In the great Danish film director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, the close-ups of the face of the tough, enigmatic Maria Falconetti, strapped to the burning stake, are passages in which one can literally watch her inner transcendence. In Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express, the close-ups of the young Marlene Dietrich, which fill the screen with a foggy, smoldering silver atmosphere, express the longing and fragility underneath her fierce, urbane pride and willfulness: in those brief moments, her face seems to open and dissolve into the interiority of desire. The history of portraiture, in painting of course, but also more recently in photography, is in part a history of discovering ways of making the inner life visible: think, for instance, of El Greco’s imperious portrait of Saint Jerome, or Diego Velazquez’s ambivalent yet tender image of his slave, or even Gerhard Richter’s uncharacteristically touching painting of Ulrike Meinhof as a young woman. The cinematic close-up rests squarely in this tradition, with the crucial difference that films unfold in time, and close-ups are not things to be contemplated but passages experienced as fleeting and dream-like.
Katharina Sieverding: Close Up at P.S. 1 Contemporary Arts Center is the first North American survey of this uncompromising Czech-born, German photographer and filmmaker. Sieverding studied sculpture with Joseph Beuys at the Düsseldorf Academy in the 1960s, and her work’s sensuality, its skeptical self-mythologizing, and its essentially performative nature reflects the enduring influence of Beuys. Sieverding, however, does not share her mentor’s lyrical romanticism. Her ambiguous treatment of her chosen medium in relationship to both film and painting, combined with the emotional ambivalence of her images, evokes the photorealism of Gerhardt Richter, another of Beuys’s students in Düsseldorf. The greater part of the work in Close Up consists of aggressive series of self-portraits of the artist’s face, often made up in different guises, and cast in different qualities and intensities of light. If the classical cinematic close-up is intended to separate the face from the flow of time and to give it a transparent subjectivity, in Sieverding’s self-portraits her face and the self they appear to reveal become public, changeable, and ultimately opaque, her dark eyes staring out toward the viewer—helpless, sad, wounded—as though from behind a mask.
The most recent and perhaps also the most impressive series of photographs in Close Up is “Ohne Titel/Ultramarine I-VI,” from 1993. These are monumental, sepia-toned images of Sieverding’s face, framed and divided by steel strips painted a radiant ultramarine blue. In “Ultramarine I,” for instance, the face is grainy and swarming, full lips shining with lipstick and eyes shining with desire, but then the image is brutally interrupted at its center and cropped at the chin. In “Ultramarine III,” alternating stripes of harsh light and deep shadow obscure the blurry face, and in “Ultramarine IV” the face is tough, mean, and embittered, like a glamorous sociopath in a film noir. In “Ultramarine VI,” her black eyes are tearing and far away.
The sheer scale of the photographs in the “Ohne Titel/Ultramarine” series makes them imposing; they loom over the viewer, ready to cascade down. Their sepia tones and graininess, as well as the sleek, stylized glamour of the faces, makes the allusions to classical cinema immediate. But while in film the viewer is transfixed by the motion of the illusion, in Sieverding’s work one is conscious of the literal chemical composition of the images. One would expect that even highly theatrical self-portraits in such a large format would be brutal exercises in self scrutiny, every pore and line and scar in view, yet in Sieverding’s photographs that apparent or visible self is determined, not just by costume, makeup, and hair style, but also by the pure, external contingencies of time, like the quality and intensity of light. The “Ultramarine” series is less about adopting the look and posture of film, the way Cindy Sherman does in “Untitled Film Stills,” but rather about the artificiality and risk of freezing the face at an instant; in a way, the human face does not have an image. These photographs both invite and resist a kind of nostalgic objectification by the viewer, and the gaze they return is full of sadness and accusation.
The other most powerful series in Close Up is “Die Sonne Um Mitternacht schauen” (1973) (“To Look at the Sun at Midnight”), which consists of 24 photographs of Sieverding’s face painted with glittering, metallic bronze paint and lit with intense, focused light. Set against deep, black grounds, these photographs turn her face and head into a strange, luxuriant, and sullied sculptural object, the bronze paint now reading as patinaed metal, now as silty mud. In some images, she seems to be emerging up out of the night, ecstatic, light shining on her face. In others, she is blurred, thrashing and ghosted, the mud oozing over her face, as though she is struggling against being buried alive. And in still others she looks as though she has vacated her body, her eyes wide, hollow cavities. The title of “Die Sonne Um Mitternacht Schauen” evokes both the idea of an uncanny illumination, brooding and romantic in the mode of Caspar David Friedrich, and also of human beings revealed in their most basic form—restless, fearful, lonely, lost.
Both the “Ultramarine” series and “Die Sonne Um Mitternacht Schauen” are in different ways studies in physiognomy. The premise behind physiognomy, whether in the form of 18th century studies of the expression of emotions or its more sinister uses in typing criminal and racial characteristics, is that there is a correspondence between the face and its expressions and a person’s inward state and character. Sieverding’s close-ups assert the arbitrariness of the relationship between the way we read a face and the inaccessible subjectivity behind it. One might be tempted to think of these photographs as critiques of “essentialism” or as instances of the way in which the self is “performed” in a society where images—especially images of women—are commodified, but Sieverding’s photographs are far more demonic than such language allows. These faces appear less as adopted masks than as almost inevitable, external forces, which the subject herself is helpless to resist. This is partly confirmed by the relative weakness of a series of more intimate, snapshot self-portraits Sieverding made in 1973. The range of expressions and postures is familiar—a face surrounded by a wraith of light, hair windblown and electric, a face with bruised eyes, a desperate face receding into shadow and a face in a blur of multiple exposures—but compared with the “Ultramarine” series, these images have little resonance, and are, as it were, mere self-portraits of the kind familiar from artists like Wolfgang Tillmans.
Two of the earliest series in Close Up, both from 1969, consist of large, solarized self-portraits, in black and white and also in red. In both “F-I” and “F-VIII,” for instance, eyes and lips are defined by thick, phosphorescent swaths of white light, the figure’s gaze out toward the viewer cold, empty, and glowering. These images have a blunt, disintegrated, skinned brutality; they are faces without a surface, reduced to the haunted, flowing energy of rage. Similarly, in “Stauffenberg Block I-XVI” (1969), the eyes and mouth are defined by thick movements of chemical-burn red, hot and dissolving. The problem posed by many of Sieverding’s photographs is that of interiority. One might think of the work in Close Up as moving from the inside out, its core remaining volatile and indeterminate.
The self and its expressions exist ineluctably in time. The problem of self knowledge, and of introspection, is especially bewildering because the object of knowledge is itself unstable, continuously transforming. This is why philosophers like Edmund Husserl and Henri Bergson regarded the problems of self and consciousness as closely connected with the nature of experienced time. Sieverding’s persistent references to the language of cinema are an attempt to create what Gilles Deleuze calls a “time image” within photography. It is, then, somewhat surprising that the films being screened as part of Close Up are of only modest interest. “China, September – October, 1978” is a silent, visual diary consisting of footage of glum, dusty streets in various parts of China: bicyclists pass, rickety trucks drive by, people obviously nervous about being filmed by a foreigner glance back at the camera. In the two-part video projection entitled “Shanghai” (2002-2003), workers loudly sort through debris in what looks like a collapsed building, while a medic and an undercover police officer hover around a man who has collapsed in the bushes, rifling through his bag and talking on their Walkie Talkies. Both of these pieces are blandly public. The power and strangeness of Sieverding’s large photographic works is their attempt to capture the divisiveness of the self as it exists in time at the intersection of the private and the public, the internal and the external, the conscious and the unconscious.