Ursula Schulz-Dornburg shares the typological obsession of the Bechers but her aims are quite different
The architectural relics of communist Europe – Black Sea resorts, memorials in Yugoslavia, housing estates, bus stops and kiosks – have become fashionable motifs in recent photography, crowding the coffee tables and galleries of London and New York. The historical reasons for this are manifold, to be found in the contemporary cult of ruins, Ostalgia, and a generational reaction against decades of reaction. Orientalism also plays its part.
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Without overstating the great man (or woman, in this instance) view of history, there is one further motivating factor behind this trend. Ursula Schulz-Dornburg began photographing Soviet-era bus stops in Armenia in 1997, first exhibited a selection of the images in the same year, and concluded the series in 2011. These extraordinary pictures, which show strange forms of concrete and steel sprouting from deserted landscapes, gave birth to a genre that continues to flourish in books such as Jan Kempenaers’ Spomeniks (2010) Frederic Chaubin’s CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed (2011), and Christopher Herwig’s Soviet Bus Stops (2015). They have also inspired architects: Herzog & de Meuron recreated one of the Armenian bus stops for a project in Burgos, Spain, in 2007-12.
Schulz-Dornburg was born in Berlin in 1938, and has lived and worked in Düsseldorf since 1969. Her place of residence and the form taken by her work – her photographs are made and displayed serially, and frequently depict decaying or abandoned structures – have led to her being associated with the ‘Dusseldorf School’ of photographers surrounding Bernd and Hilla Becher. Her obsessive compilation of typologies certainly accords with the modus operandi of the Bechers and their followers such as Andreas Gursky. Unlike the latter, however, Schulz-Dornburg did not study with the Bechers. In fact she trained as a photojournalist in Munich, and her interest in buildings was sparked, she says, by being raised in a family of architects. Furthermore, she is quick to object that unlike the Bechers and their school, her work has always been political.
When we meet, Schulz-Dornburg begins our conversation by showing me a selection of images from one of the first series she shot: structures built by children in adventure playgrounds in the 1960s. These are primitive shelters cobbled together from battens and scraps, but they have forms that testify, it seems, to an innate architectural intelligence that bubbles up spontaneously in infancy. She immediately contrasts these with some very different shelters from her most recent series, half-buried tunnels constructed by Soviet scientists to protect fighter planes during explosions at Semipalatinsk, a nuclear test site in Kazakhstan that was abandoned in 1991. The contrast could not be more stark, and yet the thematic continuity is remarkable.
Why this enduring interest in ruins, I ask. ‘I was born in Berlin in 1938’, she replies, ‘just when everything was broken, so my dreams were always ruins. It was a question of how to rebuild, maybe, or to understand how it happened.’ The collapse of the Soviet Union facilitated Schulz-Dornburg’s quest, and she soon began to explore the former Russian satellites of central Asia. It was on her way to photograph early Christian chapels on the Armenian-Georgian border that she first noticed the bus stops. When the pictures are displayed they form a geographical sequence, hinting at another of Schulz-Dornburg’s concerns: movement through space and the cultural exchange that results from it.
This interest next took her to Spain. It was the time of the first Iraq war, and Schulz-Dornburg sought a place where Christian, Islamic and Jewish architects had worked together, resulting in the Mozarabic style bred on the border of the Christian and Muslim worlds in the tenth century. She photographed a succession of little buildings along the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route, built by hermits who lived and prayed within them. Does spirituality play any role in these images, I wonder. ‘I try to remove it’, she says. ‘I look for rooms that don’t have any crosses in them.’ Instead, the subject here is light and space – and also time.
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The sun streams through the tiny windows of these micro-hermitages, tracing a path across the darkened interior as it moves through the sky. These are camerae obscurae, or rather cinemas, since the light is in motion; they are also machines for bringing the cosmos into contact with culture. Schulz-Dornburg returned to these buildings as the seasons changed, and when she displays the images that she made – in grids or rows, depending on the exhibition space – they form a kind of ancient calendar mediated by the lens. She calls the series ‘Sonnenstand’, ‘position of the sun.’ I am immediately reminded of Peter Zumthor’s Feldkappelle, but Schulz-Dornburg is not enthusiastic about the comparison. ‘I went to see it, but because of the furnishings the space doesn’t work as I’d hoped.’
Her interest in the precarious architecture of culturally hybrid zones is also manifested by her images of Iraq’s marsh arabs, taken shortly before their displacement by Saddam Hussein, as well as the latter’s reconstructed Ziggurat of Ur. She has photographed the abandoned stations of the Hejaz Railway, which the Ottomans built with German help to link Damascus to Medina, and the necropolis of Palmyra, which she visited in 2010. Besides the stamina required to make these gruelling journeys, there is also a great deal of risk involved – she was once arrested on the Azerbaijani border photographing caves that had been excavated by Syrian refugees from the Ottoman Empire.
As the last example testifies, history erupts from the landscape in these photographs, exposing the geological faults lying beneath many of today’s conflicts: although the terrain may seem barren, an impression reinforced by the high-key, washed-out silvery tone of the images, it is potent with pent-up forces and unresolved contradictions. Because of her interest in these flash-points, I can’t help noticing that she has an uncanny knack of arriving in places shortly before their destruction. ‘Yes’, she says, semi-seriously, ‘this sometimes makes me afraid.’ Is her project an attempt to preserve these endangered buildings and landscapes photographically? ‘No,’ she replies, ‘I am a campaigner.’ And more emphatically: ‘I am an activist.’
A selection of Ursula Schulz-Dornburg’s photographs of Mount Ararat in Armenia are on show at Tristan Hoare in London until 21 October.