maandag 8 januari 2018

Neid Kunsthalle Basel Hannah Villiger Artists Book Polaroid Photography

Hannah Villiger
Kunsthalle, Basel, Switzerland


In Samuel Beckett's Happy Days (1961) Winnie sits buried up to her waist in a mound of sand. Her sphere of action is limited to how far she can reach with her arms, and the only way that she can see herself is in a small hand-held mirror. Recognizing only fragments of her body, she still manages to reassemble them into an imaginary whole. The photographs of Hannah Villiger work on a similar premise. A small surface of a white cloth set the stage for the Swiss artist, and a Polaroid camera took the place of the mirror. Villiger took photographs of her body from, at the most, an arm's length away. She stated, 'I am my closest partner and my most obvious subject. With my Polaroid camera I listen to my naked, bare body, the outside of it, the inside of it, traversing it.'

Born in 1951, Villiger trained in sculpture but discovered photography at the end of the 1970s. From 1981 until her death in 1997 she concentrated on taking photographs of herself. She emphatically believed in the power of the body even though, or rather because, she was already coping with the isolation caused by tuberculosis, which she had contracted at the age of 29. She believed not only in a life lived to excess, but also in the idea that photography can somehow renew the physical self.

A retrospective of Villiger's photographs is somewhat overdue, given her significance within the realms of body art. This show opened with the single pieces, then groups of works entitled 'Work' from the early 1980s, and led into the 'Sculpturals' from the 1980s and 90s. Villiger arranged single photographs into blocks that defy the logic of the original image. The result is a broken, anagrammatical body, twisted and dislocated by the photographic act. You can imagine this approach as a kind of performance, whose only viewer is the artist herself. The 15 panels of the blocks condense into a kaleidoscopic inquiry into subjectivity and sexual difference. Almost unidentifiable extremities - an embraced neck, a stimulated clitoris - were at the mercy of the artist's camera. Sigmund Freud and Marshall McLuhan described the camera as a type of prosthesis, an extension of the body's organs; it's a viewpoint that becomes abundantly clear in Villiger's work.

In the way they reveal and construct poses these photographs recall the early work of Cindy Sherman or John Coplans. If occasionally Villiger reached for little hand mirrors, like Beckett's Winnie, her intention was not so much to learn to recognize herself better, as to disrupt the act of looking, directing the camera to places where she couldn't reach, the remotest parts of her body, 'the outside of it, the inside of it, traversing it'.

Translated by Helen Slater


Coincidentally, today is the 1951 birthdate of Hannah Villiger. Where Milan Grygar in his performance is ‘drawing’ blind from behind, and on, photographer’s background paper with his fingertips dipped in the ink he is holding in a saucepan in his other hand, Villiger, in making her series was holding a Polaroid camera to isolate and record parts of her own body. Both are restricted in their recording of their gestures by an arms-length, and both are unable to see directly what they are doing.

Block I, 1988, collection Aargauer Kunsthaus Aaurau © The Estate of Hannah Villiger
Hannah Villiger (1988) Block I. Mounted group of Polaroids. Collection Aargauer Kunsthaus Aaurau © The Estate of Hannah Villiger

Villiger, in her workbook on September 20, 1989, described her own photography — a series of Polaroid self-portraits —  as “a little game between the I and the me.” We are familiar today with the ‘selfie’ as a common and normal activity, a game with its own identity, representation and boundaries, but in 1989 the term had not come into use and artists were inventing the terms of the self-portrait for themselves. For Villiger, it was, to put it in Freudian terms, a strategic communication of the super-ego with the ego and id.

Hannah Villiger, born in Cham, Switzerland, described herself as a sculptor. She was sixteen when her father died in 1967 and she took up study for a degree in commerce, which she put into practice in designing and selling the distinctive clothing of the kind that she always wore.

In 1970 she worked as temp in a Zurich advertising agency which led to her taking a course at the School of Applied Arts, Zurich in 1971, showing photographs of Berlin in the exhibition Zuger Maler, Plastiker und Fotografen later that year.  In her workbook in April 1972 she wrote;

Art is not a profession but rather a path to truth and self-realisation, not only for the artist but also for the observer.

Screen Shot 2017-12-10 at 11.00.07 am
Hannah Villiger (1975) Arbeit, black-and-white photograph, 38 x 56,5 cm. Standort Kunstmuseum Luzern, Besitz Kunstsammlung der Stadt Luzern
Hannah Villiger

Arbeit 1979 Black-and-white photograph on baryte paper, matt 125 x 189.5 cm Aargauer Kunsthaus Aarau : deposited by a private collection
Hannah Villiger

Until 1976 she studied and exhibited sculpture and trained in sculpture with Anton Egloff (*1933), and took residences in Rome, Canada and the USA in 1974 to practice that medium, which she exhibited at the 9me Biennale de Paris in 1975. Thereafter, her work included photography, with an October 1976 solo exhibition of objects and photographs at the Galerie Atelier Milchstrasse in Freiburg Germany. In August the next year she writes;

In the viewfinder of my camera— the feeling of ‘I’ with the object.

