BY Jennifer Allen in Features | 27 FEB 12
Featured in
Issue 4

Real to Reel

Ulrike Ottinger’s films fuse the genres of fantasy and documentary. Yet the origins of this fusion lie in another medium: painting

BY Jennifer Allen in Features | 27 FEB 12

Unter Schnee, 2011 (Courtesy: the artist)

It’s hard to sum up an Ulrike Ottinger film. The age-old story of ‘Boy meets girl’ becomes a twisted tale of ‘Girl hawking shoes in a department store with dwarfs changes from a cyclops into a two-headed man-woman with a gift of song’. That’s just the beginning of Ottinger’s Freak Orlando (1981). This classic appears to be inspired by Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando: A Biography (about a man who gets eternal life at the price of episodically turning into a woman). While androgyny and metamorphoses figure prominently, Ottinger’s take is far from Sally Potter’s adaptation Orlando (1992). Freak Orlando is an allegory about freaks in the city, from hermaphrodites and dwarfs to Siamese twins and auto-flagellators. The plot is neither linear, nor multiple, but an overwhelming accumulation that resists narrative in the way dreams do. Too much – and not enough – happens to tell a coherent tale. Even the protagonist accumulates names with each episode to become a compound of aliases and fates: Orlanda Zyklopa, Orlando Orlanda, Capricho, Mr. / Freak / Mrs. Orlando.

Ulrike Ottinger, ca. 1966, (Photo: private)

While twisting tales, Ottinger confounds the distinction between fantasy and documentary. Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia (1989) follows a group of Western women travellers on a Trans-Siberian train who end up with a troop of nomadic Mongolian women warriors. The 165-minute epic depicts many ancient Mongolian rituals and superstitions – like hanging the wash outside to dry incites thunder storms – but the Western women seem more outdated with their retro clothes, old-world etiquette and repetoire of tired Broadway and cabaret tunes. The Korean Wedding Chest (2008) –
which captures one couple’s elaborate marriage ceremony, South Korean style – is closer to the classic ‘Boy meets girl’ plotline, but a voice-over tells the parable of two ginseng root lovers who must produce pictures of themselves to become a human couple. Sometimes fantasy and documentary are confounded by the subject matter itself. Prater (2007) – a history of Vienna’s fairground, with contemporary and historical photographs and film footage of the ghost rides, beer gardens and bearded ladies – offers yet another take on marriage, albeit shockingly surreal. A star attraction from around 1900 – a man without legs and arms – had to wed his sweetheart in Budapest since Viennese laws forbade the handicapped from marrying.

If Ottinger’s films create a dreamlike melange of fact and fiction, they seem closer to the collective unconscious of Jung’s archetypes – along with myths, fairy tales and rituals – than to the individual unconscious charted by Freud. Like the many hero/ines of Freak Orlando, the Korean couple are multipled as the film moves from their wedding portrait to the historical portraits of countless other couples. Along with fact and fiction, legends become intertwined. Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia recalls the French martyr Saint Joan of Arc. ‘Orlanda Zyklopa’ references Woolf and Homer while
her dwarfs recall Snow White’s companions; each auto-flagellator is dressed up as a sweet S&M Boy, but they act like religious fanatics observing an ancient rite of passage. With earlier efforts like Freak Orlando, Ottinger seems to have anticipated Matthew Barney’s oeuvre, although she is not the star of her films since her focus remains on the collective realm. Her films have a weirdness, long-windedness and exoticism, if not a touch of kitsch, which are visually addictive.

The latest film – Under Snow (2011) – has both an irreducible plotline and an irresistable lushness, which may make viewers feel as if they have been snowed into their cinema seats. Like Freak Orlando, Under Snow draws upon a literary reference: Suzuki Bokushi’s Hokuetsu Seppu (1837–42; Snow Stories of North Etsu Province), a description of daily life in Japan’s ‘snow country’ where winter lasts into May; the book includes languages, legends, drawings of snowflake crystals and 22 names for them. In the ethnographic spirit of Bokushi, Ottinger travelled to the region to capture the metamorphic hero – falling gently as flakes, slipping in mini-avalanches from the tops of pine trees, drifting off roofs, tumbling off shovels or melting on a bather’s back in a hot spring – which plays a decisive role in the inhabitants’ lives.

‘Floating Food’,
Installation View, 2011 (Photograph: Arwed Messmer)

One storyline follows two male students who take refuge from the cold at an old woman’s home. Ignoring their host’s warnings, they enter a forbidden room, only to be transformed into traditional Kabuki theater actors from the Edo period: now, man and wife. While the delicate couple wanders through the frosty landscape, their errings are offset by scenes of contemporary Japanese following various traditions: weaving reams of crepe, tossing a bridegroom into a snowdrift or playing badminton in a blizzard. The snow provides not only a temporal continuity between the past and the present but also a geographical continuity which makes all landmarks indistinguishable by covering them in one shade of silent white. With its power to neutralize space, time and even sound, snow appears as nature’s white cube. The film ends with fishermen adrift in tub boats, as if the white stuff had melted to form a cold, clear sea.

