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In dialogue - Anna Gaskell and Mia Unverzagt

»Dialogue« is a format used for exhibitions at the Städtische Galerie (City Gallery) of Bremen, in which artists from Bremen are presented along with international colleagues with whom they are already acquainted. Mia Unverzagt enters into a dialogue with Anna Gaskell, a colleague from New York. Both artists developed new work for the exhibition; each piece stands for itself but also shows numerous connections within the context of the joint presentation.

For her video film Telling Stories (2015), Anna Gaskell worked with 16 actresses. In a casting situation, they tell sex stories that they have been given, stories that Anna Gaskell’s male acquaintances have over the years reported to her. As in earlier pieces, Gaskell works by appropriating others’ stories of intimate experiences, but for the first time she plays them out in a movie-like context, which she represents as an absurd setting by making the casting for the film into the subject of her video work.

With I know what boys like (2015), Mia Unverzagt uses an approach that is likewise well-known from the movies; she works, with the same actresses, in a » making-of-style« interview situation. What remains of the conversations are individual photographs of the actresses, with one quote from each of their statements visible as a subtitle. The images are accompanied by excerpts from home decoration books of the 1970s; these excerpts associatively match particular interiors with the sexist stories the actresses have to deal with in Anna Gaskell’s work, and they also create a relationship to the hats and scarves from which the actresses selected their outfits. Both of these artists play with forms of dialogue, with possible models for relationships and roles, by entering into an artistic relationship with one another, largely giving their work over (their close monitoring of processes and selection of visible images notwithstanding) to the interactions with the actresses, and presenting those actresses’ statements to the viewers of the artworks as a direct confrontation. What arises is an interplay among statements and commentaries.

In this dialogue, focused as it is on reception, both approaches make contributions on the topics of sexism, the appropriation of roles, the construction of gender, and communication_topics on which the video film and the photographs, as autonomous works of art, do not depend in the same way, but by which both pieces of work are markedly influenced. These two recent works make good on a promise found in the oeuvre of both artists, a promise based on a dialogic principle. Mia Unverzagt develops photoperformances, stagings, and enactments by working with the performing individuals and with a great deal of openness for the dialogic process. This comes from Unverzagt’s questions and the interaction between the actors and the camera, which in turn negates the neutrality that continues to be associated with the medium of photography. Unverzagt’s group of pieces called We’ll have to talk about that (2005 – 2009), which includes several series, is an illustrative example of her »art dialogue« format. Individuals from a particular place were asked for their stories, feelings, experiences or opinions about a socially determined, personal topic. The conversations that took place resulted, in terms of visible outcomes, in two to three photographs of the individuals, who dressed themselves for their »appearance« in garments of similar color or ornamentation style taken from a trove of clothing provided to them. The question that was raised appears in the subtitle of each series, but the content of the discussion is not described in the texts. Nevertheless, the photographs, in the way that their subjects present themselves and that the artist stages them and selects exhibition-worthy images for her representations, convey significant statements from each particular story_yet these statements cannot be nailed down in words, as they cannot be verified in the course of viewer dialogues about the photos. They are visible, not legible; they can be experienced if one places oneself in relationship to them, but that relationship is first and foremost a subjective one.

Unverzagt’s first direct dialogue with Anna Gaskell for an artistic piece occurred for the series called Red. In that piece, Gaskell, dressed in a red bathrobe, was asked about the time when she had felt the greatest sense of abandonment. We don’t know her story, although that would, in the context of her own work, which often draws from personal experiences, be intriguing. However, Anna Gaskell has affirmed, especially in her most recent work, her openness to dialogues with other female artists and places herself, her artistic process and the form and content of the artworks in relationship to them.

This applies to her work with and about the dancer Svetlana Lunkina in & Juliet (2013), The Stronger (2014), Balletomane (2014) and Regarder la Mort (2014), in which Anna Gaskell completely films herself, delivers herself, into an art form that is foreign to her and into Lunkina’s artistic approach. In her video Echo Morris (2014) she likewise looks at the work and life of the artist Sarah Morris. This study of her colleague, which is both intimate and apparently anonymous, almost cool, superficial, constantly draws from the documentary intervention which it claims. In light of the convergence between Anna Gaskell’s cinematic gaze and Morris’ work, life and travels, we get the impression of an overly perfect, staged documentation. If we didn’t know better, we might think that Sarah Morris, including her artistic production, which so closely matches the image being conveyed, was invented by Anna Gaskell. However, this effect depends significantly on Sarah Morris’ specific position; it arises from the dialogue in which Anna Gaskell has consented to take part and which she uses her film and her visual language to reflect, in a way that is similar to the (likewise artificial) dialogue with the artists that takes place in Telling Stories.

Ingmar Lähnemann