Bats, Babes, and Discoballs in the Works of Barbara Breitenfellner

The workspace of Austrian-born Berliner, collagist and installation artist Barbara Breitenfellner is host to an elaborate rigging of books, boxes and trays that more closely resembles a chemistry lab than a cutting table. A long worktable lines one blue wall of her home-studio, whereon clippings brew in piles, paper churns in various stages of doing and undoing, and cans of spray glue await their day. Wallabies and bombshells rotate in and out of circulation, off the shelf, out of the book, off the page, into the hash, out of the hash, then either onto the page, into the frame and back onto the wall, or into a box for another chance at reincarnation. I spoke with Breitenfellner during my visit to Kreuzberg, a neighborhood smack in the middle of post-wall Berlin, and a collage in its own right, after encountering her work on Geografia Liquida, an Italian site devoted to cataloguing art that manipulates landscape. We spoke about her strategies or un-strategies of manipulation. Meanwhile I monitored the machinations of said paper lab.

Observing the marked precision in Breitenfellner's collage work–a microscopic view of strand of hair perfectly parallels the leg of the owl in flight it overlays–it is surprising to learn that thematic calculation ends after her selection of source materials, that firm intent it is absent during the assembly of her collages. Although in collecting outmoded women's magazines, books on zoology and botany textbooks, Breitenfellner begins to define her themes, never in a piece does she aim for a particular moral or visual pun or punchline. She'll hardly admit that it is work that produces her works. "My collages spring from the threatening, erotic and illogical universe of dreams, there images extinguish themselves, leaving uncertain traces in our memory. Through the overprinting, cutting-out, overturning and adjoining of images I play, seemingly uncontrolled, with the circumstances of the unconscious. The particularly compelling compositions that develop through this process simply cluster about me, almost taking me by surprise. It's as if someone else had made them. Those are my best works."

If Breitenfellner's collageing process is an open inquiry into the workings of the unconscious, what she uncovers there, as far as is clear to the viewer, is a preoccupation with common fate of man and beast as fellow fauna, the potential carnality as well as the potential vulnerability of each. The heads of a blonde child model and a screen-printed vampire bat share one white-stockinged body in one of Breitenfellner's pre-collage pieces. Although Breitenfellner has been creating such "pictorial layers" by printing over book and magazine pages since 2005, she in fact came to pure collage through zoology. In 2008 Breitenfeller traveled from Berlin to a residency at Florida's Atlantic Center for the Arts with only one suitcase of illustrated books in hand. She spent three weeks cutting in the company of pelicans, dolphins, ospreys, magnolia warblers, reddish egrets and armadillos.  One fruit of this labor features a beauty reclining, or fallen in the seaside sands and ocular over-pastings of owls, suggesting surveillance or voyeurism or a predator's vigil.

Many of Breitenfellner's works seem particularly to confront the processes of capture and domestication, be it the capture and domestication of man, or that of beast. The gesture of a reclining tiger in captivity mirrors those of the supermodels onto which she is superimposed. The hands of schoolchildren flap proudly to show their teacher cleanliness beneath the likewise flapping wings of a falcon. A photograph of an ancestor dressed in suit and tie posing for a long-forgotten photographer with his freshly killed bird of prey in hand is among the artifacts Breitenfellner keeps at hand in her studio. A taxidermied marten sits in a glass case behind her desk. Even Breitenfellner's workspace demonstrates her interest in investigating the relationship between natural history and social history, their often-evaded proximity to one another. Breitenfellner's chosen medium seems especially suited to confronting humankind's susceptibility to the same forces of nature that dominate the animal kingdom. An arctic wind, which reduces a fox population one season, may become the breeze through the studio window that shifts those clustering cutouts. A fawn may bear a striking resemblance to a perfume model, and Breitenfellner's succumb to chance is what allows shifts to reveal such resemblances. Because chance may be invited into any space, Breitenfellner's "workspace" is incidental. Her "worktime," she says, is more significant; her best collages come out at night, or in the evening, with the thickening of the dream-atmosphere.

The source material for Breitenfellner's installations are, precisely, her own dream narratives, images and scenarios culled from what she calls her nightly notes or records over the past ten years. "The reality grown from dream-images–a holey reality, full of alcoves and corners–is the theme of the installations. For a few years I have been working on stagings of my by morning-awakening-noted dreams that deal with contemporary art," for example a recent installation in the Autocenter of Berlin. The dream-text is as follows:

Dream of a large exhibition. I had a huge really dopey drawing (of a clown) and I was very ashamed. Two girls were doing a performance on roller-skates. That wasn't that cool either.

In the staging of this dream, a disco ball glittered over two ultimately charming roller-skaters, dancers with whom Breitenfellner had choreographed a series of movements. Above it all hung an elaborately realized oil-crayon drawing of a clown, grotesque and uncanny. Breitenfellner's installations of dreams about art, she explained, are the paradoxical result of her fundamental distrustfulness regarding the production of art and exhibitions. "The development from the first exhibition in the seventeenth century, displays of private rarities and collections of curiosities to the big modern-day public art galleries and museums does not let us forget that museums are actually uncanny places par excellence." The German "unheimlich" can refer both to a specific psychological phenomenon--a déjá -vue-ish feeling of recognizing a manifestation of one's unconscious in the "real" world–and to good old-fashioned creepiness. Breitenfellner unwittingly produced both reactions in her audience. Certain observers recognized her ironic self-effacement, others were puzzled and nervous. For her solo exhibition "Dream of an Exhibition," in the Hartware MedienKunstVerein in Dortmund, Breitenfellner worked on a staging of the following dream-text:

Dream 1: Exhibition in one big museum. Where I was meant to show my works wasn't clear. What were my works exactly anyway? In one big room: all the big ostentatious oil paintings were hanging far above on the wall. The museum floor was covered in one big psychadelic zigzag carpet." On the carpet stood a fat sports car, like a plump bronze-statue.

To determine the finality of a collage, to determine when a collage is truly a collage, Breitenfellner hangs her chance collections of images together from paperclips, unglued, overnight. If, after sleep, she is still fixated on a composition, (a work in limbo during my visit has since found its final form as a cat batting the armpit of a woman's silhouette), she brings out the spray glue, the literal fixative, and in so doing archives her fixations, making them available to the public, as she does through installation. Certain of these fixations, manifest as collage or installations come out tamed, they make her laugh, they make me laugh. Others retain their potency, their tenderness or violence, grief, grotesqueness or carnality. Just as the works carry no titles, they offer-up no definitive lesson learned. There is no outright answer to a questions like," What is a girl to a fawn," or "What do a mare and a woman share?" Nor are prey and predator discrete categories. When I asked Breitenfellner to describe the relationship between women and animals in her work, she replied, "I fundamentally cannot answer this question."

About This Story

  • Contributors: Elizabeth Pusack, Barbara Breitenfellner
  • Published Online: Feb 21, 2012