Instead of a split between fantasy and documentary – the mythical and the everyday – Ottinger perceives a continuity which is part of both the cinematic tradition and the cultural practices which evolved with and through the overwhelming presence of snow. ‘The importance of magic and fairy tale is already evident in early Japanese cinema,’ she says: ‘the human imagination is always closely related to culture and everyday life. In the area around Echigo, where I filmed Under Snow, this becomes very clear. There is a quality of hardship to everyday life that obliges people to accomplish incredible feats of imagination, as well as calling for great intelligence and perseverance, if the prevailing conditions are to be mastered. And at the same time, they are capable of having a fantastic social life. These are things that always touch me deeply: when people face particular challenges, display extraordinary fortitude, and where fantasy then also plays a major role in their artistic work.’

Under Snow was premiered in fall 2011 during her exhibition ‘Floating Food’ at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt. To reflect on the link between food, culture and place, Ottinger turned the foyer into an elaborate water basin, inspired by the Cisterna Basilica in Istanbul, while creating temple-like tableaus in the exhibition space with found objects such as postcards, clips from her own films, ethnographical artefacts and even cinnamon sticks. Part of Asia-Pacific Week events, ‘Floating Food’ recognized Ottinger’s ongoing engagement with the region in Under Snow and many other films, like China: The Arts – The People (1985), Exil Shanghai (1997) or even Seoul Women Happiness (2008). Yet the exhibition was just one of many opportunities to delve into her work over the past year. The artist was awarded the 2011 Hannah Höch Prize, which led to a show at the Neue Berliner Kunstverein (NBK) with many works which have not been exhibited since the 1960s. A retrospective at Berlin’s Arsenal was followed by a Teddy Award at the Berlinale festival in February 2012. Of all these events, the NBK show – and its superb catalogue Ulrike Ottinger: Paris Pop (2011) – added the missing chapter to her oeuvre.

‘Floating Food’, 2011 (Courtesy: the artist)

Born in 1942 in Constance, Ottinger moved in 1962 to Paris, where she painted in the style of figuration narrative (narrative figuration), picked up etching skills from the artist Johnny Friedlaender and attended lectures by Claude Lévi-Strauss, Pierre Bourdieu and Louis Althusser. Indeed, the colourful style of figuration narrative, the attention to manual skills and the socio-ethnographic insights still come across in her films. In the wake of the turbulent events of May 1968, Ottinger not only left Paris but also gave up painting. She returned to Constance to co-found the filmclub visuell and the gallery-publisher galeriepress in 1969. While she wrote her first screen play in Paris in 1966 – ‘The Mongolian Double Draw’ – she completed her first film Laocoon and Sons in 1973 with Tabea Blumenschein. The NBK played a minor role in her decisive shift to film. After moving to West Berlin in 1973, she made a documentary of Wolf Vostell’s Berlin-Fever (1973). Vostell had orchestrated the happening for ‘ADA – Aktionen der Avantgarde’ (Avant-Garde Actions), an exhibition co-hosted by NBK, Berliner Festspiele and DAAD.

With a drawing in the new NBK catalogue, Ottinger renamed her 2011–12 show ‘Paris-Berlin et le monde entier’ (and the entire world). Her Paris Pop paintings – including three-dimensional fold-out panels and a female bust – fuse military, consumer and mystical symbols, like flying missiles, shaving foam and all-seeing eyes, which all manifest the decade’s media landscape of war protests, advertising and hippie esoterica. Yet the paintings also recall films, albeit rudimentary ones. Ottinger painted from photographs, but she often reproduced them as sequences which look more like films or comic strips than paintings. The four-panel acrylic Bubble Gum (1966) is based on a 1965 photo session of Ottinger chewing gum; an untitled self-portrait from 1966 mimics a photo booth session but looks like a three-frame ‘film’, outfitted with sprocket holes. Making films about the entire world was perhaps Ottinger’s answer to the events of May 1968: a total retreat from political painting and an expansion into marginalized cultures, both close and far away. Fittingly, the ‘Berlin’ section of the exhibition featured Freak Orlando – Bilderpartitur (Freak Orlando – Pictorial Notation, 1973–81): a 3×6 metre collection of over one hundred (mostly black and white) images which double as documents of and research for the film. Photographs of actors and Berlin locations are juxtaposed with images of political executions, circus stars and old etchings of anatomical deformities. While the entire work appears as a storyboard, Ottinger’s title ‘Bilderpartitur’ suggests a score: still images waiting
to be animated by music.

Freak Orlando, 1981 (Courtesy: the artist)

This work – fixed images, storyboard and musical score, all rolled into one – manifests the conflicting role of time in Ottinger’s films. While mixing fact and fiction, she attempts to overcome the tension between the linear, mechanical time of film and the repetitive, natural cycles of rituals, traditions, myths. Whatever is filmed – fact or fiction, daily life or history –the reel unwinds one frame after the other, in the progressive temporality of modernization which has eradicated the practices of countless traditional cultures. In short, Ottinger’s modern means of production can only clash with her mythical subject matter.

Jennifer Allen is a writer and critic based in Berlin.