December 9: Sigmund Freud regarded the camera as a prosthetic, like a mechanical arm.
With every tool [we are] perfecting [our own] organs, whether motor or sensory, or removing limits to their functioning. Motor power places gigantic forces at [our] disposal [and] by means of spectacles […] corrects defects in the […] eye; by means of the telescope [we see into] the far distance and by means of the microscope [overcome] the limits of visibility set by the structure of [the] retina. In the photographic camera [we have] created all instrument which retains the fleeting image impressions […] a materialisation of the power […] possessed of recollection, [of] memory.
[from Sigmund Freud’s 1930, Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, literally ‘The Uneasiness in Culture’ or ‘Civilization and Its Discontents‘)]
Today is the anniversary of the death of Czech artistic photographer Josef Prošek in 1992 (*1923). From 1940 he wrote poetry and enthusiastically made photographs. While studying it at the State Graphic School in Prague he was admitted as a regular member of the Spolek výtvarných umělců Mánes or S.V.U at the recommendation of Josef Sudek (1896—1976).
He was employed as a photographer-journalist on Květy (‘Flowers’) weekly (launched in 1951), and later for Plamen (‘Flame’) magazine, then worked as a freelance photographer until the end of his life, as well as exhibiting nationally and at international salons in Berlin, Moscow, Copenhagen, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Mexico City, for which he was bestowed the FIAP Excellence Award. He produced street photography in both Prague, where he spent most of his life, and in Paris, and published several books.
In 1969, Prošek photographed a performance piece by Czech avant-garde audiovisual artist, painter, and typographer, Milan Grygar (*1926) who in 1964 had started to tape record the acoustic process of drawing and in 1966 first exhibited ‘acoustic drawings’ with accompanying sound recordings.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…