Astrid Wege
On the Video Works of Martina Wolf

I. The fountains shoot high into the sky, grow into a shimmering wall of water and after a few seconds slowly collapse. Behind this water game, a sculpture on a high pedestal can be discerned. It depicts Lenin in a dynamic pose, the right hand is raised and points to the front. The camera captures 28 minutes of the dancing water, allows the Lenin statue to disappear and reappear behind the water spray: a contemplative perceptual training and simultaneously a coherent image for the processes of remembering and forgetting.

“The past is always new”, wrote the Italian author, Italo Svevo, at the beginning of the twentieth century. “It changes continually, as life continues. Parts of it that appeared to have sunk into oblivion re-emerge, other parts vanish because they are less important. […] In the present, only that part of the past able to illuminate or obscure has an influence.” [1] Seen from the present, the past is (re-)constructed, and in the process “memory is inevitably shifted, deformed, distorted, re­-evalu­ated and renewed at the time of recollection” [2] states liter­ary scholar, Aleida Assmann, in her book Erinnerungsräume (The Memories of Space). Thus, remembering is never objective. What we remember and in which form – as an individual and as a collective – is rather a kind of self-assurance. Which events will be incorporated into or excluded from the collective or personal history is always also a struggle about one’s own identity, especially during periods of transitions it is an indicator for the respective political and social foundation of a community. With a sweeping gesture Lenin claims his place in post-Socialist Saint Petersburg. Contrary to those outdated public monuments of Socialism, which are assembled in the sculpture park at the New Tretyakov-Gallery in Moscow (formerly called the Park of the Fallen Heroes), Lenin’s effigy is still omnipresent and far from disappearing in contemporary Russia. Yet, Martina Wolf’s video work, LENIN. Sankt Petersburg (LENIN. Saint Petersburg) from 2009, addresses the question of whether and how something appears and may be lost from view, how something is perceived and evaluated in the subtle as well as simple way that it occurs. This question changes – and is dependent on the respectively chosen perspective, context and staging. [3]

In a second video, which was produced in the same year, the revolutionary leader literally appears in an altogether different light. In the reverberation of a huge video advertising screen, the statue, LENIN. Moskau (LENIN. Moscow), gleams in the sparkling colours of the consumer world. Lenin’s bust at the Leningrad Station in Moscow gazes straight at the billboard, which is hidden from our view. In this work Martina Wolf also opts for a stationary camera position, selecting a profile view of the head against a dark undefined background. For the length of a commercial line, she records unbroken shots of the changing green, pink or violet colour reflections on Lenin’s face. Realised through the medium of video, the sequence is vaguely reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s serial portraits of pop- and Hollywood stars, including Mao and Lenin, or else of his Screen Tests. Wolf’s video captures the icon of the Russian Revolution in the glamour of the new consumer world and to some extent sets this icon in motion through the medium of film. The statue may stand idle, however it appears and is perceived as ever-changing according to its surroundings.

II. Since 2009, the theme of remembering and the culture of remembrance from the perspective of the present time is a recurrent topos in the works of Martina Wolf, and it is closely related with her ongoing exploration of pictorial and perceptive structures. As she dissolved the static medium of the sculpture in LENIN. Moskau into moving pictures – and simultaneously skirts any expectations of a cinematic narration by dispensing with editing and montage and by using a stationary angle – Wolf interlaces painting, photography and video in an array of medial interpretations in her work Sturm auf Berlin (Storming of Berlin) [2009/10]. The starting point of this video installation, which consists of two individual videos, is at Poklonnaya Gora (Poklonnaya Hill), in the Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Moscow, the central site of the national culture of remembrance in post-communist Russia. Initiated in 1957 and inaugurated in 1995 during the Yeltsin era, the monumental museum is dedicated to commemorating the victory of the Red Army over fascism and Nazi Germany in the Second World War: to the ‘Great Patriotic War’, as it is titled in Russian historiography, and its heroisation, which Martina Wolf, who grew up in the former GDR, remembers well from her own experience. The focal point of the video is one of six dioramas on the basement floor of the museum. It shows the battle of Berlin in 1945, which led to the surrender of the German army on May 2nd, 1945, and thus to the end of the Second World War. The occupation of the Berliner Reichstag building by the Red Army on April 30th 1945, was and still is of particular symbolic significance within Russian historiography. Accordingly, the diorama depicts a scene set amid the devastated landscape of Berlin, where two Russian sergeants are given the Red Flag. Shortly after this handover, that flag is going to fly from the gable of the Reichstag as a sign of the end of the war.

