Texts / Reviews
Bear Girls | Bärenmädchen
Ute Behrend in conversation with Barbara Hofmann-Johnson
Ute Behrend uses the medium of photography to sound out peculiar narrative worlds, with a subtle sense for poetic and formal relationships that is both atmospheric and aesthetic. Following a visual concept, in which two images from different realities, and in some cases staged scenes, are paired narratively with one another, she creates allusions to themes such as portrait and nature, or implies, on a small scale, cultural references. In her current series Bear Girls, which is presented in this publication, the Cologne-based artist tackles the topic of female adolescence in her own unique associative way. As an alternative to the stereotypes of sexualised identification shaped by society and the media, Ute Behrend’s Bear Girls inhabit an archetypal natural environment and safe space, which isolates them, making them appear poetically timeless when compared to common patterns of socialisation. She describes her new work group in conversation.
Barbara Hofmann-Johnson: The work group presented in this publication is a continuation of your photographic concept, in which you pair images, set them in dialogue with one another, and place details from different settings and global contexts in narrative and atmospheric relation to one another. What is the idea you are pursuing with the current series of Bear Girls?
Ute Behrend: In my earlier projects I photographed a lot in my immediate surroundings. When my daughters started to grow up, the theme of adolescence also became increasingly interesting for me in my artistic work.
I already knew various pieces of work on this topic and thought I should do something other than just taking photographs of pretty young people and perhaps also their living environments.
My daughters’ behaviour was pretty “normal” in comparison with the common clichés. What was striking was that they were interested in their father’s wardrobe. They
were especially attracted to big pullovers and strangely enough they bought jars of baby food, which they would eat with their friends.
I remembered that I was like this too.
There were also other girls in our circle of friends: those who were happy to face the challenge of growing up, who were intensively occupied with their feminine attractiveness and who dressed provocatively sexy. But they weren’t at all aware that they represented a sexual attraction. Literature is full of girls like this. Nabokov’s Lolita is just one example. Television also regularly likes to use the young-girl cliché. These girls actually pop up all the time in all possible contexts. It always has something to do with desire, often with the possibility of earning money, seldom with the girls themselves. I found this noteworthy in its extreme form, but rather uninteresting, because it has often been represented in this way.
What I found a lot more interesting was how the girls I knew, in the large pullovers, distanced themselves instinctively from sexualised behavioural patterns and evaded the pressure that was exerted on them by the media, the advertising industry or fellow pupils or whatever else.
I thought of a book by John Irving, Hotel New Hampshire. In it there’s a young woman who dresses herself in a bearskin after being raped so that she can’t be seen. The fur protects her and grants her the freedom she needs to develop her own unique self and to process the terrible experience.
Barbara Kerr explored the similarities between girls who later became strong women in Smart Girls, Gifted Women 1. She found that all of the girls had had time for themselves, as well as the ability to fall in love with an idea, and that they had a “protective mantle”. None of them was particularly popular and most of them were relatively isolated within their peer group, not because that was what they wanted, but because they had been rejected. Interestingly, it was precisely this rejection that gave them a freedom, from within which their uniqueness could develop.
I picked up the motif of the bearskin and had it reappear in a fictional Native American tribe in Canada. There the adolescent girls are dressed in large bearskins to protect them and to give them freedom for their own personal development.
1 Mary Pipher: Pubertätskrisen junger Mädchen, FISCHER Taschenbuch, 2003, Frankfurt am Main
BHJ: As I mentioned earlier, you work with associatively paired pictures that present different motifs. Sometimes the link is clear, but sometimes there is no direct reference to the title of the series. Could you describe your working method, the selection of the pictures and the pairing process? Were the photographs taken specifically for this new series of pictures or selected for the project later on?
UB: In my photographs I either capture moments spontaneously or research in advance and consciously stage situations. I always work with a given theme. Things that I see or scenes that I experience remind me of pictures in my memory. Time and again there are similarities that repeat in other contexts and forms. I can find the pictures at home or in far-off places. I have known many of the young women that I have photographed for this work for a long time. I looked for places that, in my imagination, fitted to the girls. I spoke to other girls when I saw them, and took their photos there and then. All of the pictures are taken specifically for this piece. That includes all of the nature pictures too. The finished photographs are then put in a pool before I pair them off. They must first prove themselves for a while before they are really integrated into the work—sometimes only a day, sometimes several weeks. From the beginning I photograph with the idea in my mind that the pictures should work in pairs. The perfect single image is for me, like in most of my work, unimportant. The potential of the picture is more important: the energy and the power that the picture has to point out, together with a second picture, a new aspect, another perspective in the work as a whole.
