SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF

Rupture defines what’s at play in Lothar Osterburg’s images. Rupture is what we encounter when the dream-logic of his images exceeds our ability to suspend disbelief. His prints, which are images of miniature models he built, allow an illusion to live for moments, if not minutes. His images are a constant give-and-take with the viewer. We look through bifocals, constantly going back and forth between registers: belief/disbelief; object/image/print; representation/reference; motion/silence; old contexts/created contexts. Rupture is what allows us to experience contradiction and unity simultaneously – creating a fantastic near-reality. Most importantly, rupture lives where we can no longer accept the propositions of Osterburg’s worlds, but still long for the ability to inhabit them. What affords Osterberg's work its potency is not because they’re utterly convincing, but because they fail in the end.

TOWER CITY

We sit or stand, looking down upon a city. (Are we disinterested? Or witnessing?) The city is a dense grid of early skyscrapers, nested within, and dwarfed by a massive, jagged colosseum. Suspended above the city but beneath our gaze, two Zeppelin airships hum about. The furthest rim of the colosseum is drowned in steam or smoke, moving just as the zeppelins do: through the molasses of time. We can see every ‘corner’ of the colosseum except where it meets the ground. What is visually lost is in the smoke trailing from the peripheries furthest us. This is “Tower City in the Sky.”

The city itself seems to be frozen between 1910 and 1940. The skyscrapers all carry a generic art-deco era feel to them, and bears a remarkable resemblance to a photograph of a zeppelin over manhattan in the 1930’s.

Tower City in the Sky is skillful in its perspective both in focal length and in the viewer’s position. This scale and this distance don’t make sense together. To scale, a single archway can engulf twenty storeys of a skyscraper.

Osterburg is not only a skilled maker, and printmaker, but he understands the cinematic conventions of depth of field. Some of his works (e.g. Sailboats III) plays so much with what you can’t see that it’s easy to accept what you do see as real.

It may be best to start with the obvious: none of this is real. The skyscrapers; the zeppelins; the colosseum. We’re looking at a miniature, a moquette, a model of these things. We didn’t need the surreal skyscraper colosseum combination to understand that. But it’s just enough, isn’t it? To make us look again. To make sure it’s not our eyes.

WHAT IS THIS DREAM-LIKE FANTASY?

Osterburg is a unique storyteller because even as he makes inhabiting his world impossible, it is still irresistible. Through a fantastic smallness, Osterburg also shows us an absence we want to fill. Absences we knew were once filled. His settings and images all absent one thing: people. These images are reprieves from the world we know, and yet act as foils to it.

What I return to without fail is my deep desire to inhabit Osterburgs works. Internally I’m resistant for two reasons: first, I can’t convince myself these scenes are real enough; second, they are not particularly attractive to begin with. Many of his images are dark and moody, often projecting desolation and melancholy. Various historical references and archetypes makes for empty spaces which bear surprising weight. What is it to inhabit the world of an artist’s making, if that artist made no effort to populate it? All of these scenes display the results of human labor: libraries filled with books, intricate structures built by humans, boats and automobiles which all require someone at the wheel.

Without the humans, these scenes function as reductio-ad-absurdum: Estrangement with what is familiar allows us to understand the familiar better. In absurdity we understand qualities which were plainly hidden, or obscured by the flurry of human activities.

“Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” Gen. 11:4

PANORAMA - ZOETROPE - VAULT

The Roman introduction of concrete marks a severe break from the post-and-lintel narrowness which defined ancient greek architecture. Innovating concrete is what allowed for structures such as the Pantheon and colosseum to be built, which not only privileges large, open interior spaces, but also allows for them to build anywhere without being beholden to the natural landscape. Part of why the colosseum could be built in ten years is precisely because concrete is cheaper and more pliable than stone; it requires no specialized stonemasons of any sort. Concrete is liquid that literally changed the potential shapes of cities. The Romans became demigods.

What is the colosseum if not a space for spectacle? The original colosseum name bears the names of its benefactor. “Flavian Amphitheatre.” Amphitheatre is the combination of two grecian 180 degree theatres, into a radial 360 degree experience. The fourth wall along with every other wall, dissolves.

What is an archway spun in space? It’s a vault. Spinning tops are made from the same basic shape. Osterburg’s colosseum consists of ascending tiered rings, which are largest at the base and smallest at the cusp. Instead of emanating outward from a central point like the original colosseum, Osterburg’s curves inwards. If we completed this pattern we’d be reproducing the shape of a vault.