Martina Wolf chooses two different approaches to the subject. In her first video, she literally translates the actual question of how the diorama is perceived in this day and age. In real time, she records for one and half hours how visitors – individuals, couples, entire school classes – step into the frame of the camera as if on to a stage, linger in front of the diorama and then leave the image frame: a doubling and display of the viewer’s situation, quasi the enactment of a secondary perception, which assumes the panoramic view of the diorama while simultaneously addressing the framing of the scene. Inevitably, being an observer of other spectators, one is thrown back on oneself. Wolf accompanies the film in parts with sound. Ambient sounds, the commentary of an elderly teacher who guides a group of teenagers through the museum, and occasional original radio footage can be heard: with profound emotion a voice announces the surrender of Berlin.

While Wolf shows this video sequence in black and white – and thus creating detachment from the event, as does the camera position – she uses her second film as a detailed study: slowly the frame wanders about the views of the painted battle scene. Thus, the movement and rhythm of viewing is predetermined and builds up the suspense effect. Individual details are successively brought into focus – the figures of soldiers involved in combat, fragments of tanks, striking flames that blaze from the roof of the Reichstag … The extreme close-up disintegrates the overall view into single elements and accentuates pictorial qualities like brushwork, colouring, colour streaks. The realistic representation of the scene crumbles into abstract colour fields and structures, the appellative quality of concrete contextual references clears the way for pictorial sensations. Nonchalantly,
Martina Wolf’s film deconstructs the ideologically propagandised conflict during the Cold War between Western abstraction and socialist realism through the medium of motion pictures. Already by selecting this medium, she performs a rather ironic stratagem, as films served as a popular means of propaganda in the Soviet Union. Two further works underline this fact: in Tag des Sieges. Moskau, 9. Mai 2009 and in Tag des Sieges. Moskau, 9. Mai 2010 (Day of Victory, Moscow, May 9, 2009 or 2010), Wolf shows in a picture-in-picture scenario a huge screen in the public space located at the bridgehead of the street which leads to the Red Square. Similar to the approach of the diorama at the Museum Poklonnaya Gora, clips from feature films about the Second World War flicker over the screen and are intended to commemorate the achievements of the Red Army on the anniversary of the Second World War. The dramatic-heroic scenes in black and white, whose status has only been identified in 2010, establish a sharp contrast to the brightly coloured display of flags and the ordinariness of the surrounding street scenery. [4]

Sturm auf Berlin is thus an analysis of the official culture of remembrance in today’s Russia, and at the same time a reflection between realism and abstraction in art, respectively between painting and moving images. Yet, Wolf attaches to the chain of medial transcriptions a further intermediate link. Thus, she records detail by detail the Berlin Diorama in Moscow in approximately 70 individual photographs and digitally composes a large-screen version, which then serves as source material for her film; what appears to be a slow tracking shot was in reality created in a digital cutting programme. Also in her group of works, Wandfotografien (Wall Photographs), created between 2009 and 2011, the artist employed a photographic editing procedure. Again she assembled countless individual shots into large-scale photomontages. [5] The subject of these digital montages is repainted graffiti in the inner city of Moscow, a phenomenon which Wolf observed with increasing frequency during her repeated stays there. The municipality tries to pragmatically tackle these undesired sub-cultural messages, which cannot be prevented by means of restrictions, by whitewashing over them with oil- and dispersion paint without repairing the whole wall. The resultant colour fields that follow the lettering and drawings in varying sizes and colour shades are reminiscent of abstract paintings. The geometric, slightly irregular and fraying colour fields superimpose the graffiti, but may not completely extinguish them. Underneath the colour fields, certain fragments of the graffiti messages shine through.

