Existential Necessity: The Life and Work of Hannah Villiger

Claudia Spinelli

With a precise cut she slices her face, splits it into two unequal halves: presence and absence. Only the eyes, the striking eyebrows and a part of the forehead and hair of Hannah Villiger are visible. The rest is diffusely mirrored. Repetition and rupture of what is now a visual reality. Almost thirty years old, Hannah Villiger shows herself with a concentrated gaze. She attentively looks at the world and people and in doing so reveals very little of herself. At the center of Hannah Villiger’s work was her own body. The actual instrument she used was the Polaroid camera, which she pointed at her own body, sometimes in close-up, sometimes at up to an arm’s length away. In this sculptural embrace she annulled gravity. She joined feet and arms, legs and chest into new identities, turned and rotated them until the picture corresponded to her concept. Sometimes she went to the window as well and photographed the immediate surroundings of her apartment, the tree on the square in front of her building or the silhouette of the city and the sky above her. The picture with the ”razor-sharp gaze”1  is one of the very few works where the eyes of the artist are visible. It is situated at a turning point when Hannah Villiger abandoned object art and began to concentrate on photography. It is presumptuous to use the term ”self-portrait” for this picture as we are denied an essential portion of that information which characterizes a portrait. If one speaks of a statement, then one is a good deal closer to the truth of the matter. And this statement is essentially a staging of her own point of view: the woman who portrays herself here is not someone who wishes to seduce by revealing herself to viewer but rather someone who looks at us and faces us. When Hannah Villiger portrays herself as a woman who seeks communication but simultaneously retains an essential core of her self-definition, this is an indication of the function reserved for art in Hannah Villiger’s concept of life. It’s an area which belongs to her alone, an instrument of self-confirmation which—as Hannah Villiger herself once noted—possesses the same existential necessity as loving does. The life and work of Hannah Villiger unite in an organic whole in which the two aspects ideally fertilize each other reciprocally in a balanced relationship where sometimes art, sometimes life leads the way. Although her work never exhausts itself in autobiography, this impulse serves as its central motor. ”The basis of my creative activity is an unbroken experience of life.”2 Hannah Villiger was a woman who demanded from life an extreme degree of intensity. To pause was not in her nature. She ceaselessly moved ahead and unsparingly exhausted her energy. The problem which left its mark on her entire artistic life were her intense efforts to bring the dynamics of life and the loneliness of creative activity into a fertile balance.

The Body as a Resonance Chamber

The essential part of Hannah Villiger’s oeuvre consists of photographs of her own body. In this regard she at first seems to be situated within the artistic tradition of observing and dramatically presenting oneself, which is still pursued with various approaches in diverse art forms. The list is long and stretches, to mention only a few names, from Urs Lüthi by way of Jürgen Klauke to Cindy Sherman, from John Coplans to Elke Krystufek all the way to Orlan. For all these artists, their own bodies represent an important point of reference which is again and again brought into play in different ways, again and again given different thematic treatments and stagings. The insistence with which Hannah Villiger maintained a lifelong concentration on her own body likewise brings her close to the French writer Marguerite Duras, whose entire creative activity revolved around her own person. When L’Amant (The Lover), certainly the French writer’s most famous novel, begins with the motif of her own face, it is an attempt to explain an exterior transformation in terms of an inner development. Or to put it the other way round, with the abrupt change from a pure to a devastated face, Marguerite Duras presents external appearance as the metaphor for an inner development. It is entirely different with Hannah Villiger. The manner in which she portrays her body amounts to concentration on a surface which, converging with the skin of the picture, must first be comprehended in entirely self-referential terms. It is not the references to something within that would give meaning to Hannah Villiger’s pictures of her body. Meaning is derived from a horizontal simultaneity, the immediacy with which the audience is confronted with corporeality. While Marguerite Duras orients herself towards her own story and seeks to decode her external appearance by means of a recourse to fictional and actual happenings, Hannah Villiger’s work is sustained by an impulse which points in exactly the opposite direction. Her own story is forced out of the picture. Narration is avoided; the image is separated from fiction as far as possible. The body displayed becomes a resonance chamber. Meaning arises only in the encounter with the audience, in the release of physical, psychic and mental reactions. If Marguerite Duras writes that the only image that pleases her is the one that shows her young and unspoiled face, one could say that the only image that gives pleasure to Hannah Villiger is an image of her body that has been freed from all gravitational pull, actual biographical references and the claims of society. In this regard she distinguishes herself to a great extent from the artists named above: whereas John Coplans’ theme is the transcience of his own body, one could summarize the theat- rical self-portraits of Jürgen Klauke or Urs Lüthi under the aspect of role-playing. Cindy Sherman investigates the construction of identity by the media while Elke Krystufek stylizes herself into a sexualized cult figure and Orlan bloodily executes the media’s ideals of beauty on her own body. In contrast to these positions that show the body in the perspective of its appropriation by society and bring into focus cultural value systems and hierarchies, Hannah Villiger’s conceptual orientation towards fundamentals creates new frictions, again and again. Her work raises a variety of questions that touch upon society and the media just as they revolve around the issues of human existence.

