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, rolls of Polaroid film; most of the time I am freezing cold at the beginning. I descend deep into myself.
Hannah Villiger was a sculptor, her works sculptures and her medium photography. At the beginning of 1980s she begins to explore her own body by means of a Polaroid camera. Engaged in a lonely, uninterrupted dialogue with herself, she photographs herself “up so close that the Pola whizzes right into the body.” The color photographs that are enlarged from their Polaroid format and mounted on thin aluminum sheets correspond to her skin: extremely sensitive and vulnerable. For more than fifteen years she observed herself through the lens of a camera and thereby felt out her own identity, employing the objectifying medium of photography to reproduce it as sculpture. “A little game between ‘I’ and ‘me’,” she notes on September 20, 1989, in her workbook.
When Hannah Villiger died on August 12, 1997 at the age of only 45, she was among the most important Swiss female artists of her generation. With a return and a centering upon her own body she performed pioneering work for the female artists of the 1990s and bequeathed a self-aware and alternative manner of looking, from a female perspective, at the object which is the body.The entire oeuvre of Hannah Villiger comprises photographs, objects, drawings, graphic prints, dress designs and more than fifty workbooks. Sculptor by virtue of her training and temperament, the young artist works during the 1970s in various artistic media. In exhibitions she displays objects along with photographs or drawings next to each other, thereby assigning them equivalent status. From 1980 onward she devotes herself almost entirely to photography, especially to work with the Polaroid camera. She continues to work on objects and drawings but no longer exhibits them, because the Polaroids “are a more efficient means of realizing all that which seems to me to be important.” In the 1970s there are black-and-white as well as color photographs which, most often arranged in series, explore movement through space: burning palm leaves, irrigation systems, streaks of condensation, flying boccie balls. These early pictures possess a distinctive dynamics and live from the spontaneous fixing of what is directly seen by means of the small-format camera.
From 1980 onward Hannah Villiger uses a Polaroid camera to take pictures primarily of herself. Holding the camera in her hand, she circles round her body, which is naked most of the time, and portrays selected segments that assign new definitions to the structures and volumes of the body. Arising parallel to the body-pictures are courtyard- and rooftop-landscapes, Polaroid images of the views from her apartments in Basel and Paris. Hannah Villiger treats the city just as she does her body: here her gaze is turned upon herself, there it is directed away from herself. In spite of all its variability, her work is astoundingly homogeneous and extremely consistent. The chronological and biographically oriented essay by the Swiss curator and critic Claudia Spinelli provides a general survey of the life and work of Hannah Villiger and positions her photographic oeuvre in an international and art-historical context.
The sculptor Hannah Villiger designates the 123 by 125 cm photographic fragments of her body as Sculptural and calls her exhibitions Sculptures. David Levi Strauss, a photography critic and writer living in New York, traces the process by which she proceeds in the 1970s from directly observed daily life, and later from her own body, to a fresh discovery by means of photography of a specific volume and a specific space. Griselda Pollock, a professor of social and critical art history at the University of Leeds, looks back upon the achievements of thirty years of feminist cultural theory and describes Villiger’s specific manner of treating her own body as the material, the medium and also the content of her corporeal landscapes. Villiger employs the camera and the resulting pictures as a third eye in order to gain—as if from outside—a perception of herself and place the female body in a spatial, social, political and art-historical perspective.
In 1981 the first monographic publication appeared with an insightful essay written by the then 27 years-old art critic Bice Curiger and reprinted here. In 1987 Jean-Christophe Ammann provided a commentary on the works of Villiger at that time in his catalogue contribution entitled “Patience and Solitude.” In 1975 he had already invited the young sculptor to the Biennale des Jeunes in Paris and had enthusiastically followed and sup-ported her artistic activity during the following years. Annelie Pohlen, director of the Bonner Kunstverein, focuses her interest upon Villiger’s last multipartite blocks. The body has partially or entirely disappeared, as if it wished to remove itself from view. Remaining are Polaroids of intensely colored, carefully arranged items of clothing.Upon leafing through the pages of this book—the illustrated part as well as the list of works—one notes recurring themes which at the same time are subject to constant transformation, the unknown in the familiar, the already known in the surprisingly new. Villiger’s artistic development does not proceed in a linear fashion and thus is not a permanent progression demanding the discarding of the old. Rather it represents a circling—in patience and solitude around one and the same theme: sculpture.
Translation: George Frederick Takis