III. The tension implemented here between abstraction and concretion is fundamental for Martina Wolf’s artistic approach. The place of production of a work and the respectively encountered social and political reality often play a constitutive role. With her keen sense for the singularities of a location, she transforms her factual observations and perceptions into representative situations. The formal precision of her medial interpretation is thereby crucial. Especially if she works with a stationary camera, the chosen frame is decisive for the composition. Sometimes Martina Wolf selects a close camera position, as in LENIN. Moskau, and sometimes distanced, as in TISCH. Algier (Table. Algiers) [2009], where she records, by means of an extreme overhead shot from the fourth floor, a group of men sitting at a round table playing cards. Quite often the frame incorporates elements of the inner pictorial structure. Thus, the initial frame of PRAWDA (Pravda) [2009] features a deserted suburban train station in the outskirts of Moscow: a platform, safety barrier and sign of the station, ‘Pravda’, i.e. ‘truth’ – as is the title of the formerly most important Russian newspaper – create an orthogonal pattern, whose vertical structure is complemented by birch trunks in the background. This rigid, seemingly constructivist composition is gradually enlivened by passengers, who populate the platform. They are waiting for their train, while directly in front of the camera, trains rush past and thus momentarily obscure events or merely allow intermittent glimpses. Trains stop at the opposite platform and receive the passengers on board. In the final frame, the platform again lies deserted. In Bus-Station [2010], the steel girders of a Muscovite bus stop similarly duplicate the vertical lines of the frame, the rear wall of the bus stop diagonally cuts the horizontal image borders, while slips of paper, wanted ads, pinned to the wall flutter in the breeze. In Rote Linie / Kras­naja Linia (Red Line / Krasnaya Linia) [2009] Wolf deliberately introduces into the grey of the tower block complex on the periphery of Moscow an element of chance, which cracks open the grid-type order. Across a snow-covered sports field lies a red tulle ribbon. People pass by, obli­vious to the ribbon, others appear to wonder about it and consciously overstep the ‘red line’. The film records for 25 minutes how the wind slowly propels the ribbon across the field. In the beginning, the ribbon is parallel to the left image border. In the course of the video, the wind creates any number of linear designs, which appear like spatial drawings on the white ground. Eventually, the ribbon is gently blown off the image field.

IV. The interplay between frame and inner pictorial structure is most evident in Martina Wolf’s Fensterbilder (Window Images). Whether in her current domicile, Frankfurt am Main, in Dresden, Ohio (USA), Almaty (Kazakhstan), Moscow or in Olevano (Italy), where the artist stayed repeatedly in 2012 and 2013: the windows is a recurrent element in her works. As a link between inside and outside, the window entails motif and compositional tools in one. In line with the classic topos of early imaging techniques, the window shows a section of the world that humans can comprehend. It frames and limits the view and is thus simultaneously a reflection about how architecture and images govern our perception. In contrast to the window used as a pictorial metaphor in Leon Battista Alberti’s modern-era paintings, which defines a central-perspective space awareness, Wolf creates in her videos and photographs complex, multi-perspectival spaces with the same motif. Vistas of the urban landscape and real, architectural structures overlap in their mirrored projections within the opened window, seen from the interior space of the building where the camera is positioned. Within each frame of the video image, these projections interlock and build a confusing spatial structure which constantly changes. Through the slow movement of a window pane, as in ALMATY_haus (ALMATY_house) [2008] ever-changing sections of the surrounding architecture emerge in the mirror image. In Frankfurter Fenster (Frankfurt Window) [2009], the Frankfurt city panorama gradually conquers the frame. The camera is stationary, yet the sequence seems like a prolonged tracking shot. The distortions and doublings of the reflections and the contemplative flow of images generate a kind of trance, which in the constant alternation between appearance and disappearance, opacity and transparency produces a moment of narrative tension without following any actual storyline.

