentary footage of a scene that has frozen into slow motion. Likewise his installations are studded time and again with visual motifs with an autobiographical colouring. He sets out in search of auratic traces in the architectural ruins of “forgotten works” (Walter Benjamin), as in Das Loch in der Wand [The Hole in the Wall], or Zum Stier von Flandern [At the Bull of Flanders]. Much as is true of decay, slowness and suspended time are omnipresent. While in conversation with Alexander Kluge, Heiner Müller referred to the “lethargy of the East” that oozed out over the West after the opening of the Berlin wall: three days after 9 November 1989, the majority of escalators in West Berlin were broken. Gliding along rails at a measured pace, with the occasional interruption, was one of the primal transport experiences for everyone who were socialized behind the Iron Curtain. There were few private cars, and flights were likewise out of the question. Anyone who wanted or had to travel did so with the train and with that delivered themselves up to the imponderable caprices of the railway service. Rail joints, such as those in Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, lent structure to Ulrich Polster’s thoughts and films. Which is also why trains are so often to be seen in his films, and angles are preferred that that could be or genuinely are viewed by someone travelling in a train. Polster himself wrote in his thesis: “Travel not as the conquest of distances but as the experience of differences.”

Ingmar Bergman originally wanted to call what is possibly his most important film, The Silence from 1963, “Timoka”. The Estonian word describes a state of transition between the here and the beyond, a condition between life and death – which is to say: it is a Baltic synonym for the Latin “limbo”. Bergman gave this mysterious name to the town in which the two sisters and the child find themselves stranded after a train journey (!). The atmosphere is marked by intimations of impending war, which casts its spell over everything. The actors in this apocalyptic film seem to be as doomed to destruction as the city of Timoka itself. Ulrich Polster took the name of this imaginary city for his academic thesis in 1999 at the Kunsthochschule Leipzig. Timoka was also the name he selected for an installation he created in 2000. For him the concept is borne by its dialectic. Positive and negative components mingle together in the ambivalence of transition, and through the artistic process undergo synthesis. The outcome is nothing less than utopia – a genuinely existing no-place between the spheres of perception. Which is precisely that “third reality” mentioned at the beginning. Ulrich Polster comes closest to this ideal in his video film Le chambre bleu. This blue space of the imagination brings together places from former and current presences (Paris, USA, Russia, Leipzig), as well as images of people close to him, with other visual and acoustic elements (animals, ruins,landscapes, visual quotations and acoustic citations) to create a free-floating collage. Abandoned places always appear richer here than the populated ones, because they are populated after all by associations and memories.

Claus Löser is a film critic/film historian and lives in Berlin