NEWS 27 07 2022
In her new film from 2021, the British artist with Hungarian roots attempts to link Central European anti-Semitism in the first half of the 20th century with Robert Bressons 1966 film Au Hasard Balthazar. She uses a specific setting for it – an uninhabited, depopulated area in the middle of the city called the Donkey Field. And, as is typical for her, she combines tangible elements of real situations and character interactions with dreamlike, imaginative visuals that move across time and space. The latter is perhaps more significant than the former – for Dobai employs strategies similar to Bressons, minimal gesture, narrative dashes, lack of dramatic moments and work with non-actors. And in doing so, she manages to connect seemingly incoherent elements of global cultural memory with their real-life realisations – the attack on the little boy, which takes place sometime in 1944, with the timeless story of another Maria and Balthazar, 21st century Hungary with Marias flight to Egypt etc. The film, which presents an “outside view” – of Central Europe as well as of us, the historical actors, also for this reason builds mainly on its impressive visuality, symbolic, metaphorical, and universal about itself. However, it also makes use of verbal narrative – It is this that functionally links the “historical” storyline with the imaginative one, reflecting the nature of sacrificial innocence. The Donkey Field was, after all, at least partly filmed on the streets of contemporary Budapest, during a political regime criticised for its anti-immigration policy and harsh treatment of refugees. However, it even more emphasises the relevance of the story of a “universal” child accompanied by an equally “universal” donkey and likens it to other, more recent versions of the same violent displacement and victimisation. The poignancy of the situation is then further heightened, unintentionally of course, by current events. And like the authors represented in Edition I, reflecting on the current (“our”) Ukrainian drama, Sarah Dobai reminds us of the value of simple kindness, respect, and trust.
The Donkey Field was produced with the support of Arts Council England, University of the Arts, London and The Elephant Trust.
Sarah Dobai completed a Masters in Fine Art at the University of British Columbia studying under Jeff Wall and Mark Lewis. She lives and works in London and is a Senior Lecturer at Chelsea College of Art and Design. Dobai works with photography, film, video and performance. She says: “In broad terms, my work engages with the everyday, realism, artifice and illusion in relation to city life and cinematic or pictorial conventions. My film and photographic works have come about through a performative and reflexive process or are made on location where the latent atmospheric qualities or its material economy animate the image. The work is often centred on the human figure, the subject being defined by their circumstances rather than by their individual characteristics. This approach intends to ground the use of fiction or narrative in the conditions of everyday life or reflexively in relation to the conditions of the production and consumption of the work itself.” Her work thus reflects the central position of photography and cinema in relation to ongoing debates around representation, realism and authorship. Recent projects, including The Donkey Field and The Overcoat, have focused on reconstructing and repurposing historical works of literature or cinema as a means to animate present-day social and political concerns.
Dobai has shown widely in museums and galleries in the UK, Europe and America. Recent solo exhibitions and projects include at Danielle Arnaud, Imperial War Museum, Glassyard Gallery and BALTIC. As well as The Donkey Field, other recent projects include The Overcoat, published by Four Corners Books, a republication of Nikolai Gogol’s classic novella (1842), her solo show Principles & Deceptions at Or Gallery (Vancouver) and Filet (London), Twenty Second Hold at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery and Bees in a Hive of Glass, a collaboration with novelist Tom McCarthy produced for TANK Magazine & Whitstable Biennale. Her work features Charlotte Cotton’s Photography as Contemporary Art, Photographie Contemporaine by Michel Poivert (2nd edition) and Phillip Prodger’s recently published The Photographic Portrait A History. Selected group shows that she has participated in include at Whitechapel Art Gallery, Kamloops Art Gallery (Canada), Centre de Photographie et Arts Lectoure (France), Kuandu Museum of Fine Art (Taipei), FotoMuseum Antwerp, Winterthur Foto Museum, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.