stéphanie katz - a point of view here, from elsewhere /text

a point of view here, from elsewhere /by stéphanie katz

A text about the work of Ulrich Polster

Everything occurs as if Ulrich Polster had the means to transversally apprehend different image arrangements1: something similar to an imperceptible step to the side that allows him to talk to us about images of here, from a standpoint somewhere else.

Born in 1963 in Frankenberg, in the G.D.R., he belongs to that generation of artists from Eastern Germany who had to deal with the economic, cultural and aesthetic downfall provoked by the fall of the Soviet Empire and the opening of this other Europe to the West. Following a preliminary assimilation period of western proposals and the wearing out of the novelty effect, this generation of creators came to redefine their own aesthetic heritage, a movement that can now offer an original look at contemporary visual material.

Let us thus take a look at here from elsewhere as directly introduced by the work, Frost (I). The modern city is really there and watches us, roamed in every direction by the flow of walking bodies and the paths of vehicles, by times of uncertainty and plans that rhythm the luminous pleas of artificial lighting continually being extinguished and resurrected. But this fluid town planning, that we recognize, is nevertheless observing us from a night that is its own, a night that seems to imperceptibly slow the city down, as though heavied by another memory, a memory that is not passed on by this consensual model of the present world. A night scrutinizing us from its headlights, traffic lights and its multiple brilliances that accentuate an invisible écran2 erected between this world and we who are observing it. A surface effect crushes all light rays coming from this ever-so-close-over-there, flattening them against an elusive glass that wants to protect the viewer from this twilight. And the editing sheds light on this frightening oddness of the identical and the other, progressively opening the film’s narration onto the backlighting of industrial ruins, sinister monsters abandoned to themselves within a nature that is anarchically taking back its rights. The mourning of an Empire is under way, owing to a work of memory that selects its heritage. This is what, rising from another temporality and signed by A. Tarkovski’s aesthetic, certain shots of childhood reveal, evoking the texture of reminiscence and the ambiguities of remembrance.
But again these car headlights offer a strange visual arrangement. They are able to combine a paradoxical effect to this initial dazzling sight that radiates a surface-écran, one where a hole burning the image opens backwards towards its pure light. At the same time, these same headlights nevertheless illuminate the disclosed city, creating the illusion of depth of field. As a result, the image offered seems like a true urban night scene, stuck between a background of incandescence and a radiating face. It is here, originating in an image-caisson3 and trapped between an infinite background of light and the glass of an insurmountable, transparent écran, that the entire Polster-device, presented by the artist in a variety of ways from one work to another, is tied together.

Arrangements face-to-face

This articulation between content, container and surface is to be understood through the contrast between the globalized western arrangement of the visible on one hand, and the heritage of the image of oriental thought4 on the other. Whereas the West conceives the representation beginning with a narrative screen that represents infinity as a vanishing point within its frame, the East contemplates an entirely different arrangement. Denying the requirements of resemblance that give rise to the narrative, the eastern conception of the visible is based on an écran-articulation, capable of designating the unrepresentable, it cannot contain, as a horizon. Opening on an off-frame, the eastern image, which partly marks the aesthetic memory of the European East, sees itself as a mediation zone between the figure5 and the infinite, directing itself towards without delimiting.
Seen from this angle, Ulrich Polster’s historical position generates an original approach to contemporary visual material and plays upon the confrontation between the different image arrangements. Freshly impregnated with the globalized western machine of the visible, Polster attempts to place his eastern iconic heritage face-to-face to it. As a result, a new hybrid arrangement of the image, one that we could qualify as ultra-contemporary, seeks to construct itself within his work. Eager to combine the original image arrangement with its ultimate transformations, or the unrepresentable of the visible with the narration of the representation, Polster’s approach speculates on a confrontation clashing with the different ways of looking. From this quasi-political bias ensues the proposal for a confrontation between mainstream western arrangements and forgotten eastern ones, as achieved with Fragments V.
Surrounded by different types of écrans, the viewer is first disoriented by the fragmentation of what appears and the mismatch of aesthetics and intentions. The close-up of a face of a violoncellist playing Bach, a closed fist that calms and opens, the floor that is pulled out from under a man’s step, and a woman’s knee that attacks him, together, shape the battlefield of a visual and sonorous war, a war between the sexes, between the intimate and the public, between the façade and the secret. Due to the fragmented aspect of the proposal, the visual whole formed by these images enters a dimension of the distanced and the void. However, the disarticulation imposed by the fact that the editing, framing and projection have been separated into pieces makes it possible for the viewer to avoid passively bearing the violence of the confrontation. Rather, it forces him to get involved in the gaping openness of the arrangement to make his own interpretation. At this point, the video proposal has its meaning, without yet engaging in a confrontation of the arrangements. It is only when the fragile installation supporting a small screen, marginalised by its spatial layout, is discovered that we understand that another typology of seeing is at work. A bare tree envelopped by the dance of a crepuscular fog evokes the melancholic state of another loss, another Sacrifice. Again within the arrangement, we find A. Tarkovski’s aesthetics installing the proposal of a biface écran: supporting an image suspended between the figure’s luminous great beyond and an appearance designed as a remant, a left-over of what exceeds it. From one war to another, the small melancholic eye of the floating screen seems to observe the great official quarrel animating the world, underscoring the vanity of its race to power. From the narration halting with conflict, to the pure light that nourishes the back of the “Tarkovskian” image, the viewer oscillates between recognition and incertitude. A stratified écran inlaying emptiness within the clashing flow of images, a biface écran sustained by a light impossible to look at directly, and an audio écran articulating the visible with the audible of the conflict, together, construct the account of a contemporary violence of images.

