ESSAYS Mousse 21
Symbolic Places: Andreas Bunte
by Katerina Gregos
Whether it’s Victor Horta’s architecture, the advent of electric lighting, or English gardens, Andreas Bunte’s complex narratives always analyze modernity, with a particular focus on the changes triggered by technological progress, presenting sites that transcend physical space to exist in the ephemeral timeframe of perception.
Looking at the films of Andreas Bunte is like stepping into a time capsule and rewinding into the past. Over the last few years the artist has established a name for himself with his labor-intensive, hand crafted, silent, black & white 16mm film installations which explore the history of ideas and previous chapters of Western, predominantly 19th and 20th century culture, with a particular view on the grand visions of modernity and the changes wrought on society by technological progress, the history of ideas, and shifting ideologies. Based on extensive research and through the use of diverse archival material and analogue or hand made means of production, Bunte re-writes or refers back to historical episodes, specific historical periods or phenomena from the past and constructs alternative subjective narratives, in the form of filmic collages made up of layered textual and iconographic sources. At the same time, his films almost perfectly simulate the aesthetics of early film—especially of the Victorian era and the early experimental and avant garde period—thus also confusing the notion of authorship. On occasion, it is even very difficult to discern that the work has been made today, here and now.
Bunte’s work stems from his interest in utopian ideas, the modern drive toward progress as it is manifested in architecture and engineering, and the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk. By piecing together diverse fragments of reference, Bunte develops complex, layered narratives, which are open to multiple interpretations. The dichotomy between nature and culture, private and public, and the notion of constructed space lie at the heart of his investigations. He casts his attention on a wide range of subjects from the relationship of philosophy to architecture, the significance of public parks, the development of artificial light, and the grand architectural visions of modernity such as railway stations and other iron constructions. Working exclusively in 16mm film—something which de facto denotes temporal distance—and other analogue, and thus tactile means of production, his films are like a conflation of flickering archives which have been brought back to life. Together with his films he often presents documentation in the form of photographs or photocopies, as well as his own collages and drawings. If the films focus on the moment of retrieving the image, the collages provide the commentary that is the counterpart.
Die letzten Tage der Gegenwart [“The Last Days of the Present”], 2006, one of his first installations, consists of two 16mm films and several collages. The work revolves around the issue of German terrorism from the 1960s and 1970s. One film documents the interior space of a furnished apartment in which are visible the clues of a conspiracy in-the-making; the other film depicts different architectural types from modernist buildings to fascist edifices and communist monuments. Together with the films, Bunte presents a number of collages that consist of images and text fragments, which resemble political slogans and recall the language and rhetoric of 1960s idealism in relation to the desire for change and emancipation. In them, quotes by philosophers such as Guy Debord and Herbert Marcuse have been rendered unidentifiable through the act of being lifted out of their original context. Like all of his work, this too is characterized by an interest in and exploration of the various aspects of architecture: formal and physical as well as political and social. The viewer is confronted with a plausible or seemingly truthful mise en scène that prompts one to conjure the inner workings of insurgent activity. Ultimately Bunte aims, and succeeds, at creating a specific mental space, one which is allusive and which re-creates in the space of the viewer’s imaginary, the idea of “what it might have been like”.
His next work, a film entitled La Fée Electricité, is a quasi-fictitious chronicle of episodes that comment on the advent of the electric light, its first applications and people’s reactions to it when it emerged during the middle of the nineteenth century as a wondrous but also alienating and terrifying phenomenon. Bunte’s film circumvents normative accounts of the subject and proposes an alternative timeline. He does not concern himself so much with the scientific history of the invention of the incandescent light bulb, but instead conceives of series of short narrative fragments which combine fact and fiction with contemporary mythologies of the time, intimating the fear and fascination with which artificial light was first received and the momentous change that electricity effected not only on daily life itself but also on the perception of the world. Interwoven into the narrative is also a detective story, which heightens the suspense generated by the film’s preoccupation with a completely novel phenomenon. The work harks back to a time when technological progress was not taken for granted or blindly espoused, a time when it still had the capacity to generate awe, fascination and alarm.
