drive, stop, drive - “automatic”, “Parking”, “Rosa coeli” – three new films by Josef Dabernig

There are many types of feedback between the media of film and the fine arts represented at present-day exhibitions. Their projections and projects are sometimes full of productive misunderstandings – such as those regarding the status of the documentary or when it is a matter of copying and adapting methods, motifs and fictionalisation strategies of major narrative cinema for the short format of video installations. With the success that his film treatises about absence and presence, “Wisla” and “Wars”, had on the international art scene, Josef Dabernig, who works both as a filmmaker and artist, has outlined a path between the genres over the past few years that achieves a balance between the individual logic of each. Dabernig’s works are cut, as it were, under the strict oversight of experimental film and its studies in form. However, they also play around with the gestures, moods and values of the films d’auteur of the sixties and seventies and, what is more, take a delight in those narrative shifts familiar to anyone conversant with psychoanalytic film theory. In his three most recent films, “automatic”, “Parking” and “Rosa coeli”, Dabernig widens this path and puts paid to the categorisation of his work as that of a melancholy, off-beat analyst of transformation.
“automatic”, a joint work with the Graz group G.R.A.M., is a study on product fetishism, technostalgia, relationships between men and machines, and the production and reception of art. Three cars, ones that could have driven through Italian neo-realistic cinema or the cheerfully cynical assemblages of modernism produced by the Nouvelle Vague, ideal machines of the post-fascist economic miracle, with their glinting chrome and glossy paintwork, are what the camera explores. It then portrays – in an almost formulistically edited series of images that precisely balances out the volumes of the cuts – three men who are sitting in these cars and drawing, fiddling with the lens of a camera, immersed in listening to music, but also at the same time – with rather unambiguous gestures – abandoning themselves to other narcissistic, contemplative activities. Only the final picture shifts from the dimly-lit space in which this film develops – a film that could also be read as a music clip because of the soundtrack by Binder & Krieglstein, which was at the top of the electronica charts for a long time. It transfers the scene of action to a dilapidated garage in the country, perhaps near a medium-sized town. Into post-Fordian hopelessness.
“Parking” is also about “auto(mobile)-eroticism”, the interior of a car, temporary locations and fetishisations. A section of road in front of a small wood at the edge of a motorway – the background is partly lit by the rapid criss-cross traces of passing cars – becomes the location for a short scene, succinctly captured by the camera, that Dabernig describes as follows. “An automobile stops at the edge of the road. While still seated in the car, the driver and his passenger take off their clothes in a purposeful manner. Then one of them uses his belt to tie up the hands of the other, and drags him roughly out of the car. A rather strange discussion ensues between the two gentlemen in their underclothes. Those driving past ignore what is happening, and the hormone levels of the two men soon seem to have righted themselves; the men sit in the car again and calmly get dressed.” The lattice structure of the car’s rubber floor mat has left its negative, the minimalist grid, on the back of one of the men as a clue and trace.
“Rosa coeli”, Dabernig’s most recent film, so far only exists as a rough cut. In a structural sense, it is just as strictly composed as its predecessors. For the first time, however, Dabernig uses spoken text. In “Rosa coeli”, various motive elements join together to form conglomerates of action. One thread shows scenes from the train journey taken by one of the characters to a hotel in an industrial village in the mountains. It is not hard to see that the village has a real-socialist past. The backdrop of a rather dilapidated hotel in eastern modernist style, bizarrely void of visitors and media - where the protagonist meets up with two other men, physically handicapped like himself, to silently sign a paper at a table especially decorated for this ceremony (a limping waiter appears as the sole witness) - is the second principal actor in “Rosa coeli”.
In a rhythmically embellished series of scenes, the contextless act of signing – in fragments of stereotyped patterns of movement, such as greetings, turning over the paper when signing it, shaking hands, and the departure of the main character from a deserted railway platform – and the design history of the hotel in still lifes, motionless panoramas, views of details such as gaming machines, sad-looking pot plants in front of the chrome/glass artificial stone design in the hotel foyer or hybrid, pop-style lighting from the era when the building probably served as accommodation for functionaries from the Politburo and Workers’ State, are developed alternately. Parallel to the cuts between these two stories about visual forms, their sentimental use and re-performance, between moving shots and still lifes, the sound space also changes. Bruno Pellandini’s stylised, “high-literature” text about the return to a – strangely time-forgotten – eastern European location of his childhood, a text whose mannered style is emphasised even more by the narrator (Branko Samarovski), shifts the focus of attention away from the visually unsettled film action to the still lifes. The almost motionless stills, seemingly falling out of the depths of time, with which Christian Giesser’s camera documents the scene of the multiply handicapped conference, along with the rigorous cuts, break open the narrative framework of the text. The degree of determined calmness, of unwavering mechanical routine, with which Dabernig’s amateur actors play this double plot, which amounts in the end to no more than their almost mysterious presence, is hardly be found anywhere else today but in the films of Josef Dabernig.

springerin 2/03, Time for Action. springerin – Hefte für Gegenwartskunst, Vienna. S. 60-61

Georg Schöllhammer