Julian Rosefeldt’s ambitious, expansive video installation Asylum examines immigration, one of the most sensitive issues on the European as well as global agenda. In the completely darkened space of the Hamburger Bahnhof’s newly inaugurated Rieck-Halle, Rosefeldt presented a compelling work that continues his interest in classification and typologies. The artist presented nine large video projections in which he singles out groups of ethnic minorities - Chinese, Vietnamese, Turkish, Kosovan-Albanian, Afghan, Sinti, Roma, and Thai - in order to examine and deconstruct the stereotypes associated with how we perceive immigrant citizens and how we respond to the idea of the ‘other’. For this work, he chose 120 ‘performers’, many of whom are immigrants and live in asylum seekers hostels, who ‘act out’ their existence as foreigners executing typical or menial jobs, toiling to no end. Far from adopting a documentary approach, which the subject lends itself to, Rosefeldt has conceived an elaborate casting production and has constructed a vivid, highly cinematic, stylised environment where everything has been carefully staged and nothing seems left to chance.
The films are shot on 16mm and their hyper-optical, cinematic quality, is achieved by means of atmospheric lighting, costumes, eccentric, outlandish locations and aestheticised staging. All are pervaded by a distinct choreographed, balletic sense of space. Rosefeldt creates a dramatic, enveloping, immersive environment both within the films themselves and inside the architecture they occupy thus offering the viewer an intense, visceral experience. He does not use the camera simply as a means of observation but rather as a tool to construct highly subjective images and tightly visually controlled compositions, which distinctly partake of the aesthetics of painting. As such, his scenes resemble tableaux vivants, full of rich optical detail, saturated with colour, and an atmospheric play of light and shadow. Rosefeldt fashions a mystical microcosm, a dreamy, hermetic, voyeuristic, surreal world, which although rooted in reality also appears completely divorced from it. The mesmerising slow motion of his camera emphasises the ritualistic and non-sensical aspect of the tasks performed, lending the work a profoundly Sisyphean quality. Cleaning ladies hoover stones in a faux jungular setting; cooks lie idle and destroy fast-food packaging in a monkey cage; sex workers drift about aimlessly occasionally dusting Orientalist artifacts; newspaper sellers shift bundles of newspapers for no apparent reason; black souvenir sellers offer dolls surrounded by replicas of classical statues; gypsies on a merry-go-round beckon the viewer. Rosefeldt emphasises the stereotypical, the kitsch and the overbearingly ‘exotic’ in order to expose and undermine it. His slow, linear, rhythmic use of the camera, its minimal movement back and forth within the picture space accentuates the sense of boredom and ennui which pervades the scenes. His decision to portray the immigrants in homogeneous groups serves to strip them of their individuality and point to how we tend to look at them generically. Though they remain silent throughout most of the film, they at one point come together in crescendo as a chorus, releasing a single, protracted tone; this is the only instant where they acquire a ‘voice’, though this voice is ultimately muted.
Rosefeldt manages to insightfully engage with one of the most hotly debated political issues in Germany, as in many other countries of the developed world. Indeed, in his country, public attitudes to immigration are extremely wary, especially in the East where unemployment is high. This makes Asylum particularly relevant, especially since immigration was one of the core issues of the last election battle there. What makes the work stand out, however, is that Rosefeldt manages to achieve a rich interpretive ambivalence and metaphoric resonance without imposing a political agenda, being didactic or implicitly doctrinal. Although Asylum is a poignant comment on how we consume the ‘other’ the artist refrains from either idealising or presenting the immigrant workers as ‘victims’. In fact, he never quite makes his own position clear and the work always retains a sense of ambiguity, remaining open to multiple interpretations. Given that he is dealing with a highly contested issue, Rosefeldt thus avoids falling into the trap of becoming pedantic or moralising. He succeeds in creating a haunting, sensory rich hyper-place, and offers profoundly humanistic, achingly beautiful iconic images tinged with a sense of sublime malaise.

Rosefeldt insightfully focuses on the underside of human experience and in doing so both confronts the viewer about his own opinions and preconceptions, and at the same time makes us think about our own daily life and its routine dimension.

Katerina Gregos, Contemporary Magazine, London, December 2002