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TRUE STORIES

Filme

Videostill, Strangers

 

Her slapstick video series “True Stories” (totaling seven videos made between 1997 and 2003) consists of subtly and ironically humorous “vignettes” featuring Dertnig herself as the main protagonist of the fleeting events shown. The golden thread in True Stories consists in the awkward or embarrassing situations stumbled into by the protagonist in the various scenarios. One sketch has Dertnig battling sliding doors that constantly try to close on her as she attempts to push her bicycle in and out of an elevator that is really too small (“Byketrouble”, 1998). Another (“Bread”, 1997) is set in the artist’s substandard New York kitchen, where a wobbly, one-legged wall table stubbornly resists her tortured attempts to stabilize it, toppling loudly onto the floor again and again. “Rain’in” (2001) provides yet another look at her living conditions in New York: rainwater collects in the bowl-shaped glass shade of an overhead lamp on the ceiling before she deftly gives it a push with a broom handle; the shade tips diagonally, sending the water splashing onto the floor. In “Revolving Door” (2001), Dertnig—with a little transport trolley in one hand and a bulky object in the other—forces herself through the narrow entranceway of one of the World Trade Center’s two main towers; the revolving door repeatedly spits her out, and she ultimately fails to actually get inside. In “Out of the Loop”, she steps in a puddle of sticky, pink goo, wearing flip flops. Passersby attempt to be helpful when they see her trying to free herself. In the two videos shot in Vienna, “Tafelspitz” (2000) and “Strangers” (2003), the stories are more elaborately staged—a fact that sets them apart somewhat from the thoroughly believable, fleeting incidents described above. In Tafelspitz, the artist—elegantly dressed and styled—visits her favorite downtown café and orders the commensurately genteel traditional dish Tafelspitz [Viennese-style boiled beef]. But the portion of meat she is served turns out to be so inelegantly oversized that she has great difficulty concealing the effort required to “polish it off.” As the diners seated nearby observe her with stolen glances, she slices up the piece of meat, which hangs far over the edges of her plate, and stuffs a good bit of it into her handbag; some fairly large pieces fall on the floor in the process and are gobbled up by another diner’s dog. “Strangers” (2003) shows a traveler arriving at a train station and phoning in apparent excitement as she walks down the concourse, all the while unaware that a red stocking is slipping out of her pant leg, stretching longer and longer as she continues to walk along. Ultimately, the stocking turns into a ribbon of fabric several meters long and wraps itself around bystanders, forming a strange sort of barrier that they either climb over or pretend to ignore. The English-language phone conversation, which one hears as a voiceover spoken by Dertnig, revolves around the question of just what a stranger is, as well as where and when a stranger actually becomes a stranger. It is an updated English translation of a subversively comical sketch by Karl Valentin and Lisl Karlstadt written in 1940. By resorting to the tradition of slapstick film, Dertnig almost casually injects elements of anarchy and destruction into quintessentially everyday situations. And by melding filmic staging and live performance, Dertnig explores norms of social behaviors. This applies not just to the individuals that happen to be present at the scene of the action and their various reactions, but also to those watching the video, to whose imagination it is left to judge just what is staged and what is “real.” The protagonist’s provocatively clumsy behavior and the embarrassing predicaments into which she gets herself evoke both the urge to help her and the urge to ignore her, as well as feelings of malicious joy and scorn. Precisely because the audience cannot quite tell where the directed action stops and bystanders’ reactions actually are spontaneous ones, Dertnig succeeds in building up a sort of tension that goes beyond comic effect to deliberately give rise to a quasi-existential uneasiness—albeit one that is counteracted by the comedy of the protagonist’s “Buster Keaton”-like role. The intensity of Dertnig’s miniature scenarios is not owed simply to the situations they portray; indeed, the decisive factor consists in the filmic means she employs. These include shots from varied perspectives, as well as postproduction sound effects and editing sequences that support the buildup toward the events’ climax. Repetitions and loops blur the chronological sequence and give rise to irritations, as Friedrich Tietjen notes: “She [Dertnig] opposes this with a fragmented, fed-back and multilayered temporality that is of no use to the progression, a temporality in which the past, more than being just a necessary and completed stage leading up to the present, remains constantly at hand—albeit perhaps repressed—in said present.” 1 It is no coincidence that these videos simultaneously reflect on Dertnig’s situation as an artist, including her precarious living conditions in New York, where she took on factory jobs to stay afloat. A recurring theme in her work is the World Trade Center, where (before 9/11) she had a studio thanks to a grant; it was only thanks to a fortunate coincidence that she was elsewhere when it was destroyed. Dertnig employs her critically analytical gaze to highlight an aspect of the global economy that is not typically publicized: run-down offices apparently abandoned in haste, alarming signs of economic failure. Her difficulties getting through the revolving door (“Revolving Door”, 2001) are caused quite ostentatiously by the equipment—the tools she needs as an artist—that she has on her person. The videos shot in Vienna are about being a stranger and returning to a town from which she had been absent for several years. Her presentation of herself, ranging from the self-possession of her conformist café guest and rail traveler to the embarrassment of the snafus described above, hence goes beyond any individual insecurity to refer to her generally insecure status as an artist. In all its irony, the issue of gender also plays a constant role in Dertnig’s work. She deliberately belabors clichés: that is to say, certain types of conventions tied to the construct of “femininity” such as clumsiness with technical things, wardrobe malfunctions, and a lady-like comportment that she takes to the point of being ridiculous. Carola Dertnig describes it as follows: “In these videos, I assume the clown-role much like Buster Keaton did. I am the protagonist, but I’m also a projective surface acting as a catalyst for the most varied reactions by inhabitants of the public realm. It’s about how the attempt to be inconspicuous results in one’s actually being that much more conspicuous.” Silvia Eiblmayr NOTES 2 Friedrich Tietjen, “Failing, Passing. Carola Dertnig’s Afterimages of a Non-simultaneous Present,” in Carola Dertnig. Nachbilder einer ungleichzeitigen Gegenwart, ed. Silvia Eiblmayr and Galerie im Taxispalais (Innsbruck-Bolzano/Bozen-Vienna: Skarabaeus im Studienverlag, 2006), 10. Exhibition catalog

 

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