BHJ: Do you view the individual pairs of images independently, or should they be viewed as a whole, like a filmic sequence? Is there a narrative tension that implies how the series should be interpreted?
UB: Both are possible. There is a narrative tension and the interpretation is already prescribed by the book. But I wouldn’t compare it to a filmic sequence. I would rather compare myself to an author working with variations on a theme. There is a common thread and the storyline is illuminated anew and retold through various subthemes. I think of Annie Proulx. She told America’s immigration story using a green accordion that was passed on from family to family. Or Giovanni Boccaccio with the Decameron. Like the stories in Decameron, the individual pairs of images
in my work are also readable on their own.
BHJ: In terms of content, the emphasis of the image combinations is largely on the connection of moments in nature with the portraits of the various girls or also moments in nature with animals, which seem to act as stand-ins for human characteristics and existential sequences like in fables or fairy tales. How do you see the individual animals that become visual content in the series? What are the characteristics of the bear as the central motif of the series?
UB: The animals I photographed are primarily wild animals—animals that you can only see, if at all, from a distance in nature. When we do see them, they are very far away, so rather small in our visual frame. But in our conceptual world they are big, as if they were standing right in front of us. A telescopic lens could have reproduced this representation, but that wouldn’t have been the form of reality that interests me. I am fascinated by the wildness and freedom of these animals. They stay far away from humans for very good reasons. Many of them are greatly endangered. They are a bit like the girls I am talking about. They are wild and free and should be careful that they don’t get caught. You can only see them from a distance, you can’t own them and they need our protection.
The only animal that is depicted larger in the work is the bear.
The bear has a special place in mythology. It is the largest land predator and has always impressed humankind. It appears in cave paintings and as a constellation in the night sky, and it is seen as the king of the forest. As plantigrades, humans are very similar to bears. So in a way it makes sense for humans to disguise themselves as bears.
The Greek goddess of the hunt Artemis is sometimes represented as a bear. She is the protector of wild animals, of women and children and the pregnant. According to legend she could metamorphose into a bear. Artemis’s temple is in Brauron, a place near Athens, where two brothers had killed a holy bear. In her anger at this, Artemis sent a plague upon Athens. The goddess demanded the Athenians should bring all of their young girls to her. They were to serve her for five years. Artemis was a virgin goddess and her maids had to be virginal too. “The girls were called the little she-bears. They wore bearskins, did not wash or groom themselves and behaved ‘like savages’.” 2
2 http://www.traum-symbolika.com/das-traumlabor-wozu/matrizentrierte-mythologie, [18.07.2018];
Marie-Louise von Franz (BN 1369, 55-56)
Another variation of the story says that Artemis dressed her playmates in bearskins so that they couldn’t be seen by men. She was afraid of losing her friends to them. If they went with a man, they were cast out of the temple, regardless of whether it was a willing liaison or not. The story of Callisto, one of Artemis’s nymphs, is proof of this. She was raped by Zeus and cast out of the temple when it became apparent she was pregnant. She gave birth to the unwanted child and Hera, Zeus’s wife, became jealous and transformed her into a bear. When Callisto found her son after 15 years and wanted to embrace him, he tried to kill her. She was a bear and he didn’t recognise her. Zeus prevented this by banishing them both to the night sky as constellations. Unfortunately the bearskin wasn’t disguise enough for Callisto. Zeus had seen her beauty nonetheless and used his power to own her.
In the fairy tale Allerleirau, a young princess puts on the furs of many different animals to escape the sexual desire of her father.
She finds refuge in a castle, where she works as a kitchen maid and lives in a cupboard under the stairs. In a to and fro between showing herself, anonymous beauty and hiding under her protective mantle, she manages to win the king’s heart and her own safety. Only then, and actually involuntarily, she leaves behind her anonymity.