„If one can no longer emigrate, one becomes one’s own journey“3

Hannah Villiger, born in 1951, spent her youth in Cham, a small city on the Lake of Zug halfway between Zurich and Lucerne. A place like many others, typically Swiss—comfortable in its standard of living, bourgeois and Catholic. She was the fourth of five children. The family owned a butcher shop and a cattle-trading business. Her father died on Hannah Villiger’s sixteenth birthday. Years later Hannah Villiger explained to a friend that she therefore developed a farreaching independence early on. This concerned not only her personal development but also her economic situation as she had inherited some money, a situation which of course always makes things considerably easier, especially when one aims for an artistic profession. After her commerce diploma Hannah Villiger spent a half-year in England and subsequently took the preliminary course at the School of Applied Arts in Zurich, where her friend Rut Himmelsbach4 was enrolled in the photography class. Her mother, herself a trained seamstress, opposed Hannah’s wish to emulate the girlfriend of her youth and to become a photographer herself, but she did not fundamentally object to a creative training, textile design for example. When Hannah Villiger was accepted in the class for sculptural design at the School of Applied Arts in Lucerne in 1972, she let her daughter have her way.

The late 1960s and early 1970s were a time of social turbulence in Switzerland as in the rest of Europe. The young generation opposed the bourgeois lifestyle and the flawed values of its parents and experimented with new ways of living. Hannah Villiger, aged twenty, brimming with life and curiosity, moved together with friends who all had creative ambitions into an old house in Uerzlikon in the canton of Zurich. This conformed to a trend of the time, as these years brought fundamental changes to the traditional structure of rural life. Individuals who more than a decade earlier had left the countryside for the city now returned without, however, giving up their new and more open lifestyles. Whereas the established cultural life in the larger cities tended towards a certain crustiness, out in the now urbanized provinces open spaces and niches developed that were particularly interesting for the young art scene.

The situation in Lucerne was already almost legendary: the School of Applied Arts was characterized by extreme openness and the teachers were young and highly committed. Anton Egloff, the teacher of the sculpture class, which Hannah Villiger attended for two years, cultivated a lively style of teaching which encouraged encounters with the new. Also of an essential importance for these years were, of course, the impulses that came from Jean-Christophe Ammann, the young director of the art museum. Local artists were taken seriously and seamlessly integrated in a program that was abreast of the most recent international currents. Artists such as Joseph Beuys, Sigmar Polke, Giovanni Anselmo, Gilbert & George5 or Joseph Kosuth were shown along with Swiss artists such as Franz Gertsch, Urs Lüthi or Luciano Castelli. Heiny Widmer, the director of the Kunsthaus Aarau, also provided essential impulses and support for young artists. The same canton established one of the most generous scholarship programs in Switzerland, from which Hannah Villiger, who was a ctizen of Aargau, would also profit. Although it is scarcely possible to speak of a high degree of acceptance among the general public, nevertheless a situation developed which must have been extremely motivating for young artists and encouraging for their self-confidence. Moreover, a high standard of information was provided: along with the Kunstmuseum Lucerne, the Kunsthalle Basel and the Kunsthalle Bern moved to the pulsating rhythm of the time. In short, the Swiss art world of those years was cosmopolitan and informed. At least for the young artists the ”Helvetian narrowness” about which the approximately twenty years older writer Paul Nizon complained seemed to have lost its dramatic impact6.