A clashing aesthetic

This presentation of the visible in crisis is already intensified in Crisis, a true metaphorical application of the war between the sexes to the crisis of the image. A door, a corridor, a tense couple at a table in a silent face-to-face gives way to a variation on the impossibility to reconcile differences. Like the image-caisson already set up by Polster, the inside of the room staging the represented scene does not connect with its outside, the corridor. The front door that separates the two worlds does not open, alternatively trapping the female figure inside or outside the scene. The content of the conflict itself can not manage to rise to the surface of its container, the individual. Overpowered by the impermeable structure of their universe, the two protagonists can not succeed in crossing the borders of the visible and audible in order to solve the crisis. Thus, it is the production’s point of view that attempts to assist them by abandoning the logic of depth, that which determines an infront-of-the-door and a behind-the-door, and wagering on a frontal whirling of the surface of the image. In a game of stratifying shots, the door, the profile of the table and figures spin on a central axis, as though to use a centrifugal energy to break up the system of confinement. However, nothing breaks and the sequence ends with the female figure attempting to cross this transparent écran, which is nothing more than the surface of the image, that separates her from us, the viewers. In turns, inside and outside, infront and behind, intimate ruminations and silence, high angle shot and low angle shot, shot and reverse shot, shadow and light construct a clashing aesthetic that poses the image as a lovers’ quarrel with no way out. More importantly, the way the crisis of the visible is set up installs the écran’s power to structure the image with an impassable distancing. Just as the protagonists can not manage to leave this closed territory, the viewer cannot intervene and manipulate the visible to help them escape the representation. The image establishes itself in all its autonomy, both tyrannical and revealing an unrepresentable crisis.

Variation of écrans and variable écrans

A group of works can be interpreted as an exploration of the different circumstances in which the écran is posed. Tormented by a constituent ambiguity, the écran proposed by Ulrich Poster oscillates between the intrusion that he grants to the eye of the viewer and the impenetrability of the zone of representation.

The opaque écran

With Esel, Polster sets the viewer to the test of an enigma. In changing landscapes that evolve from an abandoned group of huts in an urban area to a seaside cliff, a motionless donkey is filmed in a series of long static shots. The imposing duration of the shots combined with the animal’s stasis makes the observer ask himself a series of questions. The smallest quiver of the fur being an event, one begins to wonder what could possibly be going on behind this dark thickness that occupies the animal to the point where it does not seem to notice time passing. It is only a bit later that the contrast between this sample of unprocessed nature represented by the donkey and the abandoned urban area that constitutes its environment establishess itself. Once again, nature and culture, eternity and the ephemeral, movement and stillness, duration and the instant unite to fuel a scenario in a conflicting mode, a scenario that does not seek to solve anything. As a result, the donkey becomes the perfect metaphor for an impenetrable image, giving up mere shudders from its surface, rising from the end of time and crossing the tribulations of the history of mankind.

