As If It Were Part of Her Own Body After All

Annelie Pohlen

Hannah Villiger’s oeuvre revolves around the study of her own body. The fact that it was only marginally present or had vanished altogether in the last works that she produced is astonishing and could prompt an investigation of the particulars of her biographical and artistic life. One cannot help thinking that the body faded out of her work in a presentiment of her own impending death. However, such emotionally charged reflections patently contradict the seductive beauty of works that are utterly caught up in the play of the shapes and colors of fabrics.

Surveying Hannah Villiger’s entire complex and also stringent oeuvre allows a differentiated approach and casts an enriching light on her early studies of the sensual presence of textiles in the context of their everyday and artistic realities. Let it be said from the start that, in this respect, Hannah Villiger’s use of the photographic medium to generate sculptural formations of a striking sensuality and a subtle spiritual consistency is invested with exceptionally profound impact.

Skulptural is the title of Polaroids made in 1996. This links them with earlier works that were focused on her own body, like Block, the title of large-format, multipartite Polaroids. Skulptural is also the title of the 1989 catalogue published in conjunction with her exhibition at the Basel Museum of Contemporary Art. One is struck not only by Villiger’s choice of subject matter but also by her ‘formal’ treatment of language. By transforming an adjective into a noun, she has effectively enhanced the sculptural principle. Her use of language as raw material thus demonstrates her artistic concept. Up until her last work group, the investigation of form as the transformation of physical and mental existence gave vital impetus to her idea of the work of art.

Body memory is of decisive significance in this respect. In earlier work groups, the skin as a protective cover supports the artist’s sculptural invention of body parts in a state of extreme tension, thereby transforming the recognizable physical experience of the body into an aesthetic one. In contrast, her last works make milder and seemingly unspectacular demands on body memory. The gaze follows the intoxicating, linear and concentric structures of her fabrics, feeling its way along sculptural and painterly formations created by means of subtly deployed lighting. Intuitively the body follows the impulses of the varied memories of the sensual experience of fabrics.

“I don’t think of my Polaroid enlargements in photographic terms; I see them more as skin or as matter,” in other words, fabric, Hannah Villiger said in a discussion in 1997. And a little later: “When I work my body becomes an object, my working material. I manipulate it; it conditions me. In illness it is useless; certain positions or rather certain folds simply can’t be executed.” One might conclude that Hannah Villiger increasingly resorted to textiles because her physical raw material was becoming in-creasingly unusable. But a look at her oeuvre as a whole offers a more comprehensive observation, for it shows that she directed her attention to her immediate surroundings as well, and even more so in early years than later on. This included plants, objects of use, textiles, i.e., sculptural materials and, as already mentioned, language. They are all things from a world that is familiar or, rather, nearly familiar. And this ultimately means that the presence or absence of the body in Hannah Villiger’s work always addresses both biographical, existential and immanent artistic concerns. Fabric can be read as a skin that protects the body. In the last works, however, it is above all its immanent formal quality that enabled the artist to produce art of such fragile and fleetingly tangible beauty. 

Fabrics are soft, shapeable, tactile; they are also sculptural, flexible and without predefined folds. Of all the things of daily use, textiles are the closest to the body. The history of western art clearly demonstrates the extent to which textiles served as a focus of conceptual and formal artistic design.

In the early 1970s, Hannah Villiger also designed clothes and sold her models in a boutique in the old town of Zug. Friends confirm that her own clothing met exacting demands of recherché ele-gance and beauty. Pictures of her designs testify to a sensitivity to fabrics as a complex sculptural material which made a decisive impact on her artistic oeuvre as well.

The comparative investigation of textiles and skin must also in-clude its flexibility and elasticity, in both conceptual and formal terms. Softness and moldability are endearing qualities in both cases. Flexibility as such also harbors the danger of harmonizing calmness. The elasticity of skin and of fabric is limited. When they are stretched too hard, shapes result that soon disappear again. Hannah Villiger tests this elasticity to the limits of her raw material, defined by its physical properties. Artistically the limits are reached when exploration of the idea of beauty based on anti-normative thinking and acting exhausts itself in pure declamation and threatens to become risible. This awareness of limits ties in with the ambivalent idea of the fleeting form of matter, of material— be it the human body, a utilitarian object, language or an exquisite fabric. In the act of charting boundaries, the seductively poetic as well as art-immanent and conceptually oriented work explores the possible foundations of the ideal plastic form and the ideal physical existence. Both are virtual creations in this oeuvre and as such lead a fleeting existence between being and disappearing. The Polaroids of 1996 are expressions of this complex sculptural experience. Whether or not Hannah Villiger rejected the use of her own body for her research into physical, i.e. material, sensual, i.e. emotional, and mental, i.e. virtual, energy is a moot question. The role once played by the inevitably biographically determined body was now assigned to textiles in a fashion that evokes the memory of the body, a cultural heritage, and ultimately memories of the ideal of beauty purveyed by the great masterpieces of western tradition. In the works of 1996, the result is a sensually seductive and yet detached and contemplative confrontation of time-lessness with virtuality, of sensual experience with the melting of matter into the idea of form and existence. The instrument that heightens the revelation of these facets is, as always, the Polaroid camera. For a fleeting moment, it manages to make the ephemeral seem as permanent as the idea of a deliberately designed draft of life.

Translation: Catherine Schelbert