Born in 1942 in the West German town of Konstanz, Ulrike Ottinger is the greatest filmmaker you’ve never heard of. Ottinger’s films blend surrealist fantasy with a cinema verité approach to the world unknown. Her canon includes seminal films such as Ticket of No Return: Portrait of a Woman Drinker (1979), Freak Orlando (1981), and Madame X: An Absolute Ruler (1984). These masterworks of cinema recently made their way to Bridget Donahue gallery in the form of film stills and staged photographs, presented alongside a series of collaged maps of Asia and the southern hemisphere.
One prominent photograph on view is taken from Ottinger’s epic Johanna D’Arc of Mongolia (1989), which follows a group of Western female travelers on their journey aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway. In this image, three raven-haired showgirls (who play the part of a singing troupe known as the Kalinka sisters) are dressed in slinky black dresses and elbow-length vermilion gloves. Their faces convey pure joy as they bid farewell from their train carriage. Another arresting shot shows a woman in a man’s suit, whose countenance is enhanced by the faint suggestion of a moustache and a menacing stare. In her/his/their hand is a newspaper, the headline of which reads, “DORIAN GRAY TOT” (DORIAN GRAY DEAD). If we needed confirmation that Ottinger’s work is a vision of queer art avant la lettre, this is it.
Upon viewing Ottinger’s images, it is readily apparent that we are entering a world in which women have reclaimed power. They are both protagonist and creator, bending gender roles to simultaneously show strength and tenderness. Equally clear is the artist’s history of ethnographic documentation, particularly of the indigenous people of Mongolia (who she was the first female director to film).
The exhibition is curated by writer and filmmaker Julia Trotta who, in choosing to present Ottinger’s work via photographs, affords us the opportunity to consider not only the artist’s mastery of storytelling but her command of pictorial composition and vibrant tonality. In the collective viewing of these photographs, the viewer may enter any one of Ottinger’s sublimely stylized worlds, where they may be both haunted and liberated by her timeless imaginary.