The story goes: “The king clutched the mantle and tore it off. Then her golden hair shone forth, and she stood there in full splendour, and could no longer hide herself.” The worn bearskin should be seen as a protective identity. Not as an initiation ritual. And choosing the biggest and most dangerous animal as a protective identity therefore makes absolute sense. Through the bear costume, Susie, the bear in John Irving’s novel Hotel New Hampshire, becomes a perpetrator. She is no longer a victim. Through the constructed identity of a bear, Susie is empowered and is no longer merely at the mercy of her traumatic experiences. That, in turn, is reminiscent of the search for a sound identity during adolescence. In this period confusion about one’s role is common. But self-definition is not only difficult for young people.
BHJ: You oppose a clear “self-definition”, as you formulate it, with an open perceptual model through your artistic approach, using dialogic and associatively paired images. As an aesthetic construct it establishes references to various layers of narrative and reality or shows formal-aesthetic parallels within allusions to reality viewed independently of one another. Sometimes the photographs are also based on stagings and yet their documentary visual language suggests an authentic “that-has-been”, as Roland Barthes would call it, whereby the references of your image pairs mix the real with the staged and thus create their own worlds. Alongside what feels like objective yet unpretentiously poetic observation, it is this that surely accounts for the appeal of your visual world. What importance does the medium of photography have for you?
UB: Photography’s pledge of reality has always been the real drive for me. Though I was never interested in whether something had really been as depicted. For me, the claim alone constitutes the quality of a picture. I like the particular moment. When you see something and time seems to stand still for a moment. I will never stop looking for and photographing these moments. But I often find something missing when viewing these “moment images”—the part that allows the image in my head to become something special. I can fill this gap with the image pairs. The work is intuitive, and the images are given a narrative dimension, without me having to lift photography’s pledge of reality. Through this kind of “constructed” reality the pictures are imbued with the energy that interests me in art.
It is a bit like what Max Ernst once said when he explained collage: “The collage technique is the systematic exploitation of the accidentally or artificially provoked encounter of two or more foreign realities on a seemingly incongruous level—and the spark of poetry that leaps across the gap as these two realities are brought together.” 3
3 Oskar Negt: Überlebensglück, Steidel Verlag, 2016, Göttingen
This can also be applied, depending on the approach, to other artistic techniques. To poetry, literature, painting, film art and photography.
But above all: a good story is a well-told story.
Barbara Hofmann-Johnson studied art history, German studies, and theatre, film and television studies in Cologne and has directed the Museum für Photographie Braunschweig since 2016. She has collaborated with Ute Behrend on various exhibition projects.
One is the loneliest number
»In photography«, says Jeff Wall, »the unattributed, anonymous, poetry of the world itself appears, probably for the first time«. Its beauty »is rooted in the great collage which everyday life is, a combination of absolutely concrete and specific things created by no-one and everyone, all of which become available once it is unified into a picture«.1
Actually, he’s right. The »unattributed, anonymous poetry«, the »great collage«, all the »concrete and specific things«: these are what photography—unique, addictive, casual, potent, improvised photography—deals with and what it is derived from. It is what the photobook deals with and is derived from, this magical admixture of film, novel and family album, which only now we have really come to appreciate.2
However, it is strange to believe, as Wall apparently does, that the things, spaces and faces from everyday life have the capacity to be »unified into« a single picture. Even more remarkably, a significant movement within contemporary photographic art has distanced itself from the fantastic charm of the pictorial narrative and become more interested in the rather sober solitaires on the wall and the perspective from a safe distance. It is precisely the most prominent photographers, inundated with money and fame, who tend towards aristocratic minimalism. They labour on the uncluttered, gigantic single picture for the uncluttered, gigantic museum. Alternately, they devote themselves to the systematic sequence. The individual element is constructed as a—hrrumpf—serial phenotype: shopping centres, libraries, always viewed from the same angle, always in the same light. Even Jeff Wall ultimately doesn’t trust his much vaunted accident, preferring to stage his tableaux himself. In this way he creates disorder ordered by himself, including those concrete things and their unattributable poetry.
All of this is astonishing because such artistic practises clearly differentiate themselves from the other, everyday, snapshot world of photography. They distance themselves, possibly consciously, from us, the lay public who very seldom perceive photographic images as monumental individual entities, mostly encountering them in pairs, as groups, in heaps: along the lines of before-and-after, this-is-me-here-and-this-is-me-there, look-at-this-and-look-at-that.