The transparent écran

Locked up in his transparent box, the “guard of the image” in Die Verachtung waits for eternity and is bored. He is watching the passing lights that, above his monitor, reflect on the surface of our image. Thus, between him and us, the disparity between eternal and present allows for a veritable scenography of the impenetrable and transparent écran as already witnessed in Polster’s work. The image reveals itself as the presentation of a non-historical temporality, both visible and untouchable. As though to sign this system of distance and the visible, the voice of Brigitte Bardot6 offers the eye of fantasy fragments of her desirable body. And the viewer hears the entire disillusion weighing the replies of Michel Piccoli, who, though answering affirmatively in the game between the exhibitionist and the voyeur, hints at the loss of interest to come. For it is this very character shut up within himself, as in his glass cage, who answers us, us the Bardot-viewer, the seeker of the eye. Like an amourous rendez-vous that is always being postponed, the viewer’s eye seeks to capture that of the image; however, the image, itself blind, seems to reply from too far away, in a disinterested mode. This is the entire waltz of frustration necessary to the mechanism of the visible that is being established, a mechanism of desire weaved with delays and distancing.

The écran torn with desire

This writing of the flaw that fuels the desiring dynamics of the visible is taken on in a systematic way in Sadowaya. Through an aesthetical variation on all the jumps the digital screen is capable of producing, a man and a woman look for each other, touch lightly, find and miss one another. The editing is beaded with black écrans that embed vacancies of uncertainty between the never-accomplished reunions. Rejecting any suggestion of a psychological portrait, the artist does not reveal any faces, nor looks, only hands lightly touching, steps meeting, turning backs, faint smiles. Right up to its unfocused frame, the écran again stages the essential shortcoming in desire by playing upon its lamé texture: some hair becomes entangled, Nature splits up the color shots, and movement blurs the references. Against a background of unfulfilled desire, the image weaves itself on a landscape of non-fulfilment and failure.

The narrative cut out of the écran

Within his project of making connections between different image arrangements, Polster does not settle on insisting on this image-caisson revealing the shortcomings of the unrepresentable. He also wants to question the operating value of more universally known arrangements. Thus in an explicit reference to Alberti’s window “open to the world”, 22.6.2001 inverts the proposal by closing the world within the window frame.
In a close-up shot, a still camera widely frames a window opened against a roughcast façade in such a way that the wall’s granular texture seems to rise to the image’s surface while the window becomes a hole. This insistence on the wall’s haptic value is placed in contrast with the depth disclosed by the window frame, a depth that is itself blocked by the back wall in the apartment. Polster signals the viewer, henceforth initiated, that he is faced with this specific arrangement that offers a variety of instances of an image-caisson.
The narration’s course begins in the window frame when the one who lives behind the opaque écran formed by the wall enters the scene. In 22.6.2001, the écran is not really opaque as in Esel, nor completely transparent as in Die Verachtung, nor clipped as in Sadowaya. Here Polster accurately takes up the arrangement of a window cut out of an opaque écran, like a cut-out sampled on the wall’s impermeability. The man yawns, looks at what is happening in the street, and lights a cigarette without ever meeting the eye of the camera that he does seem to see. Belonging to an inside world, he appears to lean out of the écran toward an outside world, yet is unconscious of the world of the viewer. The uneasiness intensifies with the arrival of the second character, his wife, for we see them talking together without hearing their voices, even though we distinguish birds singing and sounds in the street very clearly. And what if our position as viewer, behind the eye of the camera, is also confined in the image? The arrangement of the visible would be that of an infinite stratification of the world: an internal stratum with the image behind the wall, an intermediary stratum of agitation, unframed though invisible (life perhaps), and on the other shore of this off-camera flow, a stratum of the voyeur, the designer of the image, analyzing games of frames and of screens from a distance. The power of such an arrangement lies in its double capacity: whereas it underscores the role of the unrepresentable that is not accessible to the frame, it does not close itself within an abstract disfiguration and manages to build the narrative scene. Without taking up the illusionist perspective arrangement of Italian theatre, this stratified thickness of the image knows equally as much about how to relate the course of a slice of life as to underscore what escapes the frame. Such an image signs its fragility while displaying the world.

