Martin Hochleitner


On Gudrun Kemsa's Peripatetic Viewpoint


Gudrun Kemsa's photographs are in motion. This is echoed in programmatic work, book and exhibition titles such as Bewegte Bilder, Choreographien, Merry-go-round, Look around and Moving Images. At the same time, this statement describes finely differentiated states in an oeuvre dominated to date by opposing polarizations of the specific features of the photographic and the cinematic image. In both media the artist reacts to spatial situations in which for the most part groups of people or individuals are in motion.


The majority of her pictures show public, usually urban spaces, in outdoor areas like streets, promenades, squares and parks set before high-rises, shops, glass facades, concrete walls, stairways or other architectural elements, as well as palm trees or sections of the sky or clouds that form scenic backdrops. In this book Gudrun Kemsa documents her video work Las Vegas Freeway 15 from 2008, along with photographs from 2009 and 2010. Although her titles, such as Venice Beach; Columbus Avenue; Lexington Avenue; Broadway; Fifth -, Sixth - and Eighth Avenue; Schiffbauerdamm; Quai Mauriac; Place de la Défense; La Corniche; Al Merraija; and Burj Khalifa, concretely label the location of each individual picture, they also function as stereotypes of public spaces in various geographic and cultural contexts.


The movement of people through these spaces that is captured in the photographic image not only becomes visible as action in Kemsa's video works, but is also embedded in an additional temporal sequence through the movement of the camera. When Kemsa then lines up filmed images in a seemingly endless loop, making fantastic landscapes, fairy-tale buildings, but also sobering construction sites parade before the viewer's eyes as in Las Vegas Freeway 15, the result is to create complex aggregate states of real, media-specific and constructed, or generated, states of movement.


Concepts of space and time that become palpable in Gudrun Kemsa's work prove to be similarly complex, the artist presenting them both as real experiences and in their capacity to be generated as effective media constructs.


When in recent years there has been talk of the element of time being returned to the photographic image, for example with reference to Fiona Tan and David Claerbout, both of whom likewise work squarely on the media interface between photography and film, what was meant was chiefly the effect of translating a photographic way of conceiving a picture into the medium of film. Exemplary here was the way Fiona Tan filmed people posing for a photograph for her project Countenance (2002). In The Stack (2002), David Claerbout decelerated a picture-taking situation by capturing solely the changing light and shadow in a statically photographed fixed shot - similar to what Kemsa did in Rome (1999).


Gudrun Kemsa's pictures straddle the worlds of photography and film by creating specific cells of space and time. These result on the one hand from the reciprocal exchange between the levels of film and photography in individual works, and on the other through the simultaneity of different spatial and temporal classifications in the pictures. Her films and photographs hence never seem situative in the sense of a documentary depiction of a concrete event in a specific place. Rather than conveying a single space-time continuum, the picture elements evoke their own space and their own time, which elevates them to models that transport an incident to a transitory state between past and future. Every person shown seems to be caught up in his or her own individual spatial, temporal (and also emotional) context located somewhere between picture and reality; each figure follows its own space-time logic.


Through this suspension of the customary congruence between temporal and narrative structures, the impression evoked by Kemsa's photographic and film series oscillates between poetry, imagination, fiction, irritation and melancholy, stemming from a special form of existence somewhere between memory and expectation exuded by these scenes and the people therein. What at first glance seems to be an observation of reality proves upon closer inspection to be a questioning of one's own idea of what reality is. Kemsa deconstructs the reality of a situation to create a new pictorial reality. Between them there emerges a scenographic, ambivalent space with its own present. It thus follows that Gudrun Kemsa does not tell any stories in her works. There are no moments of (dramatic) plot twists or of narration. People stand or walk, alone or in groups. Some wait or talk on the phone, others skate. All activities here look like a cautious balance between standstill and movement, embedded between the photographic and the filmic.


All of this takes place in optically lucid and memorable images. The horizontal-format photographs and projections convey a precise, compositional way of thinking, which in the incorporation of the lines of the architecture and the landscape as well as the exacting determination of vanishing points is meticulously oriented on the concept of the panorama. These considerations are joined by Kemsa's special attention to colors, light and shadow, as well as to contrasts, all of which play an important role in the effect created by her works and the model-like character of each shot.


In the way Kemsa presents her video works and large-format photographs we can draw a further parallel with Fiona Tan und David Claerbout, whose recent approach to installing their works also touches on fundamental questions on the relationship between photographs, films and the space of the viewers. One response to this issue is to couple the different spaces: Claerbout, for example, tried to make viewing space and pictorial space converge in his video installations Rocking Chair (2003) and American Car (2002-2004). Tan for her part conceived the screening of her 1997 video n.t. (Leidsestr.) to coincide with the situation of passage in which the film was shot in Berlin, and worked in Countenance (2002), Tomorrow (2005) and Correction (2004) with projection screens that took on a physical und almost plastic presence.


In Gudrun Kemsa's work the question of space is posed more through the relationship of the camera to the photographed or filmed situation. No matter how clearly the artist can be localized in the group of artists dealing with the interactions between film, photography and concepts or ideas of time, the aspect of movement still defines the specific qualities of her work.


This means in particular the pictorial presence of Kemsa's own perspective: she creates a visual system that allows movement, time and space to be perceived not only in film, but also in photography. The apparatus of the film or video camera, in combination with the above-described compositional considerations and the construction of filmic sequences, becomes a third eye that generates a subtle congruence with the perceptual level. In other words: Kemsa's photographs and filmed images function for the viewer not as mere recording but rather as a way to reconstruct a specific way of thinking about the picture.


In combination with the tracking movements of the camera, or with the continuous, never-ending stream of filmic information, the perceptual situation is also fundamentally changed: the sudden feeling that we ourselves are moving focuses our attention on the reference system of filmic and real space, putting our awareness of our own presence in real space and real time into perspective in order to finally underline the corporeality of seeing.


The concept of the peripatetic viewpoint - borrowing from Aristotle's school of philosophy and his advocacy of walking as a way to stimulate one's thoughts - might serve as symbol here for Kemsa's concentration on the aspect of movement. We thus come full circle to our remarks at the beginning of the text on a theme the artist continually finds new ways of approaching: Gudrun Kemsa's photographs are in motion ...


Lit: Gudrun Kemsa - Urban Stage, Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg 2010