Texts / Reviews

… nothing but the first stirrings of terror

Dr. Kerstin Stremmel
Zimmerpflanzen by Ute Behrend

The title of Ute Behrend’s group of works and her book of the same name
suggests an instruction­al guide on how to conduct the careful greening of life, a sort of compendium of luxurious blooms. Houseplants can indeed be viewed along sociological lines, even if the era of the orangery is over; garden­ing books no less speak of the burgeoning interest during the 80s and 90s in the greenification of interior spaces in view of the increasing devastation of the environ­ment. A mass taking-flight is implied, possibly. It rarely seems to be successful though, the undertones are sceptical, a fiddle-leaf fig seems as equally aggress­ive as the rottweiler in the adjacent picture, the treat­ment of plants is not always loving, but tells the tale of neglect (dried-up palm) or of inveterate blunders in matters of taste (chrysanthemums): these plants in­cluding their little plastic pots have been immersed in hydro cultures to such an extent that they appear to be drowning.

In actual fact what we are really dealing with is a manual on how to see. One look at the photo­graphs—in which delightful motifs such a delicate pink flow­ers with yellowish-green, almost phosphorescent blossoms are rare—is clearly not enough. The reason for this is Behrend’s consis­tent decision to opt for pairs of images, one photo commenting upon or counteracting the other, and, alongside correspondences in colour, there are also contextual references, occasion­ally drastic ones.

A meadow with summer flowers is paired with the image of two traffic cones, between them—beneath a dark tarpaulin—a narrow rivulet of blood has trickled out across the brick pavement. The fact that the brickwork is arranged in the form of a cross is accentuated by the chosen framing of the shot. The flower motif in the adjacent image is lent a completely different dimension through the highly associative nature of this street scene, itself an evocative individual image in its own right, when the viewer now attempts to penetrate the tangle of fronds and blossoms in a counter glance—all of a sudden it has taken on something quite eerie, reminiscent of the apparently untroubled surface reality of a David Lynch film beneath which things are seething and redolent of the fact that menace is lurking at the heart of the idyll, indeed that beauty is sometimes really nothing but the first stirrings of terror. Images such as these exempli­fy just how far removed her conceptual approach is from the mere snapshot: research was necessary for the motifs that tell of everyday police-life, as indeed was the case with other subject areas in order to get to the bottom of particular matters, which only seem to find purchase the majority of our lives in the form of the tabloid headlines.

This feeling that an abyss lurks behind every façade is intensified by the admixture of internal and external shots: a curtain emblazoned with a flower­ed pattern veils the view of the greenery outside, the upper two thirds of the image are completely obscured by an orange blind. The window is no longer a window on the world, but instead points the viewer back in the direction of him or herself and intensifies the effect of the second image whose scenario is at best equivocal: if the woman’s arm resting on her hip can be taken to expresses a degree of self-confidence, equally the man’s grip around the woman’s narrow upper arm appears too firm to be a truly gentle gesture—in every idyllic dream home a nightmare of violence and aggression. Behrend begins her search for material with police operations and sex trade shows, but is able to locate menace, or at least strange things, in less clearly classifi­able situations. Even the view of a tree house, the only access to which seemingly a much too tiny step ladder, juxtaposed with the close-up of a woman’s torso (woman in a red dress with a green balloon), seems like an hermetic hideaway, and the quality of the works resides in the fact that any conclusions one might draw are left up to individual interpretation.

On occasion this gives rise to a brand of poetry shot through with reality, poetry with which anyone who knows Ute Behrend’s work is likewise fam­iliar. Already apparent in the »Märchen« series—which also contains classical ingredients of fairy tales such as fly agaric toadstools, forest clearings, spinning wheels, bears and deer—Behrend departs from photography’s reality principle in an original manner: nothing is every just what it appears to be on the surface, photo­graphy is a trace of what has been there, but at the same time a game of gestures and memories opens up beyond what was merely visible in front of the camera. And all of this takes place without a bombastic mise-en-scène, trusting in a capacity for memory, which is not merely accessible in the standard childhood repertoire of motifs. It calls upon experiences that one can feel physically when viewing the images: the feeling of being upside down whilst one is being securely held, discomfort when walking through dense shrubbery, the taste of forest fruits which can be seen directly juxtaposed with the deadly fly agaric toadstool, all of which can become the source of stories arising from details.

I recently encountered the term »thigmotropism«: »thigmotropism is the directional response of a plant organ to touch or physical contact with a solid object. This directional response is gener­ally caused by the induction of some pattern of differential growth«. Something similar happened with Ute Behrend’s care­fully compiled »Houseplants«: they change with contact, each and every doubling-up generating new meanings which appear to be compelling and at the next viewing, depending upon one’s particular disposition, can head off in a completely diffe­rent direction. This openness isn’t an objection to the suggestive power of the combinations, but rather the expression of an approach, which profits from the sheer bandwidth of photographic references to the world. And hence it is poss­ible for there to be images of floral frost patterns on windowpanes interspersed among the others. Alongside the shrill cold they produce a particular beauty that surprisingly is reflected in the dress of a small girl in the neighbour­ing image. The pair of images—complimenting one another both sensually and con­text­ually— take on a haptic quality; one feels the structure of the floral frost patterns and probably re­members the feeling of one’s skin sticking slightly when tracing the pattern with one’s finger across the pane, immediately understand­ing in the same way why the girl is wearing a cotton shirt beneath the polyester dress festooned with blue floral frost patterns. Ute Behrend’s unsenti­mental eye penetrates to the heart of the matter and yet certain subjects appear to be there in order for her to find them once more in her photographs.

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