Gallery Luisotti is pleased to present the upcoming exhibition Ursula Schulz-Dornburg, Bricks and Mortals. The exhibition’s title is a reference to Tom Wilkinson’s 2014 book Bricks & Mortals: Ten Great Buildings and the People They Made, and speaks to Schulz-Dornburg’s ongoing interest in architecture as the infrastructure of history. Bricks and Mortals will feature a survey of Schulz-Dornburg’s work, including a selection from the series Sonnenstand (Sun Positions), made in Spain, 1991, Hejaz Railway, Saudi Arabia, from 2002–2003, Palmyra, Necropolis, from Syria, 2010, and the work Opytnoe Pole, Kazakhstan, 2012.
In her first exhibition at Gallery Luisotti, Schulz-Dornburg featured Bus Stops (1997–2011), a typological documentation of Soviet-era, Brutalism-inspired architecture found in Armenia. Leah Ollman, of the LA Times, summarized the work by writing, “Transition is the operative word here, and limbo the pervasive condition.” While Ollman was commenting on the transitory experience of a bus stop, her words likewise apply to Schulz-Dornburg’s use of the camera to present architecture as a marker of social change. For instance, Bricks and Mortals will feature Schulz-Dornburg’s work made at the Semipalatinsk Test Site in Opytnoe Pole, Kazakhstan. Photographed in 2012, these remnants of the Soviet nuclear weapons testing program are today barren concrete forms scattered across a stark landscape. Though the site was in use as recently as 1989, Schulz-Dornburg’s photographs historically distance the place, rendering it as an eerie echo of similar locations in the American West. The same might also be said of Schulz-Dornburg’s photographs of the abandoned Hejaz Railroad in Saudi Arabia. Photographed in 2002 and 2003, from Medina to the Jordan Border, the series depicts the scant remnants of the Hejaz Railway line that was originally built to link Constantinople (presently Istanbul) to the Ottoman Empire’s Arab provinces. Constructed in the years prior to the First World War, the remnants of the railway mirror the 19th century American sense of Manifest Destiny.
For all her fascination with modernity, Schulz-Dornburg’s camera is equally at home in a more distant past. In her Sonnenstand series, made in 1991, the photographer chose as her subject a number of medieval chapels in Spain. The set featured in Bricks and Mortals was taken at Santa Maria de Melque, an 8th century chapel on the outskirts of Toledo. In order to express the experience and structure of the place, Schulz-Dornburg pairs images of the interior with one of the exterior. In doing so, the photographer finds a material at the heart of both architecture and photography: light itself. She also presents the passage of time in the beams of light that act as a sundial. The chapels have in their Romanesque architecture Moorish formal references. For that reason, Schulz-Dornburg’s making of this work between the first and second Gulf Wars is particularly poignant.
Perhaps Schulz-Dornburg’s most ancient subject has been the necropolis at Palmyra, in present-day Syria. Photographed in 2010, shortly before archeological excavations were halted in 2011 due to the Syrian civil war, and prior to the site’s partial destruction by ISIS in 2015, the photographs are both a remnant and reminder of how quickly human history turns to dust. As the scholar Eduardo Cadava once wrote, “there can be no thinking of history that is not at the same time a thinking of photography.” Add to that equation of historical inscription the role of architecture, and one arrives at the grand ambitions of Schulz-Dornburg’s photography.