THE LAND IN-BETWEEN
The fluid yet measured approach to time and space inherent in Schulz-Dornburg’s practice is connected to the minimal and conceptual thinking that emerged in the United States in the 1960s and grew to prominence throughout the 1970s. In 1967 she lived in New York and was influenced by the art she encountered at private galleries such as Pace and Castelli. She also visited exhibitions of Walker Evans and Robert Frank, which informed her interest in social documentary practice. Later, on her return to Europe, Schulz-Dornburg became familiar with the work of Walter De Maria, Per Kirkeby, Ed Ruscha and Lawrence Weiner. Documentation of two relevant artworks hangs on the wall of Schulz-Dornburg’s Dusseldorf studio. The first is an image of Walter De Maria’s Calendar (1961–1975), an interactive minimalist sculpture consisting of one stationary and one moving stick and a cord containing 365 knots, one for each day of the year. The work, Schulz-Dornburg explains, ‘moves as the year progresses and is a brilliantly simple representation of the ever-changing relationship between time and space.’ The second is a photograph of a work by Lawrence Weiner, the opening line of which reads: ‘Having bridged a (the) gap’, alluding to the emblematic gap or the ‘space in-between’. These examples represent two major conceptual threads that appear throughout Schulz-Dornburg’s practice. First, her abstract understanding of movement in relation to time and space, enabling movement and time to be conveyed in still images; and second, the importance of absence and how absence or gaps can be used to ask questions or open up possibilities for investigation.
Schulz-Dornburg exaggerates these metaphorical gaps by emphasising absence through the use of white space when sequencing and planning installations of her work. This sequencing or layout is used as a way to connect images that are conceptually linked but are taken across an expanse of time and space. ‘I have always worked in sequences, as I had particular ideas in my head that I wanted to relate. And I have always worked with a broad time span. The experience of time became a thematic element.’ White space or gaps interrupt the sequence, signalling perhaps a break in her journey, a shift in the linear trajectory, or simply as a way to slow the pace of looking. Schulz-Dornburg also explores time in relation to distance, introducing the proximity of these often-abstract locations to the viewer through the use of an accompanying map. (fig. 3) Although the map offers a geographical context, we encounter Schulz-Dornburg’s fluid approach to time as images which are placed side by side in sequence depict locations hundreds of kilometres away from each other. Presented as a journey, each image is a contraction and expansion of time and space that simultaneously reveals and conceals a complicated landscape, with the space or gap between each image left open for the viewer to interpret. Although documentary in form, much of Schulz-Dornburg’s work is a result of her being in and experiencing space. Her images do not depict a journey but her journey through the landscape, her specific route. When discussing this, Schulz-Dornburg describes how ‘through the physical experience of distance, space and representation as conveyed to me by the work of Richard Long I received powerful confirmation of the meaning of travel. Travel is important for me: the further one goes, the clearer positions become.’ In that way her work can also be seen in relation to land art and the body’s exploration and experience of the landscape. With this in mind it is important to highlight Schulz-Dornburg’s experience as an outsider to these environments, a position that perhaps allows her to offer a new or different perspective. The importance of this combined experience — first, being physically present in the landscape, and second, experiencing the landscape with fresh eyes — is aptly described by Per Kirkeby: ‘When I move, I break away from all sorts of local provincialisms. What is international or non-provincial is to be found in the air between particular places.’
In 1986 Schulz-Dornburg travelled to Marib, Yemen, intending to photograph the ruins of Bar’an Temple, colloquially referred to as Arsh Bilqis or the Temple of the Moon God. However, on this occasion timing was not in her favour, because the temple’s proximity to newly constructed gas and oil fields hindered access to the site and limited her ability to work. She captured a small number of images of the temple and surrounding ruins, but the majority of her work from Yemen focuses on elements of architecture and daily life. Schulz-Dornburg’s interest in the built environment was in part shaped by Bernard Rudofsky’s book Architecture Without Architects: A Short Introduction to Non-pedigreed Architecture (1964). The book accompanied an exhibition of the same name at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1964 and looks at vernacular or traditional non-Western architecture from around the globe with an emphasis on functionality.
In and around Marib, Schulz-Dornburg photographed domestic dwellings, children playing, and a cemetery where graves are marked simply by placing a piece of rock upright. (fig. 4 and 5) These images of the everyday focus on how landscape and local material inform architecture and design, the approach of which brings to mind Carl Andre’s book Quincey (1973). In Quincey, a small-scale photobook, Andre depicts his hometown on the industrial fringes of Boston, Massachusetts. Andre commissioned a photographer to document the town, historically known for its granite quarries, highlighting the raw materials and natural environment. Made to accompany an exhibition of his sculptures, the book’s front cover image of a granite gravestone raises a clever comparison to Andre’s own minimal sculptures. He emphasises how everyday raw, industrial materials can be transformed through their context, blurring the lines between art and life, function and form. The photographic equivalent to Andre at the time was Lewis Baltz, who exhibited alongside Andre at the Castelli Gallery in New York and whose practice was grounded in finding form in the urban environment. Schulz-Dornburg remembers having come across Andre’s Quincey and was intrigued by its simple yet transformative approach to the everyday. Although something of an anomaly in Schulz-Dornburg’s œuvre, her images from Yemen offer a wider insight into the way she seeks order, structure and form in the everyday environment.