Der Garten des M. Leretnac [“The garden of M. Leretnac”], 2008, focuses on the 19th century landscape and sculpture garden as Gesamtkunstwerk and place of refuge. The film was shot in Muskau Park, the largest and one of the most well known English-style parks situated in Germany and Poland. The park was founded by Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau (1785-1871), author of the influential Hints on Landscape Gardening. It is on the UNESCO World Heritage List for breaking new ground “in terms of development towards the ideal man-made landscape”, and its influence on “the development of landscape architecture as a discipline”. Pückler himself spent years radically transforming the land, in order to create the “ideal landscape”. This landscape is registered in Bunte’s film, as static shots onto which a host of strange mechanical contraptions and levitating revolving shapes appear, some of which are inspired by popular 19th century science magazines. The film is constructed through a process of exposing it in stages to build up layers of visual information. The result is a hybrid narrative, part bucolic utopia, part machinistic, retrofuturist fantasy.
Bunte’s new project, Künstliche Paradiese, consists of two 16mm films and a series of drawings and documentation presented in an architectural construction, a “frame”, which brings together the three separate elements. The starting point for the project was some notes on “Jugendstil” in the Appendix of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, where the movement is described as the dream of the bourgeois society that had just woken up. Other notes focus on its relationship to technology, symbolism, and the urge to suppress and exclude the signs of the beginning of industrial society, as well as the admission that “Jugendstil” was also a successful attempt to break free from historicism. Bunte’s work takes as its point of departure the architecture of Victor Horta, as a visual manifestation of this ambivalence, since his buildings seem both vanguard and reactionary at the same time. The first film literally weaves together footage which was shot in Maison Horta, the house the architect Victor Horta constructed for himself in Brussels at the turn of the 20th century, and 19th century iron construction work (greenhouses, train stations, bridges, exhibition pavilions) to juxtapose the different methodologies and applications of modern engineering, by means of the double exposure of the film which merges two architectural types into one.
The work thus functions as a filmic sketch that explores this contradictory nature and brings into confrontation Horta’s revolutionary inventiveness in cast iron structures for domestic housing with 19th century public Eisenbauten (constructions in metal). As the different images and typologies alternate and blend into one another, one is confronted by a bizarre—almost mystical—hybrid space, which is rendered almost hypnotic by the use of a spotlight which scans and highlights part of the projection, within the projection. The work, in effect, juxtaposes two very different versions of modernity—one introspective and private, the other open and public—pointing to two entirely different notions of the grand visions of early modernity, and the dichotomy between private and public space of the time, interior and exterior, rational versus wild fantasy. The result is a kind of “third architecture”, a fictional place that is neither interior nor exterior, but a surreal collage, an artificial reserve in which the tropical nature inside the greenhouses combines with the ornamental cast iron architecture of the dreamlike Horta interiors. In a sense, all of these buildings and spaces can be seen as related to escapism as much as they are related to progress and modernity. Accompanying this film with its atmospheric play of shadow and light and its symbolist outlook is a more rational, documentary-style film, which presents an image archive of the artist’s research, ordered into a system of classification. Rather than presenting the physical research material (books, photographs, photocopies) per se, the artist opted consciously to film his sources, in order to control and determine how long we look at the images. In that sense, the work is also about the deceleration of perception. What ties together many of Bunte’s projects is a preoccupation with transcending either exceptional spaces – spaces of refuge – or wild projection – spaces out of the ordinary – where the human imagination exceeds its normative boundaries. Many of these spaces or buildings are paradigms of escapist tendencies or fantasies, and proffer real, fictive or hybrid alternatives to ordinary day-to-day reality. At the same time, these spaces can also be seen as heterotopias in the Foucaultian sense, and also recall Edward Soja’s idea of “Thirdspace” which refers to spaces that are both real and imagined. As subjective as his narratives may be, Bunte’s works nevertheless leave open the question of authorship and prompt discussion about the borders between fact and fiction, and the manipulation of “truth”. Fundamentally, though his work seems to come to us from the past, it prompts questions about our own time: about the current visions (or lack of ) on culture and “the future”, the erosion of public space and collectivity, and the increasing turn inwards of our society either due to fear or because of phenomena like the internet. Fundamentally, however, his work speaks of the incessant human need to find spaces of refuge, whether imaginary or real.
Originally published on Mousse 21 (November–December 2009)