Since 1985, that is, since finishing the masterclass under Wolfgang Ramsbott at the College for Fine Arts Berlin, Kirsten Johannsen has shown her video works in international video festivals and exhibitions.
The video "The Mask of the Red Death" dates from 1984 and is among her first works in the medium. She has been concerned with time passing and time standing still, with the transient, with transition, and with journeys from one place to another (including the journey from life to death).
In her video "Dreimädelhaus" (house of the three maidens) of 1990, she combined old super-8 film and photographs from her own childhood, with the speed of the cuts increasing to a furious rhythm towards the end of the video. The pictures, some of which she had coloured afterwards, confront her own past, her memories and the biographical progress of time. In re-composing the old pictures, she questions and corrects the parental view, and the effect is heightened by the acoustically distorted lyrics "It's all gone".
In the same year, she produced "Let happiness be stillness" (Das Glück sei Unbeweglichkeit) for "Das kleine Fernsehspiel" at the ZDF (German Television Channel 2). Again, a family is at the centre of the semi-documentary though it is filmed with actors. It tells the story of a deceased man whose hobby had been filming with a super-8 camera. There are numerous interviews with his relatives to examine his life and character and to develop a profile of his personality on the basis of their memories.
In 1992, she created photographs of old herbaria with dried plants on earth-coloured paper. "Creative Spaces" (Kunst-Räume), dating from 1993, is a cycle of black and white photographs documenting empty zoo cages, expressing a form of loss (in nature) and melancholy about things past and no longer there.
In the early nineties, Johannsen increasingly concentrated on video installations and sculptures in order to, in her own words, "release the picture from its two-dimensionality". Again, she addresses her main themes, with the physical elements in the room referring to the corporeality of the viewer, and in the two-part closed circuit installation "The Panoptic Village" of 1995, he and his shadow even become part of the work.
On a rotating disk, there are a number of wooden toys: houses, a windmill, animals and human figures. A number of surveillance cameras project the image of this revolving miniature world life-size – and hence menacingly – onto the surrounding walls. The viewer and his shadow are moving in this gigantic miniature village. He becomes part of the story, "the bodiless inhabitant of an immaterial place". From this work, Kirsten Johannsen developed video stills which she transferred to paper with photo emulsion.
Corporeality is also the subject of the 1995 Performance "Shedding Skins" (Häuten). Here, the artist was wearing a costume of wide black rubber strips fitted with small LCD monitors. These showed video images representing different skins. The action was accompanied by an alto voice singing Gustav Mahler's "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" (Now I am lost to the world). The costume, now an object in the collection of the Centre for Art and Media Technology in Karlsruhe, was supplemented by the sound of countless mosquitoes.
In her video sculpture "Glazing" (Glasen), made in 1996, two monitors are connected by a rod. The images and the sculptural arrangement indicate an hourglass. In the space of half an hour, sand appears to flow through the rod from the top monitor into the bottom monitor. Two CCD cameras in the background are filming a running hourglass and transfer the image of the passage of time onto the monitors. Once the top monitor is "empty", the sculpture is turned around its axis, and the monitors exchange places to renew the visual and moving image of time.
Johannsen is in search of the trace of time. In this quest, she gets under the viewer's skin to touch him emotionally and to encourage him to reflect on his own memories.
Die Maske des Roten Todes, 1984 ( The Mask of the Red Death )
At the very start of the video, the viewer sees a woman filmed in the pose of a television broadcaster and reading E A Poe's short story "The Mask of the Red Death". She is seated in front of a black curtain. Her face is painted white, her hair is tied back in a severe style. She seems to be in the black room where it all happened and reporting on site. In the course of time, she assumes more the role of a storyteller though the camera focus is barely changing. As she is reading the text aloud in German, another female voice is soon heard from off-stage, reciting the original text in English in parallel, and drowning out the German voice. Only at a few points in the film, the relationship of the two voices is reversed. Poe's story, the basis for the video, is about a privileged group of aristocrats who withdraw to a remote castle in fear of the plague.
Using the stroboscope effect, colour photographs flash up to accompany the various texts like quotations, to provide the visual illustration, documentation and reconstruction of the narrated story. Encounters, affairs, discussions take place, but also glittering parties. The photographs build up tension and determine the visual rhythm. The brevity of the insertion and the partial blurring brings the images across to the viewer like flashes of inspiration resulting in a train of thought.
The detail varies, and the images appear in different places on the monitor; with one passage the picture is set in a monochrome background. The colours, which also appear for an instant in monochrome, stand for the seven rooms of the castle described in the story, creating an atmosphere of suspense. At one point, one sees the image of a face with a horizontal red band at eye level, another time, three faces appear in circular openings.
The black room is described as taboo, which no one must enter. It is here that the viewer cum listener witnesses the death throes and the fatal fall of the story's protagonist, prince Prospero. The scene is introduced in slow motion by a sequence in the style of a feature film, and it becomes clear that the plague has not spared the city. The camera moves away from the narrator, pointing up her isolation. In the end, all is dark and black, and one hears the last sentence: "The red death comes like a thief in the night …"