The early years

Hannah Villiger does not belong to those artists whose oeuvre may be explained in terms of their early work. In retrospect, one can discern persistent interests, but the more mature accomplishments are not irrevocably rooted in the early works. It is certain in any case that Hannah Villiger already regularly took photos before her enrollment at the School of Applied Arts in Zurich and Lucerne. It was only through sculpture, however, that Hannah Villiger found her personal approach to the medium of photography. ”Hannah Villiger began her activities after training at the School of Applied Arts, Lucerne. She worked there with a teacher who early on conveyed to her a strangely intense, but at the same time critical and disrupted relationship to the world. A series from 1973, for example, shows a sequence representing a segment of a branch: drawn as an exact study of nature, poured another time as a negative in plaster; then chiseled and carved into slabs of stone and finally staged as a distanced original piece.”7

From the very beginning the learning environment in the class of Anton Egloff supported the search for a working process in which medium and content would conjoin into a specific unity. This also explains why Hannah Villiger’s development in the early years went on simultaneously in various media—in sculpture, in drawing, and in photography. In 1974 Hannah Villiger was 23 years old and—measured by today’s standards—a shooting star. She received one grant after another and before the end of her training she was already invited to participate in important exhibitions of young Swiss art. In the spring of 1974 while still a student at the School of Applied Arts in Lucerne, Hannah Villiger was awarded the Swiss Federal Art Scholarship. She traveled to Canada, where she spent several weeks visiting a friend, Jürg Stäuble, who lived in Vancouver and Toronto as a fellow of the Canada Council. With this artist who was a few years older and was also from Aargau she shared an enthusiasm for contemporary American art, for Minimalism and Post-Minimalism, especially for Land Art. Before Hannah Villiger returned to Europe, where in the fall of 1974 she began a fellowship at the Istituto Svizzero in Rome, she traveled through North America for a few weeks, partly with friends and partly alone.

An exciting and intense time awaited Hannah Villiger in Rome. Life at the Institute resembled a commune. Naturally friends from Switzerland used the opportunity to come and visit. Everything was shared; they lived, loved and worked together. A scene developed and friendships were formed that would last for years. It was in this period that she got involved in an intense relationship with Susan Wyss, who was a frequent guest in Rome. As much as Hannah Villiger enjoyed the freewheeling communal lifestyle, she considered it as much an encroachment, an obstacle that kept her from working in a concentrated manner. Nevertheless, Hannah Villiger must have felt quite fine in Italy. The artistic climate, especially around the legendary gallery of Gian Enzo Sperone, was radiant. Moreover, Rome, with its extremely active and young art scene, was characterized by a radical renewal that was slowly, but surely outshining Turin as center of the art world. Things were happening in Rome, and not just in the small Swiss colony at the Institute. Hannah Villiger was enthusiastic. She remained in the city after the end of her stipend and looked for an apartment, which she shared for a while with Urs Stooss, an artist from Berne, and later with Alex Silber from Basel. Afterwards, she rented a small apartment in Montefalco in Umbria, where other Swiss artists had already settled. She spent the summer of 1977 in Umbria, but otherwise Hannah Villiger led a quite hectic life: she traveled regularly to Switzerland for exhibition openings, and she also had to earn money now and then.

