I came across Barbara Suckfüll's word drawings in the catalogue “Beyond Reason” which accompanied the show at the Hayward Gallery in London in 1996/1997. I already knew about the Prinzhorn Collection, largely through reading and images seen in publications, but also because I had made performances in Switzerland and Germany. I have an  awareness for the fascinating and mysterious, connected to  the workings of the mind and questions of the nature and parameters of sanity.  With Barbara Suckfüll, I was impressed by the visual qualities of her drawings made visible through the elegant script. She wrote her drawings. There is a kind of sophistication in this strange conjunction of words and image, quite singular and specific . You get this sense of the order of language because of the way the text is written. But all of this dealt with autobiographical content and the everyday components of her life. When I read the translation of one or two of the texts I was intrigued by the seemingly mild difficulties she recorded. However the discourtesies she mentioned I would imagine would become  intense when experienced in incarceration. Her invocation of the red headed nurse in relation to the devil would possibly reflect the agricultural culture she knew as a farmer's wife where the spirit world had a fluctuating presence beneath Christian belief. She was hospitalised for a long time. The drawings I am refering to were made circa 1910 in the institution, which she left in 1934. 

I was invited to make a performance in European Performance Art Festival, at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Ujadowski Castle, Warsaw, 13 Sept 2006, and chose to make Barbara Suckfüll the subject of the work (the photographs with this text stem from a video of the performance from 2010). At that time, I did several performances  bearing the title The Last Breath and was engaged with the idea of the last breath in a number of performances, the last work in that sequence was About Barbara Suckful taking place at the Ujadowski Castle Warsaw. The video About Barbara Suckful was produced in 2010.

Other works of this group were autobiographical and were developed from a tragic event I witnessed in 1998 on a Sunday morning, at 10 o'clock, I saw somebody burn to death in a park not far from here, (in East London). I was the only person present. I was taking our dog for a walk in a nearby park. It had been raining in the night, it was wet, the sky was dark, clouds low and fast moving. I heard a voice, very quiet, and looked through some bushes to a high metal fence. On the other side there was a man sitting in a fire. He was about 30 meters away, sitting with his back to me. I ran to the fence then back to the dog.  To get to the man I had to pass very close to where he was separated only by the fence. As I went towards him, he jumped out of the fire. He slowly turned to me and back, wobbled and fell backwards into the fire.  I saw that he was severely burnt and I knew he was dying. As a witness I felt as though he was passing something to me. I left the park and phoned for help. I realised that in going to seek help my motivation was also to escape from the scene.The fire brigade arrived and I showed a fireman where the man was. He had crawled along the fence and had died.

I made this group of performances including About Barbara Suckful under the concept of The Last Breath in works I did in Düsseldorf, Essen, Münster, Berne, Lucerne.  I have made a number of performances In Poland, since 1975 and have some experience of the country. And there are other factors which drew me to Poland stemming from my childhood during World War 2 and its aftermath.

There is also a connection to a film  I made entitled Arbeit Macht Frei of 1973.  At the end of the war the Grammar School I attended organised a showing of the film of the liberation of Bergen Belsen concentration camp. It was intended that we would understand that such events could never be allowed to happen again.  It was one of the formative experiences of my chilhood. Somebody said after seeing Arbeit Macht Frei, when I had spoken about the school film trip to see the Bergen/Belsen film, that what I had expressed is a classic condition of trauma. Things come back, memories, memories return later; much later. 

About Barbara Suckful  texts are  spoken in English and Polish, female and male voices are heard. There was also a sound tape running through the performance giving it a slow rhythm. The sound of rain, some ambulance sounds and amplified sounds of tin cans and broom sweeping which punctuated the performance. I used found sound sources discovered during the performance, for example wooden chair sounds being dragged across the marble floor, a groaning screaming harsh scratching, as a means of expressing a parallel expression to her written text.  I made sounds with a chair on the marble floor, a groaning screaming, to evoke the atmosphere of protest. During the performance I also produced the image of a body. I wanted the audience to associate the spoken texts with the discordant sound and body image. To suggest that the paper body was in effect an image of Barbara Suckfüll and that the sound was her voice albeit transmitted by other than the human voice.

The video of 2010 is not a documentation of the performance, but is another work in which added features open the performance up. There is of course a loss in the lack of live performance when seen in reproduction, but there is an advantage in video/film  where the intention of the work can be revisited and made anew with the addition of audio visual material, having the fluidity of not being imprisoned in real time.

It is this conjunction between live performance and the reconsideration of a given performance in the medium of video which makes for an awkward condition which would seem to be in keeping with the conflation of a person being afflicted in life and then further constrained in an institution. It complements what the subject, which is what Barbara Suckfüll spoke about in some of her work.

 

Stuart Brisley, 2014