If we crouched at eye level to these archways, and spun Osterburg’s colosseum, what would we see? Flickering planes and lines become the only thing to distinguish buildings of this city. Before us an animation would spring to life dizzying us with its incomprehensible sounds and shapes. All of these are possible, even natural in the course of dream logic. 

The colosseum builds panoramic perspectives converging on a single point. It is radial in its core. Panoramas of slightly different images become zoetropes. And spinning Zoetropes become animations. Acting as more than an extension of theatrical convention, the colosseum doubles as a prototypical site of cinema.





GEORGE MELIES

It’s exactly the conventions of early cinema that are at play with Osterburg’s images. Early cinema often showcased the potential of the medium - this was the first time we could reproduce moments in time which were no longer, and edit them. We could decide where and when to be, using sequences to bridge massive amounts of space and time. We became demigods, unbeholden to unfavorable spatio-temporal landscape.

George Melies’s The Living Playing Cards film shows a series of magic tricks made possible by the slight stuttering of cut frames. The continuity is enough to believe what you’re seeing, as what is missing could have easily been lost in a blink. For an audience unaccustomed to special effects, this was a thrilling fantasy that captured the imagination. The slight of hand wasn’t what happened within the image, it was the image. changing that which produced the image reveals the slight of hand.

It’s not all within the image, it’s the medium which produced the image. The flickering light of slightly inconsistent exposure mimics the emotional qualities of confused dreams. But we’re not asleep, are we? The dream logic of the motion picture isn’t the only thing which invites and repels. It’s deeply gratifying to understand that photomechanical reproduction is the very foundation of Osterburg’s prints. It also feels entirely appropriate that another product of his artistic production is stop-motion.

AMBIGUOUS DURATION/SPEED

The image is busy visually, and nearly impossible to place oneself there without hearing the sounds of the city streets. Cars honk, the zeppelin’s engines hum furiously above, the hissing of the steam, all of which bounces indefinitely off the bowl of the colosseum. Yet this photogravure never releases us from its stillness, no matter how much sound and motion we fill it with. It’s like watching an implosion without sound: it draws you in and still never lets you near it.

Sound is another site for rupture.

There are two elements which fundamentally change meaning when they interact: the zeppelins, and the steam. The zeppelin airships have a deep association with German bombing raids during WWI. Osterburg having been born and brought up in Germany may be uniquely familiar with this once-image of German national pride. Where we might have heard cars and seen steam, we hear bombs and see smoke.

Much like the Living Cards, we read double what is there, and what it’s meant to represent. Part of the marvel is in how the smoke could just as well be steam. The atmosphere becomes emotional, asking ourselves “what’s in the air?”

What’s simply so pleasurable is how uneasy these works make the viewer feel. Osterburg’s images ask us to operate fluidly between registers of disbelief. Their ambiguity in how literally we should take them complicates our role, because we understand the fantasy of the image, the un-realness, and yet we are seduced by the societies which produced them. We witness a world, literally of his own construction, and yet it is we who populate it. People never appear in his work. We only ever see the results of humans - running cars, abandoned vessels, airships operated in the sky, and scanty shacks.

It’s gratifying how Osterburg’s images accordion time and space. He expands the context of objects and architecture, while collapses the intervening years to bring us a unified image where they all appear together. In a sense he’s creating a cinema of architectural history, or archetypal references. Not to mention the literal spatiotemporal compression that happens when you flatten objects into images, and the illusory ‘expansion’ of them as stop-motion. 


THE PRINT

Ambiguity extends to Osterburg’s objects too. They straddle territories of the model, miniature, diagram, and referential image. Ambiguity can be generous. 

Models represent ways things could be, or could have been. As such, they can be both constructive, and reconstructive, and the fundamental distinction between them is whether they refer to an idea, or something which already exists/existed. Seeing as this city in a tower in the sky does not exist, Osterburg’s image starts to serve as a speculative society.

All of this conveniently omits the object we are truly looking at: a print. Tower City is the result of several mediations. Osterburg constructed his objects, sometimes while creating stop-motions of the making; he photographed the constructions; he created photogravures of the photographs; and he reworked his plates to create atmospheres which were not present in the image, or could only have been made in the printmaking process.

We are leaning into and leaning against the world we see. Changing the print through the plate is a reminder that there is a plate between us, and that the image is illusory. Such distancing or blocking keeps us from fully living in the scene. It calls attention to the labored artifice of it all, and the objects cannot truly be themselves. The image is a secondary level of removal. Referential. Obfuscating.

And so here we are, somewhere between layers of objecthood, reference, icon, realness, and disbelief.