Alma Mater – Bellona – Minerva

During the time in Italy Hannah Villiger’s work took on a new formal as well as thematic complexity. She created large sculptural objects: along with long poles ending in palm fronds or prickly points, there were larger objects out of bound branches, leaves, twine, and cotton-wool. In the summer of 1975, Hannah Villiger showed works recalling oversized, simple vulvae with mythic titles such as Alma Mater, Bellona or Minerva at the Biennale des Jeunes, an international group exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris. Because the decision to place the large lances almost upright in a vertical axis and to spread out the arrangements in a horizontal direction, the dominant theme of Hannah Villiger’s presentation was a sexual metaphor, aggressive phalli on the wall and receptive vulvae on the floor. The exhibition occurred at a time when women’s art and the discourse on a specifically female aesthetic were becoming current issues. Two exponents of a decidedly feminist position, Ulrike Rosenbach and Valie Export, were also represented in the exhibition. Whereas they treated gender roles in their works from the perspective of society, power and the politics of media, Hannah Villiger’s interest in the expression of an actual feminist agenda would hardly ever develop any further. The development of her works would rather proceed in another direction, rotating in spiraling circles that moved, sometimes closely, sometimes more distantly, around their center. Around a center that would turn out to be the zero point that she found in the work with and on her own body.

In the following year when Hannah Villiger already abandoned the mythic titles and found her way back to a laconic ”Untitled,” it was more than just an external sign of a fundamentally inquisitive outlook she expressed in regard to the medium and to content—even if in a quite subtle manner—in the work at a sculptural exhibition in the Ticinese village Vira Gambarogno. In contrast to the somewhat simplistic installation in Paris, Hannah Villiger found a precise form for her elemental spears. The interplay of vulnerability and aggressivity coincided with a complex relationship between content and material.

In the initial setting8, in the portal of the church, she attached the four-meter long spears between wall and floor in such a manner that their threatening tips protruted into the space and pointed at the eyes of the viewer. The entire arrangement—the diagonal thrust of the installation, the long thin spears and their tips made of dried plant material—conveyed, however, an instability that seemed to be as sensitive as it was capable of wounding. In the end Hannah Villiger’s spears recount, not the triumphant surge of a martial and aggressive gesture, but instead an immanent endangerment that equally threatened the self and others.

These objects, made of simple organic material and oscillating between mythic remembrance and actual experience, were clearly influenced by Arte Povera. This is not only a reflection of the fact that Hannah Villiger was living in Italy and came in contact with artists such as, for example, Mario Merz or Jannis Kounellis but it also indicates the widespread attention this current was receiving at the time. The fact that young artists orient themselves towards an older generation is obvious but also points to the problematic aspect with which Hannah Villiger— just like all young artists—had to contend. Simply varying already existing concepts is not sufficient to establish oneself as an artist. What is required is rather to find one’s own language —and at that time Hannah Villiger had quite clearly not found her own language. The affinity to concepts oriented towards experience, which became clear in her interest in artists such as Walter de Maria or Robert Smithson, nevertheless remained crucial for the further development of her work. This is in sharp contrast to painters such as Enzo Cucchi, Mimmo Palladino or Nicola de Maria, who at that time began to define the young scene in Rome and soon, together with neo-expressionistic painting of predominantly German provenance, the international exhibition circuit.

