Textuality and Transvergence – Reflections on the Art of Daniel Laufer
Text by Philipp Fürnkäs
Daniel Laufer’s artistic oeuvre appears as a self-referential, finely poised media ensemble consisting of film, painting, objects, and performance. His filmic works correspondingly present themselves as part of a specific installation context. Laufer, who worked as a scenic painter before studying art, employs a technique which was pre- valent in the early film industry: matte paintings. These occasionally transparent background pictures, applied with oil paint on glass, served as illusionistic extensions of cinematic perspective. The motifs are mostly architecture and interiors, which Laufer also captures on canvas in a reduc- tion of gentle brushstrokes. Recently his installations have been complemented by processed mirrors that serve as objects; a further reference to traditional cinematic technique. In the so-called Schüfftan process a mirror is positioned at a 45° angle to the camera, after which the backdrop (usually a smaller model) is placed in such a way that its reflection will take up the desired position in the camera’s view. The camera thus does not record the backdrop directly, merely its mirror image. A section of the mirror is scraped out, allowing actors standing behind it to make their appearance. In the context of installation, Laufer’s glass paintings and his work with mirrors – which, in his films, he also occasionally uses for their original purpose – can be understood as extensions and reflections of the invoked cinematic space. Performative extensions finally turn the entire installation into a stage. In contrast to the self-enclosed work of film, artist, actors, and musicians here come together as part of a living mode of presentation. Textual and musical variations as well as emphases, per- formed live in the installation room, also paint a picture of the social hierarchy in which Daniel Laufer develops his work. To wit, the actors and actresses in his films, who are not performers in the traditional sense, are drawn almost exclusively from his immediate and extended artistic living environment. Atmospheric and reduced compositions by the musician Markus Hinz have continually accompanied Laufer’s films over recent years, forming a further sensuous layer of his work besides text and image. Daniel Laufer’s cooperative and genre-spanning method is the result of a dialectic exploration of artistic narrative forms between reality and fiction. The qualities of realism and illusionism, inhabiting language, image, and sound in equal measure, are thus always subject to a kind of creative observation by the artist. In this way Laufer continually renegotiates questions concerning the status of image and observer.
In Plot Holes (2010), speech acts performed by actors and accompanied by reduced plots create the image of a network of relationships seen from various perspectives. Superimpositions, leaps in time, changes of role and perspective – on the level of both language and image – create a fragmentary, non-linear narrative. Self- referentially, the performed texts repeatedly thematize and problematize the process of the film’s creation even as it is proceeding. Again and again the possible flow of a plot is interrupted, challenging viewers to speculate about the further development of the story, to continue the film in their heads. In Plot Holes Laufer consciously uses the barest means of representation. The setting, for simplicity’s sake, is his own apartment. The dinner table around which the film’s narrative develops is a piece of furniture used every day as much as it is part of the scenery. Perhaps even the dialogical script for Plot Holes that Laufer wrote was conceived at this table. The immediate proximity to the artist’s life, which is part of the fabric of Plot Holes, is filmically enhanced with an illusionistic layer through the use of matte paintings and atmospheric music. Within the performed speech acts, this layer corresponds to the dream- like, the imagined, and the thought-up, which find their continuance in the viewers’ perception.
In Alternate Ending (2012) Laufer shows a brief, seemingly coincidental encounter between a woman and a man, on which he comments suggestively from off-camera. Without providing any hints of a possible prehistory, voices and music influence the images’ perception and thus exemplarily open up certain possibilities of interpreting what is happening. Laufer uses this deliberately manipulative interference with filmic perception in order to create a critical distance toward the proffered reading of his images. The viewers and their perception are already integrated into this self-reflexive creative process. Thus it is once again up to the viewers themselves to imagine the film’s possible ending.
The point of origin of Fifth Wall (2011) is a parable told by the Hasidic rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772–1810). It tells the story of two craftsmen who are tasked by a monarch to each decorate one half of his new palace. While the first immediately springs to his task with abundant zeal and skill, his half of the palace soon gleaming with brilliance, the second hesitates and desperately seeks inspiration. His pressure steadily growing, he hits upon an inspiration: he paints his half with black pitch, which reflects the glamorous other half of the palace like a mirror. When the monarch inspects both results and acknowledges the accomplishment of his solution, the ruse unexpectedly sees him win the contest. Textually Laufer transfers the parable to the present by eliminating the fantastical elements and turning the monarch into a homeowner. Additionally, Laufer decides not to retell the story in chronological order. Instead, Fifth Wall opens on a slowed-down scene of a street view. It shows a passer-by whose attention is drawn by the pages of a newspaper that have been pasted to the windows of a shop undergoing renovation. The character of the reader, thus introduced, makes up the film’s frame story. This is followed by the first section of the parable filmed as printed text. Interrupted by brief flashbacks to the reader by the shop window, the further plot is played out in front of the sophisticated scenery of a Mediterranean lake house.
