ULU BRAUN: First Major Survey

By Rachel Kenndy |


From the ambient yet grating cultural noise of celebrity worship to popular perceptions of environmental degradation, Ulu Braun’s artworks confront us with the surreality of contemporary life. Through March 1, the artist’s panoramic videos of digitally contrived landscapes and portraits of celebrities reminiscent of Rorschach tests fill the galleries ofYoung Projects. Surrealism in Braun’s vision transcends the imaginary and favors a form of uncanny that is, paradoxically, roughly equivalent to reality in the digital age. The German artist’s video and photo-works offer a sharp critique of how media works on us in respect of urgent social and environmental concerns, and vice versa. For Braun, media and life are mutually affecting, albeit through a glass darkly.

Entrance to Young Projects

Entrance to Young Projects

Young Projects is housed within LA’s Death Star-esque Pacific Design Center, an appropriate setting for Ulu Braun’s first major survey. Paul Young, the gallery director and curator, designed an immersive exhibition that directs the viewer both chronologically and thematically, drawing contrasting points and relations between works in mediums including: photo, video, puppetry, and film. The success of this exhibition is at least partially ingratiated to Young’s manifesto-like enthusiasm for video and film as a “concrete art form.” Young’s assessment is nearly impossible to refute in light of his presentation of Braun’s video-works:Atlantic Garden (2010), The Park (2010/11), and Westcoast (2009).

Upon entering the gallery’s media room, the viewer is immersed in Atlantic Garden, a video-collage that looks and feels like a virtual world. Braun has described the 6:27 min. animation as follows: “Atlantic Garden is a video panorama showing people from different ideological backgrounds grouped around a mansion.” Religious zealots, environmentalists, tillers, and others comprise this postmodern inversion of Rousseau’s garden.

Ulu Braun: Atlantic Garden

Ulu Braun: Atlantic Garden

The machinima sensibility is an uncomfortable reminder that we increasingly view the real world as filtered through the logic of digital media. This moving panorama shows us social harmony amongst a variety of archetypes: a bourgeois woman waxes about the virtue of risk-taking. Nearby, a group of anarchists peaceably stand around a fire. The likelihood of these combating ideologues to amiably coexist boils down to the likelihood that a capitalist maven will take interest in romantic philosopher Hegel’s psychology of risk. Yet the idea that “we are all here, transparent, at once” has little to do with Hegelian risk or freedom, but speaks more acutely to the ambiguous communities of the Internet. Dialectically, Braun’s critique of digital social conditions comes into focus.

Atlantic Garden situates the viewer within the self-conscious spectatorship of an alien yet familiar world. One shot even foregrounds the back of a seagull’s head, further alienating the viewer as she observes the strange scene from the perspective of a bird. The symbolic takeaway is an objectifying examination of digital culture’s meta-humor, which tends to deflate differences into an oxymoronic set of non-sequiturs and tautologies.

Braun’s 2011 animation, The Park, is a long panning shot over a fictional urban park. The Park critically evaluates the idea that public parks are “free” spaces within a culture, and symbolically illustrates the autonomous logic of a social environment in terms of its temporary nature, and our helplessness to freeze time and thus establish social transparency.

Ulu Braun: The Park

Ulu Braun: The Park

Westcoast, an animated collage, applies a similar method to transnational commerce and water conservation. Symbolic objects and events narrate a cynical point about both the recession and our lack of environmentalist rigor. For instance, the piece begins with a shot panning over ocean water whose surface is interrupted by inexplicably bubbling hot springs. A bit later, a large tent-like structure, suspended in water on the edge of a city, is filled with men attempting to tame sharks. For Braun, as for most of us, taming the world’s financial situation is as phantasmagoric as taming or rescuing nature in its entirety.

Atlantic Garden, The Park, and Westcoast are all moving panoramas. By situating the viewer as heliocenter of these meticulously constructed video-collages, the spectator becomes passively complicit in Braun’s worlds. The effect can be likened to another scenario altogether: what if neo-Platonic philosopher Jean Baudrillard sauntered into social radical Hakim Bey’s temporary autonomous zone? The result would be some unnamable rupture between utopianism and nihilism. In the case of Braun’s mediascapes, one observes all that is happening, but is helpless to affect that flow of events. The viewer is simultaneously nowhere and omniscient.

In any case, these moving panoramas seem naturally inscribed into the interior architecture of Young Projects. The gallery has the formally minimal, however functionally superfluous angles common to a science museum built in the 1970s (the popular home of the panorama). The curator likely took serendipitous delight in fitting Braun’s video-works to the space.



While Young’s enthusiasm for film and video is apparent within the exhibit, 2D works deftly challenge the supremacy of the moving image throughout the gallery. Braun’s 2011 photo-print, HOUELLEBECQ-ALI, composed of overlaid portraits of controversial author Michel Houellebecq and popular hero Muhammad Ali, comments upon the moral role of celebrity in society. Ali was a famous figure active within Nation of Islam, and Houellebecq is an incendiary critic of Islam. The intersubjectivity of public figures and general populace resound in Braun’s clever stab at the French author’s anti-Islam comments. Yet this is not a simple narration of good guy / bad guy – Ali’s relationship to NOI throughout the 1970s is not easily reducible. The viewer is therefore frozen, with the image, in reflection on the moral dilemma of celebrity and public conduct.

Each of Braun’s artworks offers a critical engagement with the effect of popular media on urgent social and environmental problems. All the while, emphasis on how images position the viewer represents the civilian’s responsibility to overcome the spectacular in favor of civic and environmental duty. Braun challenges his audience to orbit his cave of dream-images in search of truth. Thus, his artworks function as a call for individual and collective accountability and action, even amidst an onslaught of contradictory imagery and ideology.




Rachel Kennedy
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