„Where you direct your gaze, there you will fly, too“9

From today’s point of view, some dust has settled on those sculptures of Hannah Villiger that proceed from an archaic impulse. It is a totally different matter with the first independent photographs, which she took during the same period. One of the first photographic works is a triptych with each segment showing a blimp in the sky (pp. 20–21). Whereas here the static nature of the picture is broken by the serial aspect, she depicts actual impulses of movement in the following years. Palm fronds that hover above a coastline or whiz through the picture, straw that is whirled up by a combine and boccie-balls that refuse to remain immobile. Everything is movement, betrays unrest and has a dynamism which in the best works even explodes beyond the frame of the picture. Thus one has the impression that the smoking trail of fire delineating the fatal fall of a palm branch will set the paper ablaze and devour it. One is amazed that the palm frond, flying across an unfathomable and bottomless sky, does not disappear, forever out of the picture (p. 11). In overcoming material weight, she also manages to discard thematic ballast in these pictures. By changing the medium, the referential character which turns the archaic-looking sculptures into fetishes of a fictional cult retreats in favor of a dynamics that unfolds right before our eyes in and as the picture. The early black-and-white photographs of Hannah Villiger are created in the dialogue with a concrete, tangible and physically present reality, only to subsequently free themselves abruptly from this reference point and rush off into unknown realms, energetically charged zones in which human desires, sensuality and eroticism are conjoined with the bottomless quality of a free fall: ”The space opens up. The artist seems to dissolve in space, to melt into it. Flying palm fronds hover as a metaphor for one’s own flight through space, ignite and crash.”10 The correspondences between picture and inner experience to which Heiny Widmer testifies are quite obvious.

„Work-sleep-being frustrated — will this momentarily fill out my entire life“

In the late 1970s a lot was happening in Basel. The art scene that unfolded around the Galerie Stampa was firstrate and lively. When Jean-Christophe Ammann, to whom Hannah Villiger owed her participation in the Biennale des Jeunes in Paris, was appointed to the Kunsthalle, where he would start to work in 1978 and would turn out to be a major formative influence on the art scene, the city developed into an important point of attraction for the Swiss art scene. It is no wonder that upon her return to Switzerland Hannah Villiger also opted for Basel, where in September 1977 she rented an apartment together with Susan Wyss. In the beginning Hannah Villiger worked as a waitress in various bars in Basel. ”Hard time in Basel,” she noted. ”Work-sleep-being frustrated— will this momentarily fill out my entire life?”11 Living together with Susan Wyss was full of extreme ups and downs, and her art work just dawdled along. The fact that in early 1978 Hannah Villiger was awarded the Kiefer-Hablitzel Stipend for a third time relaxed the situation somewhat. Her career developed positively as well: along with her participation in various group exhibitions she also conceived a solo exhibition at a gallery in Wiesbaden the same year12. The quite extensive exhibition combined photographs and sculptural objects and became a kind of retrospective of her art work up to that time. For an artist of 27 years whose position was anything but secure, a situation both memorable and impressive.

Turning Point

The next two years were marked by a process of searching that was carried out less systematically than intuitively. Hannah Villiger worked on several fronts at once. Along with the photographs representing dynamic situations, she created drawings and a type of sculptural collage consisting of carpets, wood panels worked into a sort of relief, and plexiglas, partly scratched. With an elongated object made from bent ceiling laths it became obvious that she was more satisfied by the photographs of these objects than by the sculptural objects themselves (p. 75). Thus the actual turning point was reached that initiated Hannah Villiger’s move from sculpture towards a ”sculptural” photography. Once again, it was a matter of detaching representation from the represented object. This was actually an insight that she would have been capable of making in Rome as she had already succeeded in rendering the picture autonomous in the photographs described above. Whereas in these images it was mainly the blurred movement, besides the cropping, that suspended the image’s static nature, a new aspect came into play now. Hannah Villiger discovered that static mass, sculptural material can gain a new, weightless identity in the picture. An identity that is not based upon a negation of the represented object but which arises entirely self-evidently out of a play of body and space that is encompassed in the picture. New points of departure thereby presented themselves. In the end, though, it was a health crisis that directed Hannah Villiger’s steps away from sculpture to a certain kind of photography and set her on a course grounded in her own life that would remain decisive for the content of her future work. It is unclear whether or not it was her excessive lifestyle that led to Hannah Villiger’s serious illness. In any case, the artist, who was inclined to waste her energies in every regard, had become extremely thin since her move to Basel; the once somewhat plump young girl had become an overly slender, androgynous appearance. At the beginning of 1980, several weeks after returning from a trip across the USA, Hannah Villiger was taken to the Basel Cantonal Hospital with acute tuberculosis, where she had to spend a long time in isolation. In spite of the extreme limitations of her situation, she worked intensively. She made drawings, experimented with small objects and devoted herself more and more to working with the Polaroid camera. For example, she photographed the plants on the window sill of the hospital room and—as an absolute novelty—herself as well, again and again. The photograph described in the beginning, revealing a razor-sharp gaze, was also taken in the room at the quarantine station at the hospital. The long illness represented a massive break, a caesura in the life of Hannah Villiger that permanently changed the focus of her art. Hannah Villiger began to direct her gaze towards the body which had become alien to her, and towards its closest surroundings. The place of an ”alien” object that she would seize by means looking through a camera was now occupied by her own existence thrown into question by disease.

