The Secret of Life in Art: Barbara Rosenthal’s Surreality in Berlin

Article by Ngan Le in Berlin; Thursday, Mar. 28, 2013

NY Media and Performance artist Barbara Rosenthal completed her February European tour in Berlin with three shows in Neukölln – one in video at the Boddinale, and two at Studio-Baustelle, one in photography, another in video – her twelfth exhibition in Berlin since 2008. An increasingly younger public has grown to embrace this ever-evolving old master of New Media, and these shows prove the romance is mutual: many recent pieces incorporate Berlin images, music and people.

“Postcards and Other Shorts”

On February 12, the Boddinale Film Festival screened Barbara Rosenthal’s Postcards and Other Shorts (1976-2013), introduced as “setting the tone for the most surreal of festival nights.” Her performance/text/image videos question what it means to be human. Her use of real characters, props and environments contribute immediacy and universality. In Burp Talk, a stationary camera records a child burp-talking a communicative crescendo. BuzzClickSsshhTingle is a madcap compositization of insects photographed (and music composed and recorded) by DJ RoBeat, her most frequent Berlin collaborator. Real insects reproduce their own, but Rosenthal’s combine as chimera.

At Studio-Baustelle, Interior Space: Photographs by Barbara Rosenthal and Elsa Thorp (February 14-28), sensitive artists apprehended enclosed space. On the right were grayscale photographs in the Pictorialist tradition and a BFA show catalog by Thorp, a young New Zealander. On the left were Rosenthal’s color Surreal photographs and four books. This was her first all-color presentation. It was shot in full-frame 35mm then digitally produced. In video, photography and artist’s books, Rosenthal’s forty years of personal vision continue to evolve with advancing technology.


Rosenthal depicts original perceptions that imply psychological narrative: a dream-room, dream-wall, dream-staircase. She creates little scenes held in dynamic graphic tension with strange, original color. Her photographs induce subtle, hyper-real metaphors in a viewer’s subconscious. We feel trepidation, entrapment, claustrophobia and perilous imbalance. We enter her spaces with foreboding.

Green Moscow Mirror places us in a dark room backlit by curtained windows. A small, oval mirror reflects eerie light as if we’re looking into reality but unreality peers back. In Arch in Case, Turquoise Blinds, Paris, sharp aqua light shafts pierce a monochromatic dark-orange room containing a vitrine enclosing a shadowy miniature structure. Red Branches Out Pfefferberg Window, Berlin shows us a winter tree threatening to claw us.

“Secret Codes”

In Rosenthal’s Studio-Baustelle video screening,The Secret of Life and Other Shorts (February 28), the secret, according to her appropriated Ziggy cartoon by Tom Wilson, is to “keep breathing.” Comically obvious at first, we suddenly realize that Rosenthal advises us to laughingly endure the dangerous world she envisions. In Secret Codes, German, Yiddish, and English texts vie with stark images to investigate commonalities and differences. In the poignant fantasy, Toil of Three Cities/Liebesmüh, her artist-character seeks to understand manual labor, the zany answer provided by a guru-worker played by RoBeat. This dry humor video comprises many real-life elements, such as her 2011 arrest in NY, plus dozens of photographs in many screen-configurations, and audio by six international composers. What is the secret of life? Who knows. However, if we were to decode Rosenthal’s work as quirky existential attempts to find answers, we’ll see that her symbols are also our own.


Ngan Le is a Vietnamese-American scholar based in Berlin. Her focus is Asian Art and New Media.

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