PRINT October 1997


A dead woman’s body on the seashore, draped in a bright-green blanket; her bare legs and the bottoms of her feet pointing at the viewer, the rest hidden. Not far from the corpse sits a large German shepherd, a mute witness, staring at someone or something just outside the frame. One can’t help wondering what he’s looking at. The title supplies no answer; instead it poses another question: “Hey Buster! What do you know about desire?”

In an atmosphere of cool voyeurism, Annika von Hausswolff’s photographs play out her, and perhaps our, obsession with violence and death. The silent observer reappears in Eyewitness, 1997, a close-up of a dog’s head, its eyes again intensely fixed on something just beyond the edge of the picture. But most often, it’s the viewer who’s invited to play the role of passive witness. Von Hausswolff began investigating the connection between scopophilia and violent crime with “Back to Nature,” 1992–93, a series of large photographic prints in which young female corpses are strewn across landscapes bucolic and otherwise. Two images from a triptych in this series have the raw, artless directness of police photographs: a female in a blue cotton dress lying on her stomach, half-buried by weeds, feet bare; a woman sprawled on the ground, her jeans pulled down to her knees—robbed, raped, murdered? The third seems very much staged, even painterly—a naked corpse floating like Ophelia among the reeds. This effect is echoed by the final image in the series, which shows a naked woman—or is it one of Hans Bellmer’s dolls?—lying in a sunny patch of Scandinavian pine forest, her dead body the only blot on this otherwise pristine landscape. Yet despite their brutal subjects, these images exude a strangely tender lyricism, an almost Romantic vision of nature.

In fact it is von Hausswolff’s unexpected combination of traditional Nordic landscape painting and scene-of-the-crime photography that first won her critical attention. Beneath the tabloid-ready appeal of these works lies a bemused, ironic take on the traditional depiction of women in art: bathers, nymphs, reclining or frolicking in the countryside. In her work, von Hausswolff not only strips the bride bare, but deprives her of anything but bodily presence, forcing Woman back to nature in the most savage fashion.

As with the work of Bellmer and Duchamp, the eroticism of looking is closely linked to the female body. Certainly sadism and voyeurism are no strangers to von Hausswolff’s work. Her photographs may expose the inner workings of the much maligned male gaze, but a good part of their attraction derives from her willingness to acknowledge that the sight of naked flesh, even, or especially, after it has met a violent end, can be oddly riveting. How, then, to sum up “Back to Nature’s” sociopolitical credo? Certainly, earlier works of von Hausswolff’s mount a more explicit feminist critique. The series “A Study in Politics,” 1993, oval close-ups of bruised female body parts, takes a hard-nosed look at domestic violence and the plight of battered women. But “Back to Nature” hardly seems so straightforward. As is true of all von Hausswolff’s most interesting pieces, this series at once seduces and repels: by displaying and dismantling the mechanisms of male desire—its urge to dominate and possess—it partakes of the very thing it so clearly holds up for scrutiny.

Von Hausswolff’s appropriation of landscape painting is an equally double-edged gesture. In a 1994 project, “A Landscape Study,” a series of five identical photographs shows the back of a young man’s head, his neck and shoulders almost filling the frame, behind which the edges of a birch forest are clearly visible. Facing away from us, he fully exposes his perfect Hitler Youth haircut to the viewer, as if to remind us that the tranquillity of the Nordic landscape is traversed by less than palatable undercurrents. In part a reference to the German Romantic Caspar David Friedrich, this work also gives expression to a recurrent motif in von Hausswolff’s art: the refusal to return the viewer’s gaze.

Indeed, von Hausswolff has explored various ways of hiding from the spectator. Alone with Bubble, 1995, shows the upper part of the artist’s body but her face is covered by a translucent globe of chewing gum. Though the idea behind this work seems simple, even childish, the effect of the half-transparent death mask is quite uncanny. Through the whitish membrane one glimpses blurred features, like those of a fetus or an apparition in an unpleasant dream. In a more recent series, “Attempting to Deal with Time and Space,” 1997, the bubbles have grown into white balloons covering not only the face, but a large percentage of von Hausswolff’s body. She wraps her arms around the formless substance, as if in a strange wrestling match with some intractable force.

What is offered to us in these images are objects of desire and aggression, never a subject who might harbor these emotions. The viewer is himself invited to play and examine that role—as passive witness or desiring beast. In von Hausswolff’s world man is a faceless creature teeming with violent and barely contained libidinal impulses. No real communication seems to take place apart from sudden outbursts of brutality. There is no eye contact—a dog resting near a woman’s dead body is as intimate as it gets.

Von Hausswolff’s art offers little comfort. We are continually asked to contemplate docile bodies that never return our gaze, save in one work, As Death Prolongs the Laughter, 1995, where a young woman regards us head on. But the girl (her face made up of two halves of a single photograph separated by a visible, disorienting gap) stares at us with a Naumanesque grimace, her fingers holding her lips away from her gums in an X-ray of a smile.

Daniel Birnbaum writes frequently for Artforum.