„I am my own capital“

The entire year was more or less marked by the illness: after treatment in Davos she stayed at the summer house of her parents in Ticino. In September Hannah Villiger once again spent three weeks for medical examinations at the Tiefenau Hospital in Berne. Nevertheless, the time was extremely productive as it set into motion a personal and creative process of clarification: ”I am my own capital,” Hannah Villiger noted in her workbook in May of 1980. The first results of the new outlook of her work had an immediate influence on her contributions to exhibitions, which she kept up without a break in spite of her poor health. After some experimentation with the processing and the presentation of Polaroid originals, Hannah Villiger developed for an important group exhibition at the Kunsthaus Aarau in Aargau the larger-than-life format that would remain decisive for the rest of her creative work: on five of the nine new pictures, which she showed in a sort of cabinet, Hannah Villiger showed herself, mostly her face. Never in its entirety, always cut, once chin to chin with Susan Wyss (p. 71), once from below, the hand placed protectively across the breasts. The leaves of plants (p. 73), a mysterious nocturnal situation, the décolleté of her partner (p. 81), a window (p. 70) as well as two blurred works in black- and-white completed the loosely hung presentation, which was extremely well received. Notice was taken of the artist’s selfconfidence as well as her ”inclination to chilly romanticism”13.

A little less than two months later, in January 1981, the long awaited exhibition at the Kunsthalle Basel followed, in which Jean-Christophe Ammann made his first statement on the local scene with six young artists. Hannah Villiger showed twelve photographs which —as she already did in Aarau—were based on Polaroid pictures enlarged from an internegative to a format of 115 x 115 cm and mounted on thin aluminum panels (pp. 78–79).

One of the first artists to work with Polaroid pictures14 was the American Lucas Samaras. It is unclear whether Hannah Villiger was familiar with the works of this artist born in 1936. As a two-time participant in documenta, he commanded a considerable attention in the 1970s in any case.

During this time Samaras produced several series of Polaroids whose development process he manipulated with virtuosity. The motif was his own body, mostly naked, grotesquely distorted by manipulation. Whereas with Lucas Samaras a psychologically loaded self-dramatization prevailed, Hannah Villiger essentially remained a sober observer. Instant photography was convenient as it saved her the trip to the photo laboratory. For an artist who could not leave her hospital room, this was an almost ideal starting point for working, explaining why the artist found her way to this medium. In contrast to Lucas Samaras, who showed the actual Polaroids and summoned up a fictionalized, sometimes even menacing visual world, Hannah Villiger, for whom the Polaroid picture was only a preliminary stage, realized an entirely different concept.

