Seeing What Is Missing. Time in Stone



“All questions, all answers, repudiate one another.
To all questions different answers”.
Alberto Giacometti



In 1977 Ursula Schulz-Dornburg travelled to South-East Asia and returned home with a series of photographs depicting twenty five ravaged sculptures of the Buddha. It almost seems as if she arrived in Burma bringing the photographs she took there, as if inner images had preceded her pictures. She was in that country, a military dictatorship and to the present day still one of the world’s poorest states, to visit the unique architectural landscape of Pagan. Almost a thousand years ago Pagan was a Buddhist kingdom, a flourishing realm devoting a great part of its wealth to worship of the Buddha. The decline that has continued up to the present day got under way after an onslaught by Kublai Khan, Prince of the Mongols, in the year 1287. Hundreds and hundreds of temples and stupas, slowly falling into ruin, stand on this high plateau extending over several dozen square kilometres. This is a landscape of rare magic.

For the most part Ursula Schulz-Dornburg did not photograph the landscape. Instead she concentrated on the aura of this place, shaped by thousands of statues of the Buddha. The sight of these wounded bodies in stone so impressed her that now, almost thirty years later, she has returned to the images produced then.

Almost all of her photographs repeat the same image. So far as possible all these pictures were taken from the same distance. They avoid all effects and refrain from any intervention. Just light on paper, black on white, contemplation as a basic attitude, and reality as citation.

All of a sudden these photographs are linked by their stoic seriality. They appear like variations of what is always the same. This series of pictures makes visible something that characterises all photography. Each image can only be part of a greater whole which eludes being photographed. The special feature of this series is its theme of absence. The photographs show us that something is missing. They focus on this absence. It is as if their magic is derived precisely from what is not there. They depict a present absence.

These statues lose their history. Their religious context is reduced to what is visible. The people who once produced these objects have vanished in their depiction. Everything essential is invisible. And yet there still remains a quintessential residue.

We see twenty five sacred sculptures revealing visible traces of violent mutilation. We cannot be completely sure whether this is the outcome of looters’ acquisitiveness or simply of the ravages of time with its many forms of higher destructiveness. We can make assumptions but much remains obscure. These figures look as if they had been truly eviscerated. Some heads were chopped off. Other sculptures have a hole in the heart area or the stomach was brutally opened up. No-one need say to these objects: “Show thy wounds”. They reveal these wounds visibly and mysteriously. These are wounds in stone.

However the traces of destruction reveal only half the truth. The act of violence is not as yet fully accomplished. Almost automatically the observer’s gaze adds what is missing: the chopped off arms, the missing head, the eviscerated body. The gaze immediately restores the dismembered contours. It wants intactness. The part seeks the whole. The fragment functions as a sketch that complements itself. Seeing entails re-establishing. Reproduction and reconstruction are one. We see the past and an opportunity of surviving time – despite everything. Eternity and nothingness.

As photographs these sculptures are double-images. When we look at the gaping wounds with their deep fissures and lacerations, they suddenly become negatives of what has been cut away. It seems as if these figures are indestructible. But of course all that is just illusion. These are reproduced reproductions of spirit. The stupas themselves are intended to depict the cosmos. Mandalas as architecture. The immaterial in material form.

These images come and go in a pulsation that seems to stop the breathing of time. Just as in Giacometti’s great sculptures where the appearance of a living person asserts itself across infinite distance. For brief moments the invisible becomes visible and then immediately vanishes again. Everything changes unceasingly.
Violence – existence undergoing transformation.

Photographs are fragments. They never show the whole picture. However the Buddhas aimed at completeness. They sought an enlightenment for which no picture exists. All that remains for us are abstractions mediated by way of material relics. We only see the faded traces of history in decaying stone. But even in these vandalized embodiments there still remains something of a great tranquillity. We see a silence that has survived for centuries, an expression that does not pass away. The great composure that others wanted to destroy reasserts itself. We see the cycles of time.

These fragments are sketches in stone giving us space to fill them with our own imaginings. By contemplating these ruptured figures, to some extent we enter into them. Seeing is projection. What was once spirit decays and arises anew in the act of seeing.

A magical transmission of power and energy still survives. Behind a visible figure there appears an invisible one. We see how tradition functions. Something is passed on. Suffering without lamentation. We observe a seeing that has long passed away and constantly renews itself. We see what is most transient in a durable form. We contemplate an invisible portrait.

In this case art is an almost artless art. It is an art of looking, of attentiveness resisting a vanishing.

Jan Thorn-Prikker



Translation: Tim Nevill

exhibition catalogue: PAGAN Zeit aus Stein. Gallery Sabine Knust, Munich 2006

© Ursula Schulz-Dornburg.

© Ursula Schulz-Dornburg