This book is the catalogue of Ursula Schulz-Dornburg’s retrospective exhibition of the same name presented at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt in the summer of 2018, and it shows the work that during decades she has conducted in Europe, the Middle East and some ex-Soviet Republics.
Since the early 1980’s, Ursula Schulz-Dornburg has explored places of transit, border zones, cult sites and the remains of past civilisations in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, depicting in this way landscapes in political transition, places that have dramatically changed and sometimes permanently disappear due to upheavals and wars. Thereby, her work focuses on the complex interaction between landscape and human civilisation, highlighting how conflict, construction, destruction, time and decay transform the former.
Presented mainly in B&W and arranged in sections according to geographical regions, her photographs blur the boundaries between past and present, between then and now, documenting instead the passage of time and conveying a sense of nostalgia and immediacy.
“Transient Sites, Armenia” is probably her best known series contained in this catalogue, depicting Armenian bus stops detached of their surroundings, as if they were in the middle of nowhere, in transit, just as the sporadic passengers shown waiting for their bus. Presented in this way, they become modernist sculptures imbued with the melancholy of the post-Soviet era.
Later in the book appears another remarkable collection, “Vanished Landscapes. Iraq, Marsh Arabs”, a series that captures the now extinct reed structures in the Marsh Arabs. This group of images, besides its historical importance, are a great narrative of ancient architecture, with all its understanding of functionality, materials and forms, which evolved to suit the special situation of living by and on the water.
Worth mentioning is also the series “Vanished Landscapes. Palmyra, Syria”. A work that Schulz-Dornburg did in 2010 before the civil war that still grips the country today, and before much of the remains of Palmyra were intentionally destroyed. In this way, this – and other previous works – documentation of Palmyra, forms an archive of cultural history, which also cements Schulz-Dornburg’s theory of time as an ongoing cycle. Despite the passing of centuries or millennia, time is not frozen and nothing is safe, and destruction often comes full circle.
All in all, this comprehensive catalogue is a great book. With a well presented minimal design, it gives us a clear understanding of the remarkable trajectory of Schulz-Dornburg and her experience of time and history.