The importance of being Friedl Kubelka vom Gröller

The Viennese photographer boldly went where few photographers dared to go, exploring the inner reaches of female consciousness.

by Rosalyn D`Mello Published on : Oct 24, 2020

There was no warning sign at the entrance of the exhibition, Friedl Kubelka vom Gröller; The Self in the Mirror of the Other, Photographs and Films, 1968-2018. I had walked from my hotel to the Museum der Moderne Salzburg, perched atop the Mönschsberg hill. Expectedly, I had managed to get lost. I was in front of the museum when I should have been at the ground level so I could have taken the elevator. I was let in and directed to begin on the first floor. I hadn’t ever heard of Kubelka and I entered the show with no preconceptions or expectations.

Within seconds I began to intuit my body’s sudden decision to molecularly reconstitute itself through its exposure to Kubelka’s art. I began to feel like the pulsating figural beings in Removed, Naomi Uman’s six-minute film, made in 1999. Using household materials typically associated with vanity and domestic management, Uman physically erased the female figure from the celluloid of 16mm porn films. What manifests within the ensuing void is a throbbing, libidinous force resembling feminine interiority. The pornographic gaze that had previously reduced the female figure to an object meant for the consumption and sexual gratification of masculinist desire metamorphoses into a luscious energy field. The previously violating footage becomes soft, floating, erotic, subversive. Through this quasi-surgical operation, Uman gleams at the electrifying, mystical power of female pleasure. I had always considered this un-fixed, un-delineated shape-shifting forcefield an approximation of female creativity and subjectivity. In front of Kubelka’s work I embodied it. It was a marvellous moment, because the closest I would ever come to understanding the emotional core of my encounter with her art was through the referencing of another art work, that of Uman’s.

The wall text had offered some context. The two names following Friedl, for instance, were a reference to the surnames of the two men to whom she had been married over the course of her life, whose last names she had adopted—Kubelka and vom Gröller. “Her work combines conceptual photography, avant-garde and experimental film, feminist art, and Freudian psychoanalysis,” it said. She was born in London in 1946, then moved with her family to East Berlin where she spent a portion of her childhood, finally settling at age 11 in Vienna, shaped by “Catholicism, the patriarchy, and the repression of Austria’s share of the Nazi guilt”. She was interested in using photography to create psychological portraits, to depict personhood in all its visual and emotional complexity. At some point in her life she actively trained as a psychoanalyst, a fact that becomes more and more evident as she evolved her work methodology.

Seven “Year Portraits” by Friedl Kubelka were on display at the Museum der Moderne, Salzburg | Werner Kaligofsky | STIRworld
Friedl Kubelka Das erste Jahresportrait, 1972/73 (The First Year Portrait) black-and-white and colour photographs, mounted on cardboard, 11 parts © Generali Foundation Collection—permanent loan to the Museum der Moderne Salzburg Image: Courtesy of Werner Kaligofsky

After this brief introduction, you suddenly confront head-long her visually wondrous meditation on time, begun first in 1972/73, with the series, The Year Portraits. She had decided to record herself every day for a whole year, once every five years. I loved the algorithmic nature of this methodology. Each day is accounted for by a photograph, often a self-portrait, resulting over the course of 50 years, at least ten such bodies of work, all exhibited mimicking the calendar format. Instead of large-sized images, you have intimate, thumbnail sized, mostly black-and-white photographs that entrench you within her every day, her mundane domestic, her creative universe. The exhibition at the Museum der Moderne in Salzburg had seven such ‘Year Portraits’ on display. I must have spent an hour in the luxurious aura of each grid, delighting in the richness of small details, soft moments of splendour. Subtle elements connote the passage of time; the length of her hair, the nature of her clothes in response to the seasons... she lets us in on her experience of herself, the precious nature of which feels like an infusion. You get the sense of someone who is exploring her dimensions, the muscularity of her body, all the while confronting her own gaze and thus delving deeper into interiority. There is rarely a staging of fixed meaning. It is as if she realised early on, at the cusp of her foray into art making, that a single image cannot encapsulate personhood, that complexity could only be derived from multiplicity, from tapping into the ephemeral nature of our encounter with time; that what we consider to be our being is never singular or isolated from the immediacy of the worlds we inhabit, and the subjectivities we access through our primary relationships.

In Part 1 of Kubelka’s 11-part ‘Ninth Year Portrait’, you see her confront her ageing body | Heidi Harsieber | STIRworld
Friedl Kubelka Das neunte Jahresportrait, 2012/13 (The Ninth Year Portrait) (Part 1 from 11 parts) black-and-white and colour photographs, mounted on cardboard © Friedl Kubelka Image: Courtesy of Heidi Harsieber

By the time I arrived at her glorious work, titled The Life Portrait of Louise Anna Kubelka, I should have had a clearer sense of what to expect, especially since the introductory text had explained how she had decided to photograph her daughter every Monday from when she was born until she turned 18. And yet, when I saw the first grid encompassing her first year, I was totally overcome by emotion. Unlike with the photographs in her ‘Year Portraits’, here, Kubelka decided against intimate, candid images of her child in favour of a more conventional posture of her seated for the camera. The method of arrangement and display remained grid-like, but what emerged more solidly was a pair of eyes coming into being, growing more alive with each passing week, until it is glaring back at you, the viewer, establishing intimate visual contact. Bearing witness to this work that was formed over 18 years in the life of the artist-mother, thus ‘accounting’ for it, felt immensely validating, especially to a writer like me who seems to take between six to seven years to write one book.

In “One Thousand Changing Thoughts”, Kubelka catalogues her mother, Lore Bondy’s expression while engaged in conscious thinking| Werner Kaligofsky | STIRworld
Friedl Kubelka Das tausendteilige Portrait (Detail), 1980, Lore Bondy 1000 Gedanken (One Thousand Changing Thoughts, ”Lore Bondy 1000 thoughts“) Part 3 of 3 Gelatin silver prints on baryta, mounted on cotton fabric © Generali Foundation Collection—permanent loan to the Museum der Moderne Salzburg Image: Courtesy of Werner Kaligofsky

You see how the immersive investment over an expansive period encompasses moments of prolific productivity and often involves a clear-cut sense of who one makes art for, and also how the female artist deepens her way of seeing the same subject over such an elaborate length of time. For that is indeed what Kubelka is most interested in, how her subjects, including herself, inhabit time. You see this in her ‘Day Portraits’ series, where she follows a friend or her mother or brother over the span of a day, photographing them every 15 minutes. Each image articulates a facet of their existence; it becomes a part of the sum that is more evocative than even the whole. This method achieves its apotheosis in One Thousand Changing Thoughts, when she photographs her mother, Lore Bondy, ‘thinking’, and the display encompasses a list of thoughts, with numbers that correspond to the grid, so you know what her face looked like when she was contemplating Desire for children—value and worthlessness of life, or Fear of the feeling of loneliness or Difficult, but necessary togetherness.

Having met the acquaintance of Kubelka’s visionary way of seeing, of recording time, of experiencing herself and inhabiting her body, it was almost impossible to move on to seeing other exhibitions that day. I was intellectually and emotionally sated. The molecular transformation of my body continues. I have been experiencing it differently since then; I touch my belly with an eager curiosity, I feel the contours of my waist as if it were a part of me and yet something separate. I began to stop measuring myself against false ideals, against the standards of what is considered beauty. I am suddenly so greatly intrigued by the eccentricities of my flaws, my scars. I am more indulgent towards my imperfections. I revel in how they attest to the amount of time I have spent struggling to settle within my body’s realm. This continuing afterglow says something profound about the experience of art that is rooted in the alterity of queer consciousness.

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