The desire by the newly independent nations to erase many of the traces of their Soviet past highlights how the built environment often outlives the ideological concept of its creators. It is also important to note that total erasure of a past ideology, be it religious or political, is hard to achieve. For example, the Church and religious iconography were largely discouraged during the Soviet era, yet on closer investigation it is relatively easy to discover references to the traditional architectures of the Christian Church hidden in plain sight. The umbrella structure, a relatively common and very durable bus stop design, derives its angular conical shape from the circular roofs of traditional Armenian churches. (fig. 7) This transposition of religious symbolism into functional everyday form was produced en masse and highlights how difficult it is to achieve erasure of the past.
Transit Sites, Armenia was different to much of Schulz-Dornburg’s work, where she only visited the country for a short amount of time in order to make a specific project. She returned to Armenia several times between 1996 and 2006 and made in excess of fifty works. Schulz-Dornburg presents the series in uneven grid-like installations reminiscent of constructivist design. In this way the installation emphasises both the concrete, brutalist architecture of the bus stops, and the overarching aesthetics inherent in Soviet ideology.
Georgia and Azerbaijan
Like in Sonnenstand (1991/92), light and the position of the sun are crucial to this work, illuminating the otherwise dark, unreadable spaces, some with room for only one single inhabitant. Time has taken its toll on these places of solitude, and graffiti, both ancient and modern, lines the walls: in some instances well preserved frescos with text dating back to the birth of the Georgian alphabet, in other locations more recent Cyrillic text, presumably inscribed by military conscripts. (fig. 8) Here we interpret multiple histories simultaneously as the palimpsest of text and image co-exists, highlighting both the passing of time and the change of use and function.
In the series, the internal views of the caves are interspersed with spectacular landscape images, of views looking out over a lunar landscape, across the border into Azerbaijan. (fig. 9) Although not explicitly outlined by Schulz-Dornburg, the vantage points from which these landscapes are taken emphasise the height and isolation of the caves, and in turn draw attention to how difficult it is to reach the forbidden land over the border. In fact, several of the caves do cross the border into Azerbaijan, causing difficulty for visitors to the area. With these subtle hints, 15 kilometers along the Georgian-Azerbaijanian Border raises questions around the arbitrary nature of borders in a region that has long been marred by external cartographic power. Stalin notoriously redrew borders and reallocated land as part of a much larger power game between Soviet states and ethnic minorities. Perhaps more infamous is the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which was drafted in secret during the First World War and signed by Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot on 8 May 1916. The accord laid out a plan to divide parts of the Arab world into British and French spheres of influence in preparation for an Allied victory. Although the agreement never materialised it did form the basis for colonial powers to carve up and divide parts of the Ottoman Empire, Syria and Persia, what is present-day Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Seen as abstract ‘lines drawn on a map’ by colonial powers with no real cultural understanding or geographical surveying of the land, the borders eventuated from the Sykes-Picot Agreement are considered by some academics to be a contributing factor to ongoing conflict in the area to this day.
In From Medina to Jordan Border, Schulz-Dornburg reminds the viewer that physical history is hard to erase. Architecture and the built environment that, on the surface, is there to serve the people, also serve a more sinister function. With the benefit of hindsight it has been suggested that infrastructure is often used by imperial powers to cast their web over vast regions in an attempt to widen reach and consolidate power, often in the name of modernisation. Schulz-Dornburg’s project also speaks of failed ambitions, misjudgements and the inability of humans to tame inhospitable landscapes. It reminds us that modernisation is not always greeted with open arms; and what the Ottoman rulers saw as modernisation was interpreted by the locals as a threat to their position as the gatekeepers of centuries-old migratory routes and traditions. Having an interest in anthropology and archaeology, Schulz-Dornburg was drawn to the historical significance of the route. The route itself had been in use for centuries, travelled by foot, camel and caravan, as part of both the economic Silk Road and the pilgrimage to Mecca. Schulz-Dornburg documented the traces of these past journeys, from a time long before the railroad was conceived, capturing markings and graffiti carved into rocks in Arabic, Aramaic and characters from ancient languages no longer legible. (fig. 10) Although not included in her final edit, Schulz-Dornburg’s close-up images of these ancient graffiti found on rocks and informal resting places along the route illustrate how layers of history exist simultaneously in one place, captured in one image, visualising what she refers to as ‘vertical layers of time and history’. Casting her lens over the seemingly barren desert landscape she reveals what is hidden or overlooked, fracturing the linear notion of time to expose multiple histories in one frame. From Medina to Jordan Border simultaneously depicts her journey in 2003, events which occurred in 1917, and the ancient traces which came before, highlighting how, although our means or methods might change, the historic routes of migration and trade largely stay the same. By doing this, Schulz-Dornburg ruptures time, using the image as a gateway to see multiple temporalities and multiple histories, revealing with her camera important traces just below the surface which demand closer investigation.