Perhaps these free-range herds of images intimidate many a photographic artist because they threaten his sanitary method. In everyday life the simple bumps into the decorative, the delicate encounters the dangerous, the repulsive links arms with the delectable. Images generate narratives. They have firm sets of meanings. They have symbolic value. This is difficult to countenance if you view the photographic image as a mysterious monad, which, silent and perfect, doesn’t require anything around it but empty space (and plenty of it).
Ute Behrend’s works are different, however. They come in twos. Always in twos. Instead of meticulously dissecting the dual components of what you see and what that might signify, Behrend infuses her series of images with both elements. She fears neither disorder nor decoration, neither ornament, children’s eyes, pink petals, turquoise dressing gowns, rubber plants, pierced nipples, rottweilers, nor pools of blood. She takes private photographs, but this is an undefinable kind of privacy, temporally localised as the present day, in a place situated somewhere between the city and country and vacation spots, of a generation between youth and mid-life. One’s eye oscillates between one and the other image. It compares, contrasts, combines, engendering in turn mini-narratives that start on the left and end on the right or start on the right and end on the left. Or they become long narratives encompassing several images—narratives that branch out, leaf, blossom.
For goodness sake no stories, no plants—say the coolest minimalists. For goodness sake no minimalism, says Ute Behrend. You have to cope with proliferation. Photosynthesis, 6 CO2 + 6 H²O → C6H12O6 + 6 O2, the transformation of light into greenery that then spreads out over surfaces and grows into voids: nobody can deny that this is all part of the »great collage«. Therefore one really is the loneliest number, because it cannot do justice to disorder. One image wouldn’t be enough, a typological series would be too strict, a mise en scène too clinical.
Ute Behrend’s video art also testifies to the power of this approach—perpetually split in two, as is her photographic work. At the start of her video »Mermaids«, for example, the sun is shining through a gap in the heavy, grey clouds pictured in the image on the left and in the image on the right, in front of a blank wall, a woman is singing a Harry Warden/Mack Gordon-Song, which one recognises from Chet Baker’s version (» …the more I see you, the more I want you / Somehow this feeling just grows and grows …«) and perhaps because this woman does this so well, singing so unpretentiously, as unpretentiously as Chet Baker himself, and because sometimes the sun really does pierce through the grey canopy in this fashion, as indeed everyone knows, and because the sound of the surf can also be heard on the soundtrack and children’s voices can be discerned discussing something and then fading into the distance once more, and because a bird suddenly flies in front of the clouds across the image and then disappears, and because all of this is the case, it seems for a moment as if nothing else exists apart from these clouds, the sound of the surf, the light, the song, the way it is being sung and the way the song is remembered, and the bird in flight and the bird that has flown and the voices and the quietness that follows.
And at this point it becomes clear: true purism is the one that also incorporates the noise. It is the one that both shows what we see and what we remember:
the voice and the rushing sound, the moment and its feedback. Ute Behrend’s photographic series allow you to experience this haptically, laying these combinations in your hands, in the photobook, the ultimate storehouse for what Jeff Wall calls »anonymous poetry«. Look right. Look left. Look left. One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.3
1 cited in: Kaja Silverman, »Totale Sichtbarkeit«. Jeff Wall: Photographs. Köln 2003. S. 97–117; hier S. 111.
2 compare: Martin Parr und Gerry Badger, The Photobook: A History, Vol. I & II. London 2004/2006; Andrew Roth, ed., The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century. New York 2001.
3 Aimée Mann, »One«. Magnolia: Soundtrack. Warner, 2000. CD (Text & Musik: Harry Edward Nilsson, 1968).
… nothing but the first stirrings of terror
Dr. Kerstin Stremmel
Zimmerpflanzen by Ute Behrend
The title of Ute Behrend’s group of works and her book of the same name
suggests an instructional guide on how to conduct the careful greening of life, a sort of compendium of luxurious blooms. Houseplants can indeed be viewed along sociological lines, even if the era of the orangery is over; gardening books no less speak of the burgeoning interest during the 80s and 90s in the greenification of interior spaces in view of the increasing devastation of the environment. A mass taking-flight is implied, possibly. It rarely seems to be successful though, the undertones are sceptical, a fiddle-leaf fig seems as equally aggressive as the rottweiler in the adjacent picture, the treatment of plants is not always loving, but tells the tale of neglect (dried-up palm) or of inveterate blunders in matters of taste (chrysanthemums): these plants including their little plastic pots have been immersed in hydro cultures to such an extent that they appear to be drowning.