In 1979, while supporting herself with waitressing, she takes photographs and works with objects out of wood and plexiglass, and travels in the USA, before in December shows exclusively photography at the Galerie Jörg Stummer in Zurich. Beneath the photo of an object made from a ceiling lath she writes:

I made two objects that corresponded to my physical feeling and to my soul. When they were finished, I took pictures of them. Now the photographs please me more.

Hannah Villiger, Arbeit, 1980 Color photography on aluminium board, 100 x 100 cm Aargauer Kunsthaus, Aarau

This breakthrough continued in 1980 when she became infected, at only 29 years old, with acute tuberculosis, and was hospitalised in Switzerland and at the Basel High Altitude Clinic in Davos; ”An intense time of much emptiness” during which she made her hospital room a studio, creating small wooden objects, Polaroid photographs and workbooks and drawing directly onto the walls of the hospital room.

Swiss Cultural Center • Paris : 32-38 Rue des Francs-Bourgeois : F-75003 Paris
Installation at the November 2012 retrospective exhibition of Villiger’s photography at the Swiss Cultural Centre, 32-38 Rue des Francs-Bourgeois, Paris. Photo: Simon Letellier.
Frederic Meyer

Photo: Frederic Meyer

That year, 1980, saw her begin to concentrate almost exclusively on the medium of photography, repeatedly documenting herself, her Polaroid camera positioned only as far away as her outstretched arm would allow, to discover its parts and interiors that she could not see.

David Hockney (*1937) was not to start producing his ‘joiners’, also at first using Polaroids, until two years later, and Villiger makes no attempt at ‘joining’ hers, which remain disconnected, a dismembering of the whole.

Overexposure from the on-camera flash used at too close a range and the accompanying blurring of focus, extreme light/dark or color contrast between frames, and her use of  mirrors to double and merge body parts, all reinforce the abstraction of the assembled ‘Blocks’ (as she called them).

She avoids images that include her whole body, and though individual images are blown up to mural scale, unlike cliché male photographs of the ‘headless’, objectified nude, there is no interest in anonymity, and certainly no body-worship, voyeurism or narcissism here;

It is afternoon. Afternoons are reserved for my work. The curtains are drawn shut; a yellowish light passes through the material. A piece of white cloth is spread out on the floor. My arena. Some of the utensils lie in a state of readiness. The Polaroid camera is placed provocatively upon my table alongside my sketchbook. I cover my naked body with the robe that I wear when working. Everything has been prepared and now waits to be set in motion. The various pieces of mirrors, the fabrics, the knife, Neocolor, acrylic paint, > packs of Polaroid film; most of the time I am freezing cold at the beginning. I descend deep into myself.—Hannah Villiger, Workbook, 29.05.1989

The ‘truth and self-realisation’ that she proclaimed, at the age of 21, as the aim of art are achieved. These are devotedly honest images.

Swiss Cultural Center • Paris : 32-38 Rue des Francs-Bourgeois : F-75003 Paris2
Installation at the November 2012 retrospective exhibition of Villiger’s photography at the Swiss Cultural Centre, 32-38 Rue des Francs-Bourgeois, Paris. Photo: Simon Letellier.
Swiss Cultural Center • Paris : 32-38 Rue des Francs-Bourgeois : F-75003 Paris3

From the November 2012 retrospective exhibition of Villiger’s photography at the Swiss Cultural Centre, 32-38 Rue des Francs-Bourgeois, Paris

Block XVII, 1989 © The Estate of Hannah Villiger
Hannah Villiger (1989) Block XVII,, © The Estate of Hannah Villiger

Hannah Villiger (1993-4) Block XXX

In an interview in 1996 Villiger says:

It wasn’t my concept right from the beginning to photograph my life. I do other things, too; plastic works or drawings that I have not exhibited up to now. However I come back again and again to the Polaroids because they achieve everything that seems important to me.

Indeed, while her photographs are best known, sculptural interests prevail. Often associated, and exhibited, with 1970s and 1980s photographers of the body Urs Lüthi, Jürgen Klauke, Cindy Sherman, John Coplans, and Orlan, in contrast Villiger focuses less on the social and media depiction of the (female) body than on the essential sculptural plasticity of the body and the autonomy of the image. Furthermore, her titling of works since 1983 makes reference to sculpture, and from 1988 her arrangement of the square Polaroids in blocks infers the multiple viewpoints engaged by her original three-dimensional medium, and opens to a spatial context.

Hannah Villiger died too early in 1997 at the age of only 45, survived by her 6 year old son Yann Abdulaye and partner Mouhamadou Mansour (Joe) Kébé, but she remains one of Switzerland’s most significant women in art. She gained critical attention with exhibitions such as Neid (Kunsthalle Basel, 1985) and Skulptural (Museum für Gegenwartskunst, 1988/89), and international recognition for her contribution to the São Paolo Biennale of 1994 (together with Pipilotti Rist who currently exhibits her similarly self-exploratory Sip my Ocean at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia).

Following her death, institutions including the Kunsthalle Basel, the Kunstmuseum Bonn, the NGBK in Berlin, and the Musée d’art modern et contemporain in Geneva devoted space to comprehensive presentations of her work.

Let’s turn once again to Freud:

Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of [the human] is their actual life-process. If in all ideology [individuals] and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life process as the inversion of objects…

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