Teresa Hubbard / Alexander Birchler

At the Limits of Photography Cinematic Elements in the Work of Teresa Hubbard/Alexander Birchler
PHILIPP KAISER Curator Kunstmuseum Basel, Museum für Gegenwartskunst

Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler's working methods are hardly different to those of a film director and not just since they have been making short films with professional actors. In their photographic mise-en-scenes and even before that in their early sculptural and performative works, this particular mode of production has been leitmotif and red thread in one. Their work operates within a cinematic context that has had a fundamental effect on art production as a whole over the last ten years. The reasons for the present appeal of cinema are many and diverse. In general terms it may be said that certain aspects of the entertainment industry are deployed by artists not least as a response to the ever greater importance of the mass media. Comercial cinema is perceived as the place where illusions and glossy images are produced, since its films by definition tell fictitious narratives. Contemporary art production makes use of these same affirmative strategies and courts the viewer's favor with its own aesthetic of seduction. For a large numbers of artists the cinema is an inexhaustible reservoir whose existing images can be manipulated, restructured and deconstructed. Hubbard / Birchler, on the other hand, have appropriated a 'cinematic grammar', that is to say they have adopted specific film techniques with which they arrive at independent pictorial solutions that go beyond precise, identifiable quotation.

However, the cinematic dimension of Teresa Hubbard and Alexander
Birchler's work does not merely consist of film-related production methods. Another specifically cinematic element in their work is the sensual effect of their large-format photographs that confront the viewer with life-sized figures, thereby concealing their own mediality so that the photographic mode itself will be forgotten. A similar process may also be seen in film which only seems credible or plausible to viewers when they lose sight of its mediality. But above all the work of Hubbard / Birchler is distinguished by its narrative dimension. Using elaborate props and 'film sets' they stage voids with multiple levels of meaning that specifically convey a cinematic temporality which in turn suggests a possible story without beginning and without end. Thus Hubbard / Birchler generate a narrative dimension from the conditions of the medium of photography, which in turn means that their relationship to photography is wholly different to that of postmodern attempts to denounce the medium with the intention of revealing it as an ideological construct. On the contrary, they have found a way to make playful, productive use of its very deficiencies.
Looking back, Hubbard / Birchler's central interest in the issues involved in staging images and in theatricality is readily apparent: starting with the series Falling Down, 1996, and leading to the tableau photographs. Hindsight shows, too, that in their own way the earlier performative and sculptural works were also drawing on cinematic strategies.
Paths to Photofiction Performance and Self-Substantiation When they first started to collaborate ten years ago, Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler worked in performance, often focusing on their
own collaborative work-mode as an artist-couple. Besides unpublished actions they also made a number of black-and-white photographs that were intended as more than mere documentations of performances. Despite their modest, small formats these photographs stand in their own right as autonomous works. In the wider context of art the boundaries between documentation and independent mise-en-scenes have been relatively fluid since as long ago as the mid-1960s, for in many performances it seemed that cause and effect were reversed in the sense that the need for documentation was the incentive for the action. Ten years later any pose in front of the camera lens was enough to produce a staged photograph.2 Perhaps the best known example of the 'one-ness' of performance, staged scenario and autonomous work are Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills, which Arthur C. Danto views as unique for the way that they are simultaneously and inseparably both photographs and performances.3 In Hubbard / Birchler's work a similar formulation in terms of the aesthetic of forms, but which is also primarily concerned with the artists' thoughts of 'self-substantiation' may be seen in Horse, 1992. This photograph, which was intended as part of an unrealized series, examines the interdependency of the partners in a relationship and turns a documented event into a staged moment. Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler in fact appear in front of the camera in a horse costume. Paper ears, a brush, a bucket and a cloth that is too short are not, however, that convincing. And the flex of the self-release shutter points only too clearly to the modus operandi. This is laid bare in order to take apart the 'one-ness' of artistic production which is usually reflected in the lonely, romanticized artist-subject. At the same time Horse is also an allegory of the ideal symbiosis, since a horse always has four legs, i.e. both parts of the team are indispensable, even if only one can be the head. The new joint artist-body as portrayed by Hubbard / Birchler is, however, extremely ambivalent: the horse is too reminiscent of the slapstick turns familiar from circus acts in which the clumsily uncoordinated movements of the actors in costume invariably induce laughter.
Noah's Ark, also made in 1992, constitutes a three-part, black-and- white photo work which takes as its subject the artistic work process the couple are involved in together. The previously homogenous artist- body has now been divided into two museum attendants in white coats. Reading the narrative sequence from left to right (Unpacking, Lunchbreak, Working) the artists set up a diorama against a painted background that goes back to Edward Hicks' painting Noah's Ark, 1846. Their initial shared astonishment at the task facing them is followed by an uncommunicative lunch-break. Later they start work again, in a concentrated manner, but separately and each dealing with a different area. In the foreground there are stuffed animals, placed there in readiness for the procession into Noah's Ark. It becomes clear that Hubbard / Birchler are responsible for selecting the animals, that is to say they are acting as creators but are also part of the creation story because they are the only human couple in sight. The painting in the background is not finished, nor has the ideal arrangement been found for the animals; there is still work to be done before the artist duo can also climb up into Noah's Ark. The persuasive illusionism of dioramas, where it is impossible to distinguish between painted and real animals, here represents a line of argument familiar to us from natural history, with an individual story of joint-authorship embedded in the widely known biblical myth of Noah. But Noah's Ark is less a critique of the prevalent conventions of scientific representation than it is a pointer to their fictionality and to the 'constructed' nature of such pictures. The fact that the diorama plays such a central part in Hubbard / Birchler's subsequent sculptural works is due in the first instance to its capacity to create illusions. In addition to this the diorama, as a proto-cinematic phenomenon, occupied a prominent place in early 19th-century entertainment. The connection between diorama and cinema is both historical and structural: the motifs portrayed in dioramas were predominantly interiors of churches or sentimental Alpine scenes, as though opening up new vistas on the world.4 Railroads had come into being not long before so the diorama appeared at just the right time to offer an alternative to expensive, exhausting travel. The perfect deception of the senses gave the viewer the impression of temporarily being somewhere else, exactly as the cinema was to do later on.5 The topicality of early mass media in contemporary art production is seen in exemplary form in Hiroshi Sugimoto's three conceptual series Dioramas, Wax Museums and Theatres, which he has been constantly extending since 1976. Sugimoto uses didactic, geo-historical dioramas to examine the difference between illusionistic artificiality and the reality content of representational images, which he feels have lost some of their credibility through the impact of film and television. He attempts to deflect this loss by photographing them. This in fact means that the principle of photography is applied twice over, for the prepared animals have as it were already been photographed in the sense that their individual poses seem as frozen and rigid as though they had already been captured on film. In contrast to Sugimoto, who seeks to release the rigor mortis of the animals, thereby achieving a surreal snap-shot effect,6 Hubbard / Birchler are interested in the specific illusionism of the diorama, further exploring its medial conditions and construction methods in their sculptural works.