Maria Hahnenkamp

Galerie Fotohof

Given the image on the invitation for Maria Hahnenkamp’s recent show, one could easily have been disappointed by the work in the gallery. The card depicted a young blonde woman, heavily made-up, her lips slightly parted and her gaze focused on something mysterious and inviting outside the picture frame. In short, this was a provocative image of an “attractive” and “erotic” woman, reminiscent of media and advertising images. Inside the gallery one’s first impression was radically different: white walls, white frames, white pictures, almost suggesting that one was about to enter into a formal discourse regarding “the image.”

The work that provided the best antidote to this was Untitled, 1991–96, one of the works Maria Hahnenkamp has been producing since 1991 by sewing together photographs with the images rubbed out. Though this rectangle comprised eighty individual pieces tacked loosely to the wall, it resembled a piece of white canvas with traces of color. Hahnenkamp obsessively scratched or cut images of women from photographs, some similar to the one on the invitation and many shot in cosmetic parlors and manicure salons. In other words, she documented professions often associated with the female body, which draw upon a photographic ideal to form a model for “feminine” behavior. When Hahnenkamp causes these initially visible representations to sink into the surface of the paper, she is engaging in something that resembles a materialist critique of photographic ideology.

Hahnenkamp’s critique focuses on images of women, whether self-generated or lifted from art, advertising, or pornography. The negation of the visible, which is total in the case of Untitled, presents a radical method of dealing with such images—pushing the pictorial motif to the edges of visibility, always calling into question the instant in which the photograph is taken, and its claim to represent reality. Her work is predicated on an understanding of photography as a particular cultural and technological practice, one that constructs reality under the pretext of reflecting it. Photography’s indexical nature has up until now served to confirm its corresponding claim to objectivity, and in the fifteen-part work Untitled #2, 1995–96, Hahnenkamp directly addresses this quality. Details of a white dress recognizable only by a few of its folds alternated with wrapped, unexposed sheets of photographic paper. The minimal visual differences between these pale images resemble the reflections on the glass covering them, and the pure, “unstained” photographic paper references the traditional ideal of “virginal” womanhood. This nothingness, or close-to-nothingness, is seductive enough to produce a projection: trying to hold fast, to achieve certainty, the gaze locates in certain folds, for example, the suggestion of the female sex.

Hahnenkamp removes the female image from spectacle, without presenting an alternate image, but instead acknowledging, from the outer margins of visibility, the dominant pattern of representation. Operating on the borders of abstraction, her work speaks to all facets of society that have determined the relationship between woman and image, underlining the value of repetition in thematizing this relationship. As a result, the work doesn’t read easily, and leaves itself open to formalist interpretations. This holds for Ornament #6, 1996, a floral pattern punched into the wall with a drill. The same links between decoration, beauty, and damage arise in the pieces in which Hahnenkamp embroiders photographs and punctures passports. But one can also associate the typically “masculine” drill with the penetrating glance provoked by pornographic images, a connection that leads us back to the woman’s face on the announcement card.

Christian Kravagna

Translated from the German by Vivian Heller.