In actual fact what we are really dealing with is a manual on how to see. One look at the photographs—in which delightful motifs such a delicate pink flowers with yellowish-green, almost phosphorescent blossoms are rare—is clearly not enough. The reason for this is Behrend’s consistent decision to opt for pairs of images, one photo commenting upon or counteracting the other, and, alongside correspondences in colour, there are also contextual references, occasionally drastic ones.
A meadow with summer flowers is paired with the image of two traffic cones, between them—beneath a dark tarpaulin—a narrow rivulet of blood has trickled out across the brick pavement. The fact that the brickwork is arranged in the form of a cross is accentuated by the chosen framing of the shot. The flower motif in the adjacent image is lent a completely different dimension through the highly associative nature of this street scene, itself an evocative individual image in its own right, when the viewer now attempts to penetrate the tangle of fronds and blossoms in a counter glance—all of a sudden it has taken on something quite eerie, reminiscent of the apparently untroubled surface reality of a David Lynch film beneath which things are seething and redolent of the fact that menace is lurking at the heart of the idyll, indeed that beauty is sometimes really nothing but the first stirrings of terror. Images such as these exemplify just how far removed her conceptual approach is from the mere snapshot: research was necessary for the motifs that tell of everyday police-life, as indeed was the case with other subject areas in order to get to the bottom of particular matters, which only seem to find purchase the majority of our lives in the form of the tabloid headlines.
This feeling that an abyss lurks behind every façade is intensified by the admixture of internal and external shots: a curtain emblazoned with a flowered pattern veils the view of the greenery outside, the upper two thirds of the image are completely obscured by an orange blind. The window is no longer a window on the world, but instead points the viewer back in the direction of him or herself and intensifies the effect of the second image whose scenario is at best equivocal: if the woman’s arm resting on her hip can be taken to expresses a degree of self-confidence, equally the man’s grip around the woman’s narrow upper arm appears too firm to be a truly gentle gesture—in every idyllic dream home a nightmare of violence and aggression. Behrend begins her search for material with police operations and sex trade shows, but is able to locate menace, or at least strange things, in less clearly classifiable situations. Even the view of a tree house, the only access to which seemingly a much too tiny step ladder, juxtaposed with the close-up of a woman’s torso (woman in a red dress with a green balloon), seems like an hermetic hideaway, and the quality of the works resides in the fact that any conclusions one might draw are left up to individual interpretation.
On occasion this gives rise to a brand of poetry shot through with reality, poetry with which anyone who knows Ute Behrend’s work is likewise familiar. Already apparent in the »Märchen« series—which also contains classical ingredients of fairy tales such as fly agaric toadstools, forest clearings, spinning wheels, bears and deer—Behrend departs from photography’s reality principle in an original manner: nothing is every just what it appears to be on the surface, photography is a trace of what has been there, but at the same time a game of gestures and memories opens up beyond what was merely visible in front of the camera. And all of this takes place without a bombastic mise-en-scène, trusting in a capacity for memory, which is not merely accessible in the standard childhood repertoire of motifs. It calls upon experiences that one can feel physically when viewing the images: the feeling of being upside down whilst one is being securely held, discomfort when walking through dense shrubbery, the taste of forest fruits which can be seen directly juxtaposed with the deadly fly agaric toadstool, all of which can become the source of stories arising from details.