Like Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962) and Mark Ruwedel’s Westward the Course of Empire (1996–2006), Schulz-Dornburg’s From Medina to Jordan Border set out to retrace the railway’s exact route through Saudi Arabia from Tabuk in the north to Medina in the south, with the intention to photograph every train station along the route. However, things in the region are often never straightforward. At the end of January 2003, Schulz-Dornburg had permission to photograph and a chaperone to drive her along the route. However, one week into the project, US President George W. Bush announced the imminent invasion of Iraq, prompting the project to be cut short and eventually abandoned. Again, we are reminded of Schulz-Dornburg’s uncanny relationship with time, or, rather, her ability to foresee that instability or change is on the horizon.
In 2006 Schulz-Dornburg travelled to Iran, compelled by Erich F. Schmidt’s book Flights Over Ancient Cities of Iran (1940), a surprisingly modern book that combines text with 119 mostly aerial photographs, some of which are overlaid with red lines marking out the corresponding flight paths in relation to the images. The formal yet abstract nature of Schmidt’s mapping process appealed to Schulz-Dornburg’s interest in visually mapping the landscape. In Iran she set out to photograph the Tomb of Cyrus in Pasargadae, believed to have been constructed in 530 bc. The tomb is thought to hold the remains of Cyrus II of Persia, the founder of the Persian Empire. However, when she arrived in Pasargadae the famous tomb was undergoing restoration and covered in scaffolding. Instead she continued her journey south to Gur-e Dokhtar, Jareh, south of the Fars province, and photographed an alternative tomb, similar in architectural style but slightly less grand in scale. It is thought this tomb could be a precursor to the famous Tomb of Cyrus, and perhaps belonged to an ancestor of Cyrus the Great, such as Teispes or Cyrus I. Photographed in what has by now become her signature style, front-on and perfectly aligned in the centre of the frame, the two images depicting adjacent sides of the tomb represent symmetry and order. However, as much as Schulz-Dornburg advocates order, disorder holds an equally important role, in this case disrupting the diptych with a third image showing a figure in the background. (fig. 11) Now what seemed like a relatively modest structure is revealed to be monumental in scale, immediately increasing its importance and status. This reflects its historical importance, as it is commonly believed that the Tomb of Cyrus was popularised by Alexander the Great, who sought out the tomb of Cyrus in order to pay respect to the great ruler as he himself conquered Persia more than two centuries later. The tomb’s architecture is believed to include traces of influence from across the region, highlighting instances of cross-cultural fertilisation, an idea which is linked to Schulz-Dornburg’s wider investigation of intertwined histories and the cycles of time and empire throughout history.
In the case of both Yemen and Iran, for reasons beyond her control Schulz-Dornburg made relatively few images, leaving a gap in her œuvre. This void tells an interesting story, itself revealing the complexities of travel, permission and a window of time which either makes her work possible or, in these two rare cases, impossible to complete. Regardless of the fact that Schulz-Dornburg did not achieve her intended project, these images work as a glitch or rupture which adds contrast to the fuller areas of the larger narrative.
First in 2005, and again in 2010, Schulz-Dornburg travelled to Syria, visiting the ancient city of Palmyra on both occasions. Palmyra, situated on what was once the southern frontier of Roman Mesopotamia, was a far-flung outpost of the Roman Empire and now forms part of modern day Syria. The ruins of Palmyra are a world-renowned archaeological site and have been visually documented by photographers as far back as the first albumen prints of Louis Vignes in 1864. In an area with such a wealth of visual stimuli Schulz-Dornburg, like those before her, photographed the iconic tableaux, the Temple of Bel, and the Valley of Death — one of her few images made in colour. Here her photographs of these landmarks join and add to the wealth of visual documentation of the city which already exists. Rather than focusing only on the iconic structures, Schulz-Dornburg also drew attention to the less elaborate constructions, passing over the famous Tower Tombs built to house the remains of the wealthy and concentrating on the more modest tombs, which, due to their low centre of gravity, remained largely intact. Schulz-Dornburg photographed the tombs from all four sides, her frontal approach again emphasising the symmetrical architecture of the structures. Her interest in the mundane continues when, on what some would consider one of the greatest promenades ever built, Schulz-Dornburg turns her camera towards an unassuming stone wall. The simplicity of this construction is important, symbolising how a solid structure is at the root of architectural form. In these close-up images of the wall we no longer see a city of ruins but a city built on strong foundations, precisely planned and technically advanced. (fig. 12) However, the images also raise the question of authenticity. Within the layering of history, time is difficult to decipher. This is what Schulz-Dornburg describes as ‘vertical history’ or the ‘vertical timeline’, a term used by the artists to describe how history is stacked one layer on top of the previous. Here we begin to question if the wall was part of the original structure or was it built centuries later ? And does it matter ?
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