08 Feb 2021

The guided tour series "Inspired by her" on current female positions at the Kunstmuseum Basel tells us about Hannah Villiger's photography series "Skulptural".

Feet, calves and thighs appear in angled diagonals creating a spatial structure. The body parts gently touch each other while forming void spaces that reveal a background of ocher and white shades. The feminine is shown as a close-up, presenting all of its vulnerability. On the right side of the image, dark pubic hair appears within the triangle formed by the thighs. Tendons, veins and skin pigmentation are visible, yet dissolve into areas of white. The image is very straightforward and direct. None of the body parts are edited, making the physical flaws a substantial part of the artistic concept. Hanna Villiger is not interested in idealizing or even sexualizing the female body.

Though created nearly 30 years ago, her work is still highly topical. The radical body images presented by Villiger, who died at the early age of 46, have been considered classics for quite some time. They emerged within an art movement that developed in the 70ies and focused on the self-determination of the body. The male gaze, which has dominated the tradition of nudes for a long time, is questioned and replaced.

Since 1983 almost all of Hannah Villiger’s works bear the title “Sculptural”. Trained as a sculptor she then switched to photography – creating sculptures via the medium of photography. At the beginning of the 80ies she started exploring her body by the means of a polaroid camera. Early selfies? No, her aim is not a vain self-portrait but lies in critically questioning herself, whereas her body is turned into a field of artistic exploration. Villiger is both motive and subject, the length of her arm determines the possible distance between camera and motive. While taking the pictures, the details and composition of the image are not fully controllable - this loss of control and the element of coincidence form an important aspect of the creative process. The closer the camera goes, the more distorted and strange the body parts appear. In a next step, the Polaroids are enlarged and mounted on aluminum. This “blow up” leads to images showing monumental body sculptures - the effect is fascinating and strange at the same time. The artist describes the spatial aspects of her work as follows: “The photos have to be big so that I can step into them. Just like when taking a photo through the lens.” She goes even further by combining the individual photos into multi-part blocks. In these large murals, bright areas flicker rhythmically against a dark background and morph into organic structures. Strongly overexposed in certain areas, the images achieve a high degree of abstraction – they appear painterly and sculptural at the same time. Hanna Villiger has created a completely new form of self-portrayal and offers a presentation of the body which is free of social obsession. Her work is particularly important in today's multimedia world. By showing the vulnerable body, confronted by threat and fear, they make an important statement about humanity.

Author: Iris Kretzschmar, art historian, art mediator and free-lance author