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Bear Girls | Bärenmädchen

Ute Behrend in conversation with Barbara Hofmann-Johnson

Ute Behrend uses the medium of photography to sound out peculiar narrative worlds, with a subtle sense for poetic and formal relationships that is both atmospheric and aesthetic. Following a visual concept, in which two images from different realities, and in some cases staged scenes, are paired narratively with one another, she creates allusions to themes such as portrait and nature, or implies, on a small scale, cultural references. In her current series Bear Girls, which is presented in this publication, the Cologne-based artist tackles the topic of female adolescence in her own unique associative way. As an alternative to the stereotypes of sexualised identification shaped by society and the media, Ute Behrend’s Bear Girls inhabit an archetypal natural environment and safe space, which isolates them, making them appear poetically timeless when compared to common patterns of socialisation. She describes her new work group in conversation.

Barbara Hofmann-Johnson: The work group presented in this publication is a continuation of your photographic concept, in which you pair images, set them in dialogue with one another, and place details from different settings and global contexts in narrative and atmospheric relation to one another. What is the idea you are pursuing with the current series of Bear Girls?

Ute Behrend: In my earlier projects I photographed a lot in my immediate surroundings. When my daughters started to grow up, the theme of adolescence also became increasingly interesting for me in my artistic work.
I already knew various pieces of work on this topic and thought I should do something other than just taking photographs of pretty young people and perhaps also their living environments.
My daughters’ behaviour was pretty “normal” in comparison with the common clichés. What was striking was that they were interested in their father’s wardrobe. They
were especially attracted to big pullovers and strangely enough they bought jars of baby food, which they would eat with their friends.
I remembered that I was like this too.
There were also other girls in our circle of friends: those who were happy to face the challenge of growing up, who were intensively occupied with their feminine attractiveness and who dressed provocatively sexy. But they weren’t at all aware that they represented a sexual attraction. Literature is full of girls like this. Nabokov’s Lolita is just one example. Television also regularly likes to use the young-girl cliché. These girls actually pop up all the time in all possible contexts. It always has something to do with desire, often with the possibility of earning money, seldom with the girls themselves. I found this noteworthy in its extreme form, but rather uninteresting, because it has often been represented in this way.
What I found a lot more interesting was how the girls I knew, in the large pullovers, distanced themselves instinctively from sexualised behavioural patterns and evaded the pressure that was exerted on them by the media, the advertising industry or fellow pupils or whatever else.
I thought of a book by John Irving, Hotel New Hampshire. In it there’s a young woman who dresses herself in a bearskin after being raped so that she can’t be seen. The fur protects her and grants her the freedom she needs to develop her own unique self and to process the terrible experience.
Barbara Kerr explored the similarities between girls who later became strong women in Smart Girls, Gifted Women 1. She found that all of the girls had had time for themselves, as well as the ability to fall in love with an idea, and that they had a “protective mantle”. None of them was particularly popular and most of them were relatively isolated within their peer group, not because that was what they wanted, but because they had been rejected. Interestingly, it was precisely this rejection that gave them a freedom, from within which their uniqueness could develop.
I picked up the motif of the bearskin and had it reappear in a fictional Native American tribe in Canada. There the adolescent girls are dressed in large bearskins to protect them and to give them freedom for their own personal development.

1 Mary Pipher: Pubertätskrisen junger Mädchen, FISCHER Taschenbuch, 2003, Frankfurt am Main

BHJ: As I mentioned earlier, you work with associatively paired pictures that present different motifs. Sometimes the link is clear, but sometimes there is no direct reference to the title of the series. Could you describe your working method, the selection of the pictures and the pairing process? Were the photographs taken specifically for this new series of pictures or selected for the project later on?

UB: In my photographs I either capture moments spontaneously or research in advance and consciously stage situations. I always work with a given theme. Things that I see or scenes that I experience remind me of pictures in my memory. Time and again there are similarities that repeat in other contexts and forms. I can find the pictures at home or in far-off places. I have known many of the young women that I have photographed for this work for a long time. I looked for places that, in my imagination, fitted to the girls. I spoke to other girls when I saw them, and took their photos there and then. All of the pictures are taken specifically for this piece. That includes all of the nature pictures too. The finished photographs are then put in a pool before I pair them off. They must first prove themselves for a while before they are really integrated into the work—sometimes only a day, sometimes several weeks. From the beginning I photograph with the idea in my mind that the pictures should work in pairs. The perfect single image is for me, like in most of my work, unimportant. The potential of the picture is more important: the energy and the power that the picture has to point out, together with a second picture, a new aspect, another perspective in the work as a whole.

BHJ: Do you view the individual pairs of images independently, or should they be viewed as a whole, like a filmic sequence? Is there a narrative tension that implies how the series should be interpreted?

UB: Both are possible. There is a narrative tension and the interpretation is already prescribed by the book. But I wouldn’t compare it to a filmic sequence. I would rather compare myself to an author working with variations on a theme. There is a common thread and the storyline is illuminated anew and retold through various subthemes. I think of Annie Proulx. She told America’s immigration story using a green accordion that was passed on from family to family. Or Giovanni Boccaccio with the Decameron. Like the stories in Decameron, the individual pairs of images
in my work are also readable on their own.

BHJ: In terms of content, the emphasis of the image combinations is largely on the connection of moments in nature with the portraits of the various girls or also moments in nature with animals, which seem to act as stand-ins for human characteristics and existential sequences like in fables or fairy tales. How do you see the individual animals that become visual content in the series? What are the characteristics of the bear as the central motif of the series?

