photography Ursula Schulz-Dornburg
written by Wolfgang Scheppe

PDF Download: Click here.

The shard-strewn skin of the earth gives a presently depopulated and forsaken territory a ghostly feature of crowds linked to the human livelihood that once made it history’s first-ever metropolis. Ursula Schulz-Dornburg’s thirst for knowledge seeks a landscape of human activity that materializes over time. In this regard, her subject matter corresponds to the distinction made by Michel de Certeau between espace and lieu: while places describe the conditions of geometric coexistence of inert bodies, spaces are characterised by the actions of historical subjects. Spoken through Certeau, depictions of landscapes do not sketch a geologically or geographically describable entity in Ursula Schulz-Dornburg’s work, but rather scenes of conflictual programs and contractual proximities, namely, of the contrasts in historical practice. That not only holds for her trek on foot around the Babylonian Uruk, the original site of the first written culture whose signs are inscribed in the clay fragments. It also applies to her wanderings in the restricted zone of the former Soviet nuclear testing ground near the city of Kurtchatov. The latter was formerly a closed city not indicated on any map, and without an address. There, too, the soil is littered with structural remains. They are the vestiges of a dystopian experiment in which the Soviet Union allowed its own subjects to suffer as a proxy representation of the enemy. No different from the downwinders in the usa, who were deliberately exposed to radioactive fallout, the regime used the population of immediately adjacent settlements as part of an experimental test to evaluate the human ramifications of contamination from nearly five hundred atomic bombs.


The radiation-related diseases are still being seen today in the fourth generation of victims. Poisoned far into the future, what the soil surface yields here is an intertwinedtangle of barbed wire contorted from the pressure of the explosions, as it remained after the raids of the salvagers who took all the steel they could remove from thesealed ruins and tunnels, and relocated it to China. It was not until 2012 that thelast of the plutonium waste was finally retrieved from the tunnels, which were subsequentlyeither detonated, or sealed with concrete as part of an international operation lasting seventeen years. But even in this zone of anticipation and nuclear threat, there are older layers that Ursula Schulz-Dornburg likewise takes up for examination. Here too, the photographer’s movement patterns trace over an earlier passage intersecting with the Polygontest zone. On his return from the Altai Mountains along the border with China—in the course of his last expedition commissioned by Czar Nicholas I for the purposes of geological exploration in 1829—Alexander von Humboldt passed through Semipalatinsk, following the river Irtysh, and the area of the later Kurtchatov, where the frontiers of the prohibited zone extend to the river banks. Adhering to the layer metaphor, Ursula Schulz-Dornburg’s contemplative consideration of a territory is akin to an excavation of depth. She gauges the landscape appropriated in the antagonism of purposes as a figure of history.  


Excerpt from the book of Wolfgang Scheppe: Ursula Schulz – Dornburg, some works; Hatje Cantz Verlag; Schachtel mit Objekten, 2014