The audio écran

If visible territory can be understood in terms of this model of stratified thickness, how is it the viewer never manages to feel comfortable, but rather distanced, within the image’s volume? Can we not consider visiting the couple in 22.6.2001 or enter into their living room? This type of idea of immersion within the écran’s thickness is not typical of Ulrich Polster’s approach, but is, to the contrary, the subject of a large number of contemporary researches. What is remarkable here is the response Polster gives to this project of an intrusion within the écran.
With Atem, Polster constructs an audio écran so to make a space where the viewer can be recieved at the heart of the arrangement. Seated between a giant projection screen and a stage, the public can enter the imagination of a flutist. On the projection screen, hands wrought with age, other hands seizing and caressing different flutes in a thousand ways, a child’s mouth hesitating between blowing, sucking, and licking the instrument plot the mapping of a secret musical erotic. On the stage behind the public, the instrumentalist lays down her multiple flutes. During the projection, she brings each one to life, one after another, coloring the images of her intimate relationship with the instrument. Once all of the instruments have been visited, she progressively distances herself from the projection, so as to open the spatial volume in which the public, held between the silent sights and the sound stage, is shrouded. Underlining this dissipation of the short-lived audio écran, the direction lifts the projection upward toward the stage, progressively erasing the reception area for the public.
In this way, a territory open to the viewer is elaborated within the heart of the arrangement of the visible. All the same, there is never question of entering the image that, during the entire performance, asserted itself as frontal and untouchable. Only the audio écran, revealing itself as an imaginary thickness, underscores the unrepresentable’s distance, which always supports the visible. At the heart of this écran, the public has perceived the erotic shock that articulates the visible and the audible, i.e. the representation and the unrepresentable.

The écran, a site for all transformations

Such a journey following the instances of the image-caisson, as set up by the Polster-device, leads to a new way of thinking: the image stands; it is the écran that changes in a metamorphic way. Indeed, if the écran makes itself available to so many variations, isn’t it because it is the energy core that upholds all of the appearances of the image?
The Metamorphosen project resides in this demonstration. As suggested by modifications within the setting of the digital screen, a woman passes through the seasons while walking up the perspective of a forest path. A true metaphor, she is like the image that changes from the fictive realistic depth of a perspectivist screen right up to the digital screen’s surface disturbance. Punctuating the narration, an incomprehensible, color image appears and sporadically interrupts the walk. It is only later that the editing makes it possible to see that the image is that of a burning mask, curling up like a slough, alternatively revealing either other underlying masks or a screen with a hole in it, no longer concealing anything. In this way, the wandering image, oscillating between realistic mimetism and synthetic reconstruction, hesitates between a stratified narrative écran and a boundary écran eclipsing the image’s unrepresentable beyond. Threatened by these two limits of the visible spectrum, the image continues to wander along a variation of écran-arrangements without hesitation.

Stephanie Katz is a philosopher and lives in Paris

  1. 1) Translator’s note: The French term, dispositif, is translated throughout the text as arrangement. The author defines dispositif as the place granted to the viewer’s gaze by the structure of the image. Many of the terms used in this text have been elaborated by the author in Ecran, de l’icône au virtuel. La résistance de l’infigurable. L’Harmattan, Paris, 2004.

  2. 2) Translator’s note: Ecran is generally translated either as screen or monitor, however meaning of this term as developed in her book is specific. The author defines an image-écran as a biface arrangement that articulates the visible and the invisible, what can and can not be represented.

  3. 3) Translator’s note: This term, which is often translated as lightbox, refers to a kind of imaginary thickness within the screen.

  4. 4) Here, we are referring to an implicit heritage of the icon tradition which, born in Byzantium, spread to Venice and Crete, crossing Orthodox tradition territories. During the Soviet system, Eastern Europe artists were confronted by this concept of the image. Thus we are not dealing with the non-iconic tradition of another East.

  5. 5) For the author, this term refers to the “image’s visible” yet involves both a mimetic representation and/or an abstract expression. Throughout the text, representation will be used to designate this meaning of this term. In the same way, unrepresentable will be used when the author uses infigurable.

  6. 6) Soundtrack from the motion picture, Le mépris, by J.L Godard. [return]