Arriving at ACCA, you’ll be confronted with a huge hanging red curtain. But it’s worn, sun bleached and unkempt. A small opening is propped open unceremoniously. This is the entrance to Ulla von Brandenburg’s new show, It Has a Golden Sun and an Elderly Grey Moon.
Brandenburg, originally from Germany but living and working in Paris, came to Australia for the 2014 Sydney Biennale, where she exhibited one piece. Now ACCA has brought her back for more, exploring the past 20 years of her practice, and concluding with a new commission.
The show encompasses painting, installation, film and sound, and the curtain is just the first of many allusions to theatre. From hanging props and shadows cast permanently onto cloth to a film of actors, a raw, unvarnished look at the theatre is the spectre behind the whole exhibition.
“I’m making a performance out of what the audience never sees,” she tells Broadsheet. “I like the idea of going through the curtain into another world.”
Brandenburg plays with cinema as well, creating odd, dark visions drawing the uncanny out of simple cinematic techniques, from shadow plays to black-and-white film projections onto a variety of coloured walls to soak the images in vivid emotion. She also includes specific references, such as her re-creation of Le Squelette Joyeaux, a very early film by the Lumière brothers featuring a dancing skeleton.
“Film is the medium where I can link the most parts of my work together,” she says. “It’s time based. Visual. I can use sound and I can work with actors.”
There’s a sense she’s positioning the audience as actors on a stage throughout the exhibition, especially in the penultimate room, which hosts an enormous, Rorschach-like backdrop of a forest.
It pays off in the final room: a vast communal space where the audience can sit on a set of steps and watch Brandenburg’s newly commissioned video work, a percussive, part-choreographed and part-improvised piece based around human movement.
It’s all unashamedly abstract in its thinking, but that just leaves some work for the audience – much like actors interpreting a script.
“I start with a visual idea,” she says. “I come from image more than narrative.”
Specific meaning comes later. Meanwhile, Brandenburg’s directing us all to give an inscrutable performance, and we’re not privy to what’s happening front of house.
It Has a Golden Yellow Sun and an Elderly Grey Moon by Ulla von Brandenburg is at ACCA until July 17.