The pictures, which were still hung alongside each other at the Kunsthalle Basel but were combined into a single twelve-part block a little later, build up an atmosphere of intimacy whose effect oscillates between registering observation and charged symbolism. Hannah Villiger remained attached to the quotidian but reevaluated it. Because she blows the pictures up to a larger-than-life format, the fleeting, almost fortuitous character of the Polaroid photographs is at once given meaning and gravity. The spontaneous aspect attached to the snapshot remains preserved to a large extent and becomes the expression of a lived experience that suggestively combines the various visual perspectives—object photographs, body segments of herself and others. Out of the interplay of the individual motifs an atmospheric impression arises. Aspects of intimacy and familiarity are spread out with no narrative logic. A hand on buttocks as red as a traffic light—two faces turned towards each other—the string that painfully presses into the corner of a mouth painted red. The pictures intimate tenderness and longing, pain, lust, and indifference. A meaningful look—a heedlessly thrown-away teabag. Modesty is coupled to intimacy. Honey that sticks to the edge of a glass like mucus—the back of a squatting figure. White skin—a cactus. In this panorama of human desire, fluctuating between rejection and vulnerability, the positions become blurred. With sharp incisions Hannah Villiger dissects her most intimate relationship and fans the flames of a coldly flickering fire in the hard glossiness of the larger-than-life photographs. In spite of the unmistakably autobiographical connection, the pictures communicate a physical and psychic intensity permeated by desire, all the lust and all the pain of this world. In the heterogeneity of this visual panorama, not an emphatic subject is mirrored but rather someone who tries to comprehend, someone who approaches subcutaneous processes, the inexplicability of love, hate and desire in a questioning manner just like the audience.

„I am the sculpture“15

What Hannah Villiger perhaps did not want to acknowledge at that time but is obvious in retrospect is that the work she exhibited at the Kunsthalle Basel was the result of a terminated relationship. Everything seems to have played itself out between Susan Wyss and Hannah Villiger. Nevertheless, in April 1981, after Hannah Villiger’s exhibition, the two women departed on a trip around the world. They spent the summer in Indonesia, and in autumn they landed in Australia, where they remained until February 1982. In a gallery in Sydney they even organized an exhibition together. In fact, the last nine months of their trip, which they spent in Los Angeles, were anything but happy and were filled with ugly fights. Hannah Villiger returned to Switzerland alone. The final word was—at least for the moment— spoken between the two of them.

Once again in Basel, Hannah Villiger took a small apartment on St. Johanns-Platz in June of 1983. She now began to work in lonely seclusion only with herself and with her own body. When she wrote in the annual report of the Kunsthalle Basel in 1986 that she was her closest partner and her most obvious subject16, this was not only an artistic but also a personal conclusion. In the early Polaroids it is not quite clear whether she was the only one operating the camera, and the tense relation to someone opposite of her was an essential aspect if not the motor of the work. From 1983 on, working on her own and operating the camera herself became an imperative program. The Polaroid camera became in a certain sense Hannah Villiger’s most intimate partner and functioned as a prosthetic second vision, which she guided on and around her body from all imaginable visual angles.

At this time Hannah Villiger became friends with the artist Rémy Zaugg, in whom she found a person with whom she could communicate in depth, not just personally but also artistically. This relationship had an extremely positive effect on her work. Hannah Villiger experienced one of her most productive periods and worked with great concentration. ”I now forget alcohol, cigarettes and sex—mental concentration,” she wrote in her notebook in 1983. Systematically thinking about the possibilities of the picture, pondering color and composition, she began to develop through intensive efforts the fundamental vocabulary that remained decisive for all of her future work. The narrative element recedes, her photos become more basic, the motifs less numerous. ”Up to now I have interpreted the world, transformed it into my own—now I want...to show a new one,“17, she noted. ”These are conscious pictures...I use all the methods that I know of to dissolve space as we know it and its laws of gravity. My goal is not a representation of what is already given but instead an autonomous work. ...“18 For example, a segment of the shoulders is cropped in a way that the beginning of the arm on the left side of the picture is cut off just like the neck in the upper right corner (pp. 144–148). Through these measures the architecture of the body, its volume and its weight recede in favor of