Rory MacLean meets Barbara Breitenfellner
As a child Breitenfellner was often plagued by nightmares. Her dreams terrified her. To cope with their horrors she discovered a way to influence the oneiric narrative, turning away from danger or taming evil in half-sleep. The skill – the ability to narrow the divide between conscious and subconscious - transformed her terror into fascination, and she began to record her dreams in a bedside notebook.
Then at the age of seven she went on a school trip to the Hessisches Landesmuseum. The Darmstadt museum is noted for its natural history collections, especially a mastodon. Her class was to study dinosaurs but – as they made for its fossil collection – an open door caught Breitenfellner's eye. She broke away from the group, and stared into another, different world – the Block Beuys with an extensive collection of Joseph Beuys' sculptures, relics and works on paper.
'For me it was the flipside of the museum,' Breitenfellner told me when we met in her Berlin studio, a child's sense of wonder sparkling in her eyes. 'I was shocked and delighted by the discovery of this "secret" space. I also had no idea what it was.'
A teacher then called her away from the exhibition. 'Come, Barbara,' she said. 'It's "only" contemporary art in there.'
As she grew older Breitenfellner's fascination with spaces seen and unseen drew her to stage design and then sculpture. She studied installation at the Glasgow School of Art. For her degree piece she cut a hole in the white cube structure that had been built inside the former tram depot, exposing the old building behind it, adding a mirrored trompe l'oeil floor to suggest the infinity of the unknown.
'I was mistrustful of the "white cube". I was interested in what lies behind the surface of things, in exploration, in the unveiling of hidden or unused spaces. While in Glasgow I realised that my dreams are very spatial, and I began to use them as a source for my work.'
At first Breitenfellner jotted down summaries of all her dreams but the volume of material – and the nightly effort of recording it – soon exhausted her.
'To get enough sleep I started to trick myself into thinking that I'd already written down a dream,' she recalled with a laugh.
Breitenfellner then began to focus on dreams about art, rather than those on personal matters. In the moment of waking she grasped the essence of her fading reveries. Each brief, written text was transcribed onto her computer and, in time, she used them as the starting point for her installations. Her first important work using dreams as source material was staged on a single night at the artist-run Autocenter Gallery in Berlin. Its title was the actual text she'd written on awakening:
'Dream of a big exhibition. I had a huge and rather silly drawing (of a clown) and was very ashamed. Two girls performed on roller skates. That wasn‘t good either.'
In this work two dancers on roller skates performed in front of a drawing of a clown. The dancers wore headphones and dark glasses, isolating them from the audience as if in their own world, as if in a dream.
'I am interested in the process of transforming dreams, in their translation, loss and reinvention,' said Breitenfellner. 'I am also fascinated by the peculiar bleakness, the austerity of the texts.' She went on, 'I search for the disconnect, reconstructing the dream at the same time as illustrating the impossibility of showing it.’
Further solo installations include her remarkable two-dream Traum einer Ausstellung at the Hartware MedienKunstVerein in Dortmund (which unites Joseph Beuys with a gorilla and a crashed Porsche with a hanging of oil paintings) and an ambitious project at the Clemens-Sels-Museum in Neuss in 2015. 'The Neuss exhibition is built around a class photograph from my primary school days in which I'm pictured twice. I'll mount it on walls which are still covered with a series of green, geometric-abstract silk screen prints by Josef Albers from a previous exhibition.'
Breitenfellner also creates strange, unreachable parallel worlds in her collages. Since a residence at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida, she has made cut-and-paste collages, juxtaposing found photographs of carnivorous plants, occultism, nudes, microscopic follicles, bat heads, skiing resorts and painting supplies. These joyful, surreal, dark and provocative collages – which she assembles intuitively - are both factual and dream-like, conscious and unconscious, fixed and ever-changing. Many of her assemblages are overlaid with silkscreen patterns or forms.
In 2013 'L‘Officiel Art' asked Breitenfellner to combine her own material with excerpts from past issues of the magazine.
'They sent me a selection of issues from which I chose several pages, which I then mixed with cut-outs from my studio table,' Breitenfellner recalled. 'Eventually, this superimposed, displaced, imploded, frail, splintered imagery found its way back into the magazine. I usually need a lot of time to finish a collage. It stays on the wall of the studio for several days, the different elements simply held together by paper clips. Often I integrate silk-screened surfaces or print over my collages. I am testing, experimenting, changing and adapting until each composition has found its internal logic. It is the dynamic in the collage that interests me, and the depths sometimes created by circles or holes as means to create space.'
Her collages have been exhibited at many shows including recently the Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in Paris ('Only parts of us will ever touch parts of others') and Espace de l‘Art Concret in Mouans-Sartoux.
She added, 'I am intrigued by wild life and how it is used for psychological projections: the monkey, for example, as a symbol of the other, difference and destruction, or the ambivalent fox, who is said to be malicious and intelligent or even possess mysterious powers.'
She also acknowledges the influence of literature that reflects on alienation or transformation from J.G. Ballard and Marie NDiaye to Mark Z. Danielewski, as well as Ludwig Binswanger whose Traum und Existenz is a key work.
Art 'is a part of our world, not separate from it,' said Breitenfellner. In her beautiful, provocative, wistful and occasionally haunting work she links us to the spaces and places we can only ever dream of occupying.