Grazer Kunstverein

nownownow – On the works of Sylvia Schedelbauer
Text by Alice Butler for the exhibition booklet at Grazer Kunstverein.
Spring 2019, curated by Kate Strain. Click here to download the booklet

For the most part, cinema goes to great lengths to conceal or distract from its piecemeal assembly. The labour invested in the fractured production of a single frame is often obscured by the polished outcome of the flat image. Fragmentation is an inexorable component of the medium however, not always something to overcome but arguably one of its great attributes, offering the possibility for infinite reconfiguration. This feature affords the filmmaker the unique albeit daunting opportunity to create something that closely resembles the elusive qualities of a thought process, with all the mysterious pathways, preoccupations and associations that this entails. It also allows for a more archaeological approach, one in which standard sequences give way to transparent images that peel back one by one to reveal what’s ‘around, or behind a picture’ rather than what comes next.

Sylvia Schedelbauer’s films are composed predominantly of pre-existing footage, material that she draws from educational, industrial and amateur collections that includes home movies, travelogues and newsreels. The un-captioned segments, although extensive, are characterized by what art historian Charles Merewether describes as the ‘countermonumental’ – no landmarks, iconic events or familiar historical figures appear. In Sounding Glass (2011) for example we see snapshots of a forest, a murmuration, explosions on a battlefield, a Japanese woman carrying a baby on her back, sun bursting through the clouds. In their original contexts, these shots were cut-aways, fillers, accidents even, expressions of what is typically overlooked but presented together here, they amass as a portrait of a splintered collective psyche. Sounding Glass features a protagonist though, a man who stares intently into the lens of the camera at the film’s outset and about whom all the film’s questions of cultural dislocation caused by global conflict relate.

The forthright protagonist in Sounding Glass is somewhat of an anomaly in Schedelbauer’s filmography – elsewhere figures mostly shield their faces from view, unusually wary of being captured by the camera. They are solitary and nomadic, conveying a painful sense of alterity reminiscent of the peripatetic characters that populate the books of German writer W.G. Sebald, perhaps most notably in ‘Austerlitz’ (2001), a novel whose eponymous Jewish hero is born in the advent of the Second World War and sent as part of the Kindertransport to London. Adopted and raised by Welsh parents, who conceal his identity from him, Jacques Austerlitz subsequently becomes intent on uncovering his past. The conspicuous feeling of rootlessness evoked in Schedelbauer’s way fare (2009) resonates with the novel but so too does the story that emerges in Memories (2004), the artist’s first film in which she uses a collection of her German father’s photographs to try and unearth the closely guarded secrets of both his and her Japanese mother’s early lives in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

Memories and Schedelbauer’s second film Remote Intimacy (2007) are her only works in which voice-over features. From there, her focus is on developing an intensely visual language free from the confines of verbal speech. Soon the black insert appears, most obviously in False Friends (2007) giving expression perhaps to previously described gaps in family memory. Initially these dark single frames appear fairly evenly, creating more of a blinking rhythm than they do a sense of disturbance. In the opening section of Sounding Glass however, the black frames introduce the ‘frenzied inertia’ that critical theorist Francis Summers describes in relation to Austrian experimental filmmaker Martin Arnold’s Pièce touchée (1989), a 16 minute film that stretches out an 18 second extract from a 1950s American B-Movie that he says Movie that he says ‘mires the audience in a perpetual present that evokes a “now-now-now”’, a sensation of desired apprehension not dissimilar to the experience of absorbing some of Schedelbauer’s most recent works.

Introducing a heightened sense of the present is an uncanny facet of Schedelbauer’s manipulation of mid-century footage. This masterful act of simultaneity – experiences of present and past co-existing within the same frame – does not only apply here. It is a structural device and conceptual framework fundamental to Schedelbauer’s three most recent films. Each of these works are marked by the evocation of divergent tempos for example; the slow pan that occurs in the close-up shot of a human eye in Sea of Vapors (2014) is offset by the speed of the flickering image of a forested landscape which is braided through it. This strategy captures the liminal and subliminal features of memory, making as much reference to the unfathomable process of forgetting as it does to the nature of recall. It also creates a powerful vortex for the viewer who is drawn in as the images seem to radiate out from the screen to inhabit the full space of the rooms they occupy. This somatic experience is the mark of any encounter with these films and the all-consuming force of their syncopated luminosity.

Schedelbauer tells of how she adopts the flicker in some cases as a means of facilitating what she would like to do with footage that she finds in a compromised state. The flicker enables her to extend out the duration of a scene for example – it means she can impose her will over the material rather than the other way around. Schedelbauer says however that she is also driven to find ways of making this so-called found material ‘speak more’, a phrase that reveals a desire to uncover hidden or latent significance in largely discarded footage. This connects strongly to the idea that images which are no longer, or in fact were never, in the public consciousness have particular worth because of what Bruce Conner describes as, ‘a philosophical premise that’s been around for a long time: if you want to know what’s going on in a culture look at the things that everybody takes for granted, and put a lot of emphasis on that rather than what they want to show you.’

It is the act of combining as much as it is the act of selection that distinguishes Schedelbauer’s work with found footage though – hybridity is an essential component of what she does, blending two or more pieces of film to create a third, a fourth etc. This spawning of new material is a process of transformation that takes place on screen, each film living out a perpetual becoming, each precipice replacing the last. These shots exaggerate the ‘evanescence’ of the film image, the quality that places us as viewers under the command of the filmmaker who ultimately decides how long we see each shot and what it will be replaced by. This is a position that Schedelbauer assumes with unparalleled care, time and consideration, ensuring at every turn that the fragments she has unearthed for us always merit a second, much closer look.

Alice Butler is a Dublin-based film programmer, curator and co-director of aemi, a platform that supports and exhibits artist & experimental moving image work. Recent solo curatorial ventures include ‘The L-Shape’, an exhibition of moving image work by Jenny Brady & Sarah Browne at The Dock, Leitrim, ‘As We May Think’ at IFI, Dublin, and ‘New Spaces’ with VAI Northern Ireland. Butler has written for Sight and Sound, SET Magazine, Paper Visual Art, Enclave Review, VAN, EFS Publications, and CIRCA. She is a regular film reviewer for RTÉ Radio One’s Arena. She regularly presents screenings at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane and she has lectured or participated in panels on the moving image in Ireland at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Project Arts Centre, PLASTIK Festival of Artists’ Moving Image, IFI, The Douglas Hyde Gallery, Galway Arts Centre, The Dock, University College Dublin and Dublin Institute of Technology.

Exhibition documentation by for Grazer Kunstverein