On Authenticity and Representation in Johanna Domke's Films
by Jesper N. Jørgensen

Art is fiction, one might say, but isn’t reality just as fictitious? Johanna Domke’s artistic practice revolves around our experience of reality. She is preoccupied with the authentic situation or act that represents a recognisable reality. Domke alternates between documenting situations in her immediate surroundings and staging such situations. The subsequent technical processing of the material reduces these situations to isolated phenomena.

In the work Crossing Fields from 2007 Domke re-stages, for example, a situation experienced in a bookstore in Beijing, China and, as in most of her other film work, the sequence loops in continual repetition. Domke manipulates her material in order to disclose a certain surreal quality of the experience or to emphasise an absurdity of everyday life. The endless repetition of the same act suggests a sense of being trapped without possibility of escaping. Each situation appears to be completely wrapped up in itself, and this makes the viewer doubt its credibility as reality and creates a certain gloominess in the works. Recognisable scenes assume strange new forms and seem to express something that the viewer doesn’t quite know how to relate to.
Likewise - irrespectively of whether the scenes are staged or filmed with a hidden camera in a public place - the artist uses the voyeuristic gaze of the camera for an intimidating transgression of the private sphere. The persons in Domke’s films, whether sleeping in an airport, as in Sleepers, reading in a bookstore, as in Crossing Fields, or waiting on the platform in a train station, as in Unbreakable Space, are all placed in more or less private situations. Through the handling of the camera and the physical installation of the works, one identifies with and yet also brutally invades these situations. An ambiance of intimacy is conveyed by the use of the hidden camera, close-ups and slow motion. The subjectivity undermines the element of objective documentation in the execution as well as the experience of the work. In this way, fiction sneaks into Domke’s works, and, once the viewer has ceased smiling at the entertaining absurdity of the situation, uneasiness takes over. Domke is not concerned, however, with a classic ‘fiction/non-fiction’ relation or with a theoretical discussion of various concepts of reality: The opposition between fiction and reality in itself does not interest her and, in consequently, neither does an investigation into the conventions of cinematic documentarism and the presentation of stories from real life. Johanna Domke is interested in the psychological space and in the question of how we are influenced, as individuals, by the society that surrounds us.
To a great extent, reality is a construction based on the currently prevailing ideology in society. Naturally, there is no such thing as an objective reality, since this is a product of a subjective idea formed on the basis of the preconditions of the individual person in terms of education, intellectual environment and personal preferences. This illusion of reality, however, is a prerequisite of the construction of society: The collective consensus on how to view and understand society is an expression of an idealist mind-set that rests on the existence of a definite origin of and goal for our relations to the surroundings. This ideological construction is an “imaginary representation of our real conditions of existence” (Louis Althusser: ”Le courant souterrain du matérialisme de la rencontre”, Paris, 1982). By this representation we seek to establish a progressive, linear evolution and to create a general narrative that can structure the chaotic coincidences that constitute the surrounding society. Our experience of reality, then, is a product of the significance we bestow upon it, that is to say, a product of the ideology that underlies our perception of reality.
The places and situations Domke chooses to film, exposes the conflict between private and public. They emphasise how the individual person’s possibilities in public places are controlled by the overriding systems that organise the structure of society. As mentioned, these are ideologically conditioned and confine the individual to formalised circuits of behaviour. The distinct choice of public and more or less anonymous surroundings as locations shifts the focus from the specific place and the original situation to a psychological condition.
In her latest work from 2008, Domke has staged a more complex composition and structure that takes this whole issue one step further. Whereas previous works have been concentrated on a clear view of a single situation, this new film comprises a number of situations that unfold within a more comprehensive, labyrinthine scenography where the viewer soon looses all sense of direction. This work is inspired by the world of Franz Kafka and the movies of Orson Welles and, like the earlier work, it seeks to create a mental space through abstraction and subversion of the familiar. Thus, Johanna Domke’s art is also about representation and the formation of meaning. She makes us see that we read meaning into the works, and into our surroundings, on the basis of our ideological background – as opposed to reading the meaning in the works and in our surroundings on the basis of a metaphorical system.