UB: The animals I photographed are primarily wild animals—animals that you can only see, if at all, from a distance in nature. When we do see them, they are very far away, so rather small in our visual frame. But in our conceptual world they are big, as if they were standing right in front of us. A telescopic lens could have reproduced this representation, but that wouldn’t have been the form of reality that interests me. I am fascinated by the wildness and freedom of these animals. They stay far away from humans for very good reasons. Many of them are greatly endangered. They are a bit like the girls I am talking about. They are wild and free and should be careful that they don’t get caught. You can only see them from a distance, you can’t own them and they need our protection.
The only animal that is depicted larger in the work is the bear.
The bear has a special place in mythology. It is the largest land predator and has always impressed humankind. It appears in cave paintings and as a constellation in the night sky, and it is seen as the king of the forest. As plantigrades, humans are very similar to bears. So in a way it makes sense for humans to disguise themselves as bears.
The Greek goddess of the hunt Artemis is sometimes represented as a bear. She is the protector of wild animals, of women and children and the pregnant. According to legend she could metamorphose into a bear. Artemis’s temple is in Brauron, a place near Athens, where two brothers had killed a holy bear. In her anger at this, Artemis sent a plague upon Athens. The goddess demanded the Athenians should bring all of their young girls to her. They were to serve her for five years. Artemis was a virgin goddess and her maids had to be virginal too. “The girls were called the little she-bears. They wore bearskins, did not wash or groom themselves and behaved ‘like savages’.” 2

2 http://www.traum-symbolika.com/das-traumlabor-wozu/matrizentrierte-mythologie, [18.07.2018];
Marie-Louise von Franz (BN 1369, 55-56)

Another variation of the story says that Artemis dressed her playmates in bearskins so that they couldn’t be seen by men. She was afraid of losing her friends to them. If they went with a man, they were cast out of the temple, regardless of whether it was a willing liaison or not. The story of Callisto, one of Artemis’s nymphs, is proof of this. She was raped by Zeus and cast out of the temple when it became apparent she was pregnant. She gave birth to the unwanted child and Hera, Zeus’s wife, became jealous and transformed her into a bear. When Callisto found her son after 15 years and wanted to embrace him, he tried to kill her. She was a bear and he didn’t recognise her. Zeus prevented this by banishing them both to the night sky as constellations. Unfortunately the bearskin wasn’t disguise enough for Callisto. Zeus had seen her beauty nonetheless and used his power to own her.
In the fairy tale Allerleirau, a young princess puts on the furs of many different animals to escape the sexual desire of her father.
She finds refuge in a castle, where she works as a kitchen maid and lives in a cupboard under the stairs. In a to and fro between showing herself, anonymous beauty and hiding under her protective mantle, she manages to win the king’s heart and her own safety. Only then, and actually involuntarily, she leaves behind her anonymity.
The story goes: “The king clutched the mantle and tore it off. Then her golden hair shone forth, and she stood there in full splendour, and could no longer hide herself.” The worn bearskin should be seen as a protective identity. Not as an initiation ritual. And choosing the biggest and most dangerous animal as a protective identity therefore makes absolute sense. Through the bear costume, Susie, the bear in John Irving’s novel Hotel New Hampshire, becomes a perpetrator. She is no longer a victim. Through the constructed identity of a bear, Susie is empowered and is no longer merely at the mercy of her traumatic experiences. That, in turn, is reminiscent of the search for a sound identity during adolescence. In this period confusion about one’s role is common. But self-definition is not only difficult for young people.

BHJ: You oppose a clear “self-definition”, as you formulate it, with an open perceptual model through your artistic approach, using dialogic and associatively paired images. As an aesthetic construct it establishes references to various layers of narrative and reality or shows formal-aesthetic parallels within allusions to reality viewed independently of one another. Sometimes the photographs are also based on stagings and yet their documentary visual language suggests an authentic “that-has-been”, as Roland Barthes would call it, whereby the references of your image pairs mix the real with the staged and thus create their own worlds. Alongside what feels like objective yet unpretentiously poetic observation, it is this that surely accounts for the appeal of your visual world. What importance does the medium of photography have for you?

UB: Photography’s pledge of reality has always been the real drive for me. Though I was never interested in whether something had really been as depicted. For me, the claim alone constitutes the quality of a picture. I like the particular moment. When you see something and time seems to stand still for a moment. I will never stop looking for and photographing these moments. But I often find something missing when viewing these “moment images”—the part that allows the image in my head to become something special. I can fill this gap with the image pairs. The work is intuitive, and the images are given a narrative dimension, without me having to lift photography’s pledge of reality. Through this kind of “constructed” reality the pictures are imbued with the energy that interests me in art.
It is a bit like what Max Ernst once said when he explained collage: “The collage technique is the systematic exploitation of the accidentally or artificially provoked encounter of two or more foreign realities on a seemingly incongruous level—and the spark of poetry that leaps across the gap as these two realities are brought together.” 3

3 Oskar Negt: Überlebensglück, Steidel Verlag, 2016, Göttingen

This can also be applied, depending on the approach, to other artistic techniques. To poetry, literature, painting, film art and photography.
But above all: a good story is a well-told story.

Barbara Hofmann-Johnson studied art history, German studies, and theatre, film and television studies in Cologne and has directed the Museum für Photographie Braunschweig since 2016. She has collaborated with Ute Behrend on various exhibition projects.

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