Hannah Villiger

Just four years after Hannah Villiger’s death at the age of forty-six, the Kunsthalle Basel dedicated an exhibition of considerable scope to the Swiss artist, accompanied by a detailed monograph, including a catalogue raisonné of her works. Nevertheless, this presentation was not a full retrospective, eliding as it did her early sculptural works of the ’70s, which still followed in the arte povera tradition. Instead, it focused on her photographic oeuvre, which treated her own body as its point of departure. But even before that work, which was the subject of many a solo exhibition and made Villiger widely known in Switzerland, she had developed a sculptural approach to photographing her own mundane possessions. The dynamic power of flying boccie balls, burning palm branches, or even a water sprinkler contained a potential energy that could be made visible only through photography. Only after being hospitalized in 1980 for long-term treatment of tuberculosis did Villiger begin a systematic investigation of her own body.

As the story of the genesis of an oeuvre, Villiger’s hospital stay reads very much like myth: Here, with limited means, the artist finds herself forced to invent a new language. Until her premature death, the companionship of the Polaroid camera was to determine her entire production. The pictures she took with it were enlarged to just over a meter square, then transferred to thin aluminum plates. These plates show cutouts of the body, which seem to achieve a self-evident autonomy, distanced from the person. These corporeal architectures never allow for any final ordering; even their up and down coordinates remain obscure. The flesh, as it pulses, lives, and changes day by day, is looted by the camera, itself a prosthetic extension of the eye. Segments, never seen this way before, are cut out of the continuum of flesh, creating the impression of abstract, nonreferential formations.

Villiger named all of her enlarged Polaroid works “Skulptural,” marking her interpretive intent with this adjectival characterization, which was also meant to undermine the referentiality of photography. After 1988, her sculptural method became even more pronounced. She began putting large groups of the photographs together in blocks, and the resulting multiple viewpoints and related fragments melted into a new unity—a unity though, that no longer has faith in the wholeness of the body. Villiger’s intimate research into her own body, degraded to an observed object and thus made an expression of alienation, has its correlate in the specific color range of the Polaroid. The gleaming light of the flash reveals the artist’s skin, sprinkled with flecks of pigment, and for the viewer, the larger-than-life body parts become a physical and psychological confrontation. The simultaneity of the intimate and public spheres, of organic form and minimalist sequence, defines the tension-laden field where the radical investigation of this “most obvious subject,” as Villiger once characterized her body, takes place. A year before her death, it seemed that this exploitation of her own “material” had reached a definitive end, for in her last works the outer veil of her skin was replaced with bright wrappings of gowns that, completely effacing the body, seemed to forecast her inevitable end.

Philipp Kaiser

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.