In a couple of video works Wolf uses venetian blinds as an added element to the image composition. They successively cover and uncover the view. Analogous to photographic apertures, these automatically-operated venetian blinds regulate in Sichtblende I (Window Blind I) or Hausaufbau VII (House Construction VII) [both 2006, Frankfurt am Main], how much light and ‘exterior space’ may appear in the image. The correlation between venetian blind, photographic aperture and the technical properties of the video image is certainly no coincidence. In Ausblick Columbus / Ohio I und II (Perspective Columbus / Ohio I and II) [2007], the window completely screened off by the venetian blind with its horizontally segmented pattern is a reminder of the video’s linear structure. In the initial scene, the slow opening of the blind is reminiscent of a faint screen flickering, an effect that is usually to be avoided. Yet, this ‘image interference’, the slow opening and closing of the window blind, allegorises how spatial reality is converted into two-dimensionality by the medium of video, which only regains an illusionary depth due to the sluggishness of the eye. The view on the world is medially conveyed, and solely tangible through the visual raster, which is applied to observed reality, whereby this reality is structured and aligned.

In their abstraction and disassociation, Martina Wolf’s mirrored, cross-faded, intertwined spatial structures seem to be detached from their actual surroundings and remain never­theless concrete. Thus, the observer recognises details of the Frankfurt skyline, spots the typically rigid street grid of all-American metropolises, places the massive industrialised apartment block with its ornamental decoration somewhere in the hinterland of the former Soviet Union. Yet, the almost obsessive focus of the video on the subject matter retains a distance. During her frequent stays abroad, Martina Wolf uses and generates a feeling of otherness. Her angle sharpens the awareness that everyday occurrences and our routine actions are ultimately based on conventions which evolved over time. In her observations Wolf positions herself outside of the event, and yet, especially if she is working in the public sphere, she is right in the middle of the action. Her artistic view corresponds in a sense to the hybrid function of the window, which marks and generates differently defined spaces. By identifying a framework and limitations, and by calling attention to their presence, Wolf offers a stage for found reality on which everyday rituals and in particular their fleetingness unfold.

V. Time is of the essence. Martina Wolf’s mostly silent video works effectively accomplish a radical deceleration of perception. Thereby, she consciously avoids filmic tools like tracking shots, editing, or cross-fading. Usually, Wolf works with a stationary camera. Through sensibly chosen or randomly employed elements, movement is generated within the determined frame, be it the fountain water, light reflections on a statue or commuters waiting for a train. Mostly, the films consist of a long, single take without any editing. Wolf often works in series and thus approaches her subject matter from various angles. Spielfeld (Playing Field) [2009] paradigmatically illustrates her method. Over the course of one year, Wolf recorded from the window of her apartment located on the outskirts of Moscow. She constantly chose the same frame from the same camera position. It shows a playing field with a climbing contraption, behind that a school and a residential block, as well as a couple of trees. Again the real view merges with the mirrored image in the window pane; the hinge functions as a seam where reality and illusion collide. The window frame doubles the frame of the video image, the scene is additionally structured by two trees that are located parallel to the vertically arranged window frame. Over the period of recording, due to this always constant frame, the observer concentrates on the variations and changes in the image field: the play of light and shadow, the sprouting trees after the snow blanket melts away, the foliage’s colour changes from a spring-like, soft green and a summery, dark green to autumnal yellow and brownish shades, as well as the pedestrians’ clothing. The real events in front of the window – adults traverse the square on their daily errands, teenagers do sports, mothers play with their children, birds flutter around the treetops – all are structured by the movement of the window casement. Martina Wolf transforms the window into an optic apparatus, which, depending on what is happening in front of it, generates surprising narrative moments and a most astounding suspense. Regulated by the angle, the real and mirrored space is broadened or narrowed; upon the slow closing of the window, a ‘black space’ emerges like a fade-out into the image or, vice versa, is quasi a total fade-in. Wolf varies the movement of the window casement, developing a dramatic composition of the film sequences that result from the interaction between random events in front of the window and her own mise-en-scène. This leads to time leaps and shifts. Depending on whether the people enter the image field from right or left, the mirrored image anticipates their advance or seems like an after-image, a trace. Different time levels, only shifted by a short instant, are superimposed. By repeating and varying the sights, the lapsing of time is made visible and viewing the image becomes more conscious.

