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What we do in the countryside      Down with the good life


An attempt on two picture series of Mia Unverzagt


What we do in the countryside – what sounds like the heading for a 6th grade personal experience essay is in this case the title of a series of photos and a small, venomous work of art. In nine colour photographs that alternate rhythmically between vertical and horizontal formats we see a little story of two protagonists who appear to have been thrown into an unfamiliar situation and to be trying to assume a role that is not so easily mastered. Some details in this picture story indicate that the setting of the narration is indeed in the countryside. We see a garden in the new green of spring, with daffodils, and in the background a half-timbered building. However, this seems to be the extent of that which is ”real“ in this place. An older man – ”in his best years“, as the euphemism goes - acts as a housewife, weeding certain spots along the garden path, dusting off picture frames, cleaning a chest of drawers and arranging empty bottles under a small cupboard. The young hero – or is it a heroine posing as the hero? – stands in the dusky entrance of an obviously very bourgeois house in the countryside wearing a jacket, a hat and Wellingtons, almost like a landowner in a soap opera. At one point the young man sits, a cup of coffee before him, on a plush couch in the living room and seems to chat, then in another picture he poses for a representative portrait in the yard, and finally stands relieving himself, closing the toilet seat again at the very end. At least there is this, one is tempted to call out in the face of the intolerable bourgeois tristesse that squints at us from this photographic work. The dreadful wallpaper, the perfect curtains, the monstrous ugliness of the pictures decorating the walls of the house into which we can suddenly peer. 

As funny as the work appeared to me in the beginning, the shift in my perception of the scenes that are represented, from the travesty I thought I recognized at first and at times still see to a prototypical, albeit faked, socio-documentary, was equally pronounced. This does not infringe in any way upon the urgency of the work. It doesn’t matter what or whether anything is true in this selection of images. Is it a gay couple, do we have a complicated father-son relationship before our eyes, do we see a cleaning man and a homeowner or the above-mentioned play on gender and age roles? 

Mia Unverzagt creates, with this cycle of images, a dashing game of people, places, style and perception; the work ”Down with the good life“ takes us to the next page of this game.

Ostensibly still in the same house, the enigmatic activities of a three-person group take place. Three women in trousers – always barefoot – act completely nonsensically. They lie on the floor, drag themselves up at the living room cupboard, cover their eyes with a security blanket while sitting before a home organ – like children who turn themselves to the wall, firmly convinced that they thereby become invisible, like adults who cover their eyes with a hand when the visible portion of reality becomes too terrible or difficult to tolerate any longer.

Mia Unverzagt’s protagonists seem no longer able to remain within all the hybrid ugliness, such as the sickbed with its gallows. So they flee under the bed, with only legs and bare feet protruding, and I begin to wonder why the feet are bare and what they stand for. I seem to recall some scenes from archaic stories like ”The Wolf and the Seven Kids“, in which all the young goats try to hide when the bad wolf enters the flat. Only the one hiding in a clock case was able afterwards to mend the course of time(!). But here no one is saved by a grandfather clock; there can be no salvation, neither for the protagonists of this photo-novella that we see here nor for the person contemplating them. What we see in ”Down With the Good Life“ is in its narrative approach more radical than ”What We Do in the Countryside.“ There is no unifying narrative parenthesis; only by relying on the force of our associations can we dive into this tableau. The relation of the three women to the flat in which they act seems to be severely disturbed. Beyond all conventions, they act, in these pictures that are so hard to interpret, like intruders who at the same time have developed a certain intimacy with the place and above all with the genius loci. With a twinkle in her eye, the artist confronts us with the recognition that life goes on regardless, that places that are home for some are places of psychic pain for others. At times play and radicalism seem, in this deeply senseless and desperate world, to lead us down the only path to freedom.

Both of Mia Unverzagt’s series are fast – they were made fast, they can be consumed fast and they quickly take root in our minds. The activities portrayed are, at second glance, as  normal as they appeared strange in the beginning; the environment in which they occur is likewise mundane. For everybody has, of course, at some time lain halfway under a bed, found him- or herself under a table or looked at a cupboard while crouching on all fours. The astounding linkages among the scenes, however, make us aware of the absurdity of life and activity. In both series, Unverzagt elegantly combines the light touch of her narrative talent with the direct and rough style of her visual rendering of that narrative. Her style is certainly not merely a question of external form.


Thomas Schirmböck