An older gentleman receives a younger man – performed by Daniel Laufer himself – on the terrace. What it is that the two have to talk about, or what their relationship is to one another, remains open. Another man is sitting at a table. (It is the same table from Laufer’s apartment that we have already seen in Plot Holes.) His handwritten words, directed straight at the viewers through the eye of the camera, continue the parable. He becomes an unexpected narrator of the story, which, with regard to the lake scenery and the reader by the window, cannot be concretely localized. Accompanied by filmic music and atmospheric ambient noise the younger man guides the viewers through the house. The interior appears in a multitude of mirrors and reflecting surfaces, and the entire structure of the villa communicates itself as an extension of the parable’s architectural motif. Filmed texts that occasionally appear between newspaper pages and the handwritten notes by the narrator at the table narrate the further plot and dénouement of the parable in the form of inserts. Fifth Wall ends with a sequence of the reader by the window who – after ending his perusal – continues on his way down the street. The title Fifth Wall, which is derived from the term “fourth wall” used in film and theater studies (to describe the imaginary wall between the space of the audience and that of the screen and stage, respectively), point to another potential – imagined – spatial level of the film. The meeting of the unexpected narrator with his reader by the window leads into the space behind the glass. Sitting at the artist’s table, he becomes his transcendental proxy, seemingly speaking from an imagined space behind the glass. The relationship between language, film, and architecture invoked by Laufer in Fifth Wall can thus also be read as an artistic concept of space as extended into the realm of metaphysics.
Daniel Laufer’s most recent film project Redux (2014) is a semi-documentary filmic essay ad- dressing the Jewish Golem myth. During his research, the artist happened upon the Jewish cemetery at Berlin-Weißensee and its extraordi- nary history under the Third Reich. It appears that even during the time of national-socialist racial politics and mass deportations, traditional Jewish burials were taking place there almost up to the end of the Second World War. Some persecuted Jews are said to have found shelter in the mausoleums of the cemetery. In the same manner the greater part of over 500 Torah scrolls, which had been hidden in various cemetery buildings by members of the Jewish community for fear of having them confiscated by national socialist bureaucrats, survived the war here.1 As regards the reasons for the National Socialists’ tolerance of a self-administered cemetery in Berlin- Weißensee, one can only speculate. Were relevant Berlin bureaucrats – as rumor has it – really prey to superstitious fears, or at least harboring a certain respect, on the subject of a menacing Golem that might be expected to appear at the cemetery as a Jewish spirit of vengeance? Daniel Laufer uses this as an opportunity to approach the idea of a Golem, in the cabbalistic tradition at first. Codes of Hebrew letters stand at the center of various mystical rituals that are meant to raise a Golem from a piece of clay. The prominent legend of the Golem of Prague, featuring the historical figure of 16th-century rabbi Judah Loew, is in all probability a literary invention from the 19th century. Ever since, it has been taken up and adapted in many stories, entering film history in the form of the 1920 expressionist silent film Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came into the World) by Paul Wegener and Carl Boese. In Redux, however, Laufer deliberately foregoes a concrete description or visualization of a Golem. His only direct reference to the traditional Golem narrative is found in a short sequence showing the still-extant Old New Synagogue – the former domain of the Maharal (Rabbi Loew). Apart from the Jewish cemetery, the sets in Redux do not serve as authentic historical locations. Rather, they represent extended spaces of projection, in which various bifurcations of the story and evolution of the Golem figure overlap and retell themselves. Speakers and actors cannot be precisely matched to the many integrated sources and references. The musical accompaniment creates a further condensed audiovisual web of language, images, and sounds, in which historical, speculative, poetic and self- reflexive elements alternate independently of a chronological or hierarchical order. The title of the work is indeed to be taken literally. Where Redux, in the filmic context, mainly describes a new edition of a film with the addition of previously unused material, Laufer is more concerned with its original meaning of revival. His film – interpreted as an intertextual continuation of the legend of the Golem – self-reflexively updates the story as a universal human-divine creation myth.
1 This is remarkable insofar as judaica, during the time of national socialist expansion, were systematically confiscated and transported en masse to the Jewish Central Museum in Prague in order to promote the foundation of a “Museum of an Extinct Race” (which Laufer also thematizes in Redux). The Institute for State Research in Berlin-Wannsee, likewise mentioned in Redux, stored numerous confiscated Jewish writs on state phi- losophy and state law under the directorship of Reinhard Höhn. These were evacuated to the Sudetenland as parts of the Institute’s library collections even as the allies were bombing Berlin.
The media scholar, curator, and author Philipp Fürnkäs (born 1976) lives in Cologne and has been a research fellow at the Julia Stoschek Foundation in Düsseldorf since 2007.