VI. Hence, standstill and movement, variation, change and duration are crucial for Martina Wolf’s strategy. This applies also to her most recent body of work from 2012/13. The location is a deserted school in the small Italian municipality of Olevano Romano, in the region of Latium. Located on the hill of Monte Celeste, this place offers a spectacular view of the hilly, cultivated, Italian landscape, which during the late eighteenth and nineteenth century had been the classic motif desired by numerous North European artists, including the so-called ‘Deutschrömer’ (German-Romans). Once again, Martina Wolf chooses the motif of the window. Divided by black strutting into almost quadratic individual parts, the fragmentation of the window is reminiscent of Piet Mondrian’s compositions, a connotation which is amplified by the bright blue of a blind in the upper window square. This rational structure is ruptured by the circular arch of the façade’s cladding – and by the picturesque landscape; the silhouette of its mountain chain disolves in the distant haze. Wolf films and photographs all windows of the school; these windows with their partly tattered blinds and damaged frames leave a rather wretched impression. Here, time manifests itself also in the aesthetics of decay.

The moment of movement is minimal. It is limited to occasional shifts which happen within the film image during the recording, either in the interior space or in the frame of the landscape which is revealed by the window: the strings of the blinds swaying in the breeze or cars that wind up on a mountain road. Wolf records the windows under different light and weather conditions. In a couple of recordings, some of the window sections are misted up with condensed water, thin rivulets picture-perfectly trickle down the pane. The landscape partly vanishes behind a fuzzy blur and thus escapes immediate perception – an effect which is a reminder of two photographic series of the artist from 2004. In Einschränkungen und Übermalungen (Demarcations and Overpaintings) views and visual axes of the urban landscape of Frankfurt are blocked, by wholly or partly overpainting windows, leaving only small peepholes or radically changing the image field and obliterating individual elements. In her Olevano works, Wolf focuses on variations and modifications encountered in both man-made and natural landscapes. Sometimes all window sections are closed, sometimes the right-hand one is open, sometimes the left-hand one. Every ten seconds, she photographs over a predetermined period of time the varying constellations, a series of stills, which she assembles into a film. Moving stills. Simultaneously, her conception was influenced by the unstable climate.  Rainy weather enveloped the previously ideal landscape in fog, and thus symbolically consigned it to oblivion, while the sun let it reappear. This approach demon­strates again that what we actually perceive is dependent on concrete conditions, perspective, medium and context. In Martina Wolf’s œuvre this always also political insight turns into a sensual as well as intellectual pleasure.

[1] Italo Svevo, quoted according to Aleida Assmann: Erinnerungsräume. Formen und Wandlungen des kulturellen Gedächtnisses, Munich 1999, p. 17.
[2] Ibid., p. 29.
[3] There exist two further versions of LENIN. Sankt Petersburg [2009], filmed from the rear side of the fountain system. Also in this video, the fountain spurts into the sky, yet the statue remains unaltered in the image, while a red balloon drifts on the water. In the second version, a female street sweeper clears the square next to the fountain, which is now out of operation – in Martina Wolf’s eyes a reminiscence of a caricature of 1920, in which Lenin swept priests, aristocrats and capitalists from the globe.
[4] The ambivalence of an official remembrance is also the subject of a work that Wolf developed during a stay in Dubrovnik in 2011. The focus is placed on the monument dedicated to the ‘Defenders of Dubrovnik’ during the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s, inaugurated in 2008: a cube with LED-projections.
A tribute to the popular ‘Ode to Liberty’ in Dubrovnik, we see a series of ab­stracted sea views cross-faded with the flag of Dubrovnik. In concrete terms, merely an anonymous sticker has been attached: it expressed solidarity with Ante Gotovina, a war criminal initially sentenced by the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2011, who was then acquitted in 2012.
[5] In a photographic series of 2011, Wolf varies this process. She fractional­ises an in itself digitally segmented, overall picture into 15 parts and presents these as a series. The observer may only guess at the overall view of the theme – a smashed-in window of the Croatian football club in the Bosnian-
Croatian city of Mostar. The fragmentation results in a higher degree of ab­straction and raises attention to detail: the sharp edges of the broken window pane, insights into the architecture, reflections of graffiti on the walls opposite of the building.

Astrid Wege
MOVING STILLS. On the Video Works of Martina Wolf
Catalogue: Martina Wolf. Arbeiten 2000–2014.
Verlag für moderne Kunst. Nürnberg. 2014