Eva Bertram. Vor der Tür

An idea of what is real

”What makes some photographs so irresistible is an idea of what is real.“

Cees Nooteboom

In his urban novel All Souls Day, the Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom has his protagonist Arthur Daane roam aimlessly through a wintry Berlin. Held captive py painful thoughts and memories, the once successful documentary filmmaker wanders through the snow-covered metropolis, finally capturing with his camera that fleeting moment of dusk that separates day and night. However, it is less a hunting instinct that leads him to record this truly poetic moment. Rather, for Arthur Daane the validity of the filmed image is linked to the condition of coincidence, in which the interior and the exterior word can encounter one another. For him, a heightened moment is always also the result of directed non-deliberateness.

The reason the concentrated look at what literally falls at his feet, what he encounters outside his own front door or during an expedition through the neighborhood is charged with special meaning is precisely because superficially, he appears to lack any intention whatsoever. Showing gives way to observing, which is awarded a deeper truth. This strange imaginary conctruction, which is generally linked with a diffuse idea of what is real, is not rarely based on a deep need to be certain of one’s immediate surroundings and thus also of one’s own identity. Whoever needs to first question the world in order to prove its (and at the same time one’s own) existence, has a look around he is able to name and interpret it. A reflex-like gesture of someone searching for certainty is often reaching for a camera.

The big sleep

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that like the character in Nooteboom’s novel, Eva Bertram lives in Berlin. According to Bertram, Berlin’s metropolitan character continues to provide her with a familiar anonymity, which at the same time cannot be situated anywhere on an emotional scale. Whoever speaks in this way is thinking primarily in biographical terms and also perceives a sense of urban melancholy. In any case, the coordinates of her life deny her any unbroken thoughts of home. Born in Freiburg in 1964, Eva Bertram lived in what was considered the shabby residential area of Untergiesing in Munich. After completing school, she moved to the isolated western half of Berlin, a contradictory island in which she sees her own reflection. Today, the photographer lives with her daughter in the eastern part of the city, which has become more familiar to her since reunification. A journey through life that has left artistic traces. Like laughing, for her taking photographs is ultimately also a form of self-defense. She concentrates on searching for evidence of a continual disappearing and on the ubiquitous processes that everything is subject to. Likewise, it is difficult not to recognize a fundamental melancholic note in the offensive idea of denial. Eva Bertram already knew how to use it as a guiding artistic principle at the beginning of her photographic and cinematic work.

In 1994, Eva Bertram commenced her search in Berlin for those heightened moments in which the idea of what is real is in danger of becoming blurred in the face of daydreams. It is that state of semi-consciousness characterized by tiredness in which one’s gaze becomes more strongly directed inwards. Alluding to the film noir of the same name, she called her series of color photographs of exhausted passers-by, who reveal their most intimate feelings and thoughts in the sluice-like non-places of the subway station, The Big Sleep. A sensitive, deeper probe into the essence of being human, guided once more by a lack of intention. The heightening of what was found by coincidence is characterized by formal precision – she consciously implements the camera of a secret agent. Without exception, the view of the person opposite her follows a simple view from below, always on the narrow dividing line between closeness and distance. Furthermore, the sequence of images exposes their decidedly cinematic character, which allows the viewer sufficient space for protections. Inka Schube aptly described Bertram’s photographic strategies:”Her photographic works may be understood as freeze images, better yet as set photographs, because she thinks and works according to the criteria of cinematic craftsmanship.“ The most important images are invariably placed on the hard disk of the human brain. Everything is a construction. This photographer professes that photography anyway lacks any evidential value whatsoever: Everything is ultimately speculative and thus foreign.

Day in, day out and Year in, year out, projects that were realized in 2001, also deal with being foreign in a familiar environment. Like many members of her generation, Eva Bertram retreats into the private and everyday sphere. The assuring questioning of the immediate surroundings reveals a world characterized by displacement, interruptions and inconsistencies. The skin of an animal of prey that serves to cover a driver’s seat poorly conceals what remains of an animalistic instinct; a deer merely exists in the shape of a memorial, Eva Bertram concentrates on the slightly displaced in the ordinary, on what has been scrapped for reasons of economics or instrumental rationality. She herself sees it as a permanent manifestation of small-scale failure. This means that her photographs are also melancholic documents of an artistic endeavor to find true life in a false one. The confession-like guiding principle has been written down in the accompanying catalogue. ”Day in and day out it will be different than it has been, and nothing about it will change.“ 

Vor der Tür /Non-local

In the medium-sized town of Ravensburg, Eva Bertram has now once again thematisized failure, the failure of the notion of home. She has given her latest project the ambiguous title Vor der Tür /Non-local, in which it remains uncertain whether someone (the viewer?) is not supposed to step inside or step outside. The question that resonates in the title nevertheless presupposes a doorway that leads either outside or inside – one either leaves the dwelling or enters it. The treshold character continues into the English title non local. A greater distance has, so to speak, been written into the name of the project; the parameters of a field study have been outlined.

The movement of the series of images is in fact initially carried out from the periphery to the center. Everything is visible, everything appears simple, everything is identifiable. A field, a meadow, three cars, two trees, a street. The walk into town is like a familiar everyday experience; domesticated nature increasingly gives way to the contemporary settings of civilization. However, the pastel-colored path into the urban idyll ambiguously turns out to be plants that have been wrapped beyond recognition, finely painted cars that have been pasted with newspaper, and buildings – handed-down metaphors of human existence – that have been degenerated into dreary fortresses, on which the eye focus. In both their composition as well as their motif, Bertram’s photographs are frequently composed in layers, conceal more than they reveal; instead of communication, isolation prevails everywhere. Concrete walls, garden fences and garage doors that obstruct the view into the distance are predominant. In total, Bertram’s work is an eerie document of a world imbued with obscurity, in which all wounds have apparently been banished to the inside. Visual barriers become metaphors for a collective need for protection, behind which stands the sheer fright of dissolution. Middle-class desires to perfect things all too often end in tragicomical disarrangement, which reduce the utopian tendency towards flawlessness and invulnerability to absurdity. The corners of a Ping-Pong table are broken off, a white horse has left a pile of manure, newspapers flatter across a freshly swept street. Oddly enough, it is precisely these moments characterized by deconstruction that reveal truly poetic qualities. The world, which just went out of joint, is perhaps beautiful for this very reason.

What remains is the contour of a house drawn with chalk by a child’s hand on the asphalt. The eyes are once more directed downwards; there is no horizon. Is it an entropic signal or the glimmer of hope of a new beginning? In any case, in her field study title Vor der Tür /Non-local, which can be interpreted as a profile of defeated desires, Eva Bertram uncovers an unbearableness that is doubtly painful. Because it is not the result of a well-calculated shock, by rather of an idea of what is real.

© Christoph Schaden, 2003

 published in: Eva Bertram. Vor der Tür/ Non-local, Ravensburg 2003, p. 74-75

Eva Bertram

text published in:
Eva Bertram - Vor der Tür / Non Local
Ravensburg 2003, p. 72-75

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