I recently encountered the term »thigmotropism«: »thigmotropism is the directional response of a plant organ to touch or physical contact with a solid object. This directional response is generally caused by the induction of some pattern of differential growth«. Something similar happened with Ute Behrend’s carefully compiled »Houseplants«: they change with contact, each and every doubling-up generating new meanings which appear to be compelling and at the next viewing, depending upon one’s particular disposition, can head off in a completely different direction. This openness isn’t an objection to the suggestive power of the combinations, but rather the expression of an approach, which profits from the sheer bandwidth of photographic references to the world. And hence it is possible for there to be images of floral frost patterns on windowpanes interspersed among the others. Alongside the shrill cold they produce a particular beauty that surprisingly is reflected in the dress of a small girl in the neighbouring image. The pair of images—complimenting one another both sensually and contextually— take on a haptic quality; one feels the structure of the floral frost patterns and probably remembers the feeling of one’s skin sticking slightly when tracing the pattern with one’s finger across the pane, immediately understanding in the same way why the girl is wearing a cotton shirt beneath the polyester dress festooned with blue floral frost patterns. Ute Behrend’s unsentimental eye penetrates to the heart of the matter and yet certain subjects appear to be there in order for her to find them once more in her photographs.
Dr. Barbara Engelbach
Ute Behrend – Märchen
Exhibition on the occasion of the Toyota-Fotokunstpreises / Toyota-Photography-Art-Award 2004
Fairytales are more than children’s stories... They display fundamental truths and wisdom. If there is a collective unconscious then fairytales are surely firmly anchored within it, and whoever is prepared to get involved in them can find them everywhere, knowing fully well that all will always end well.
Cologne-based artist Ute Behrend, born in 1961 in Berlin, has received the biennial Toyota Prize for Photography. She was able to convince the jury with her artist’s books, Girls, Some Boys and Other Cookies, published by Scalo and now Fairytales, appearing with Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König.
"Fairytales" is also the title of her presentation at the Museum Ludwig, for which Ute Behrend has made a selection of ca.30 photographs from the series of the same name.
Whether it is the The Valiant Little Tailor, impressing his contemporaries because they interpret "Seven at one stroke!" to be referring to fully-grown men and not flies, or the princess in The Frog King getting over her feelings of disgust and giving the cold and slippy reptile a kiss – these well known fairytales are related to images that everyone recalls.
Often it is particularly the simple narrative structures of fairytales, conveying a sense of ‘deeper wisdom’, that is still occupying cultural philosophers, psychoanalysts and theologians today.
Such images, however, are not to be found in Ute Behrend’s book of FAIRYTALES. Her photorgaphs do not illustrate fairytales, but the artist picks up fairytale themes to find and discover new images and to give them their own associative space.
The fairytale, Frog King, appears, for instance, as a hand with outstretched fingers, covered in glossy green-coloured slime (alt: a slippy mass of paint). This photograph is opposed with another, on which two girls can be seen, sporting princess dresses. One has its back turned to the camera, the other its face covered with her hands. Allusions to the fairytale are being conjoured-up, without the photographs letting themselves be merged in a linear narrative. Behrend often finds her motifs in the intimacy of the associated area of her family or circle of friends and less frequently the artist might ask strangers if they be photographed.
All photographs convey a directness- partly due to the subject’s steadfast gaze into the camera- that renders the question superfluous, whether these are staged or real situations.
Like her idols, e.g. Sally Mann, with whom she shares the interest in photographing children, or Diane Arbus, whose discoveries of the special in the profane and whose metamorphoses of the droll to the normal also can be found in Behrend’s photographs. She also shares the interest in finding the universal in the fleeting, and like all of these Ute Behrend also banks on the (powers of) evidence of the photographic image.
At the same time Ute Behrend has developed a position of her own, because of her consistency in working with pairs of images. Her rejection of the single image is distinct from rows of photographs or photographic sequences for which there could be a renewed selection or compilation at any time or in which photography approaches film.
Behrend has her pairs of images fixed and sticks to that arrangement in publications and exhibitions. As such the photographs are visual echoes of each other or counterparts: correspondences or contrasts, referred aspects of content and form are to be discovered. Visual powers of association that precede the language-systems are being encouraged. Thus Behrend enables an emotional sounding-board for her image pairs, without it being possible to verbalise how feelings of ‘being touched’ or of uneasiness are inherent in the photographs.
The tension in the relationship between recorded every-day situations on one hand, and the timeless narratives and fairytales to which Behrend refers to on the other, is being conserved in the associations that are called-up, as also a recognition that is informed by experience and memory and that escapes consciousness.
Dr. Barbara Engelbach, June 2005