BY Matthew McLean in Opinion | 14 NOV 23
Featured in
Issue 239

Princess Diana as Lutz Bacher Saw Her

On the occasion of the artist’s retrospective at Raven Row, London, Matthew McLean revisits Untitled (Diana)

BY Matthew McLean in Opinion | 14 NOV 23

The graphic in the corner reads ‘LIVE’ but the story is done, the action passed. The princess is dead. VHS, the medium on which the footage was recorded, is defunct too, and the world of broadcast media changed drastically since this event: the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, in London’s Westminster Abbey in 1997.

Lutz Bacher, Untitled (Diana), 1997
Lutz Bacher, Untitled (Diana), 1997, video still. Courtesy: Estate of Lutz Bacher and Galerie Buchholz

In Lutz Bacher’s Untitled (Diana) (1997), a short clip of the broadcast plays on loop. In it, Diana’s coffin glides into the Abbey like a barge. The angle of the camera shifts, so the object of vision lurches and slides strangely. I had to watch many times to clock the moment when the background transitions from chipped stone stairs to a sea of black and white tiles. A cross carried ahead of the procession bobs at the edge of the frame; at times, the coffin seems about to catch up to it, but never quite does.

An imperial juggernaut of sorts, draped in the Royal Standard, it also bears the word ‘Mummy’

Though more sensual and transcendent, Untitled (Diana) reminds me of Bacher’s My Penis (1992), which runs a snatch of William Kennedy Smith’s defence testimony in a 1991 rape trial into a continuous staccato loop. In each work, media spectacle is dissolved into a play of chauvinist grandiosity, hubris and frailty. Diana’s coffin is carried by a phalanx of eight, neatly groomed, good-looking, uniformed male soldiers. An imperial juggernaut of sorts, draped in the Royal Standard, it also bears one tender word handwritten on crisp white paper: ‘Mummy’.

In my 20s, I tried to think about my mother’s death daily, hoping that, as regular doses of poison might build immunity, I could inure myself to its inevitability. But I still don’t have any sense of what my mother dying will feel like. It’s as unreachable to me as Diana, lying behind flag, wood and lead. In a scene from the television show Succession (2018–23), one character breaks down during his father’s funeral, glances at the coffin and asks: ‘Is he in there?’ Anyone who’s been to a funeral, seen how implausibly small a coffin can appear, may relate.

Lutz Bacher, Book of Sand, 2011-12
Lutz Bacher, The Book of Sand, 2011–12, 'Lutz Bacher: AYE!', 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: Estate of Lutz Bacher and Galerie Buchholz; photograph: Anne Tetzlaff

The artist’s husband, Donald C. Backer, an astrophysicist, died in 2010. I wonder how much of the next near-decade, before Bacher’s own passing in 2019, she spent mourning. With its emphasis on sound, the Raven Row exhibition feels deeply haunted, full of disembodied voices, eerie instruments, a room of horses’ mute throats, the soft echo of steps on sand. Sound, according to Merriam-Webster, is ‘mechanical radiant energy’ – an apt description of Bacher’s work – which is ‘transmitted by longitudinal pressure waves in a material medium’. In my stupider moments, I wonder: where does sound go? If you screamed in space, would your cry end up somewhere? The soundtrack to Untitled (Diana) is all bells, ceaselessly tolling.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 239 with the headline ‘Is She in There?

Main image: Lutz Bacher, Horses (4),(5),(6),(7),(8),(9), 2008, 'Lutz Bacher: AYE!', 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: Estate of Lutz Bacher and Galerie Buchholz

Matthew McLean is creative director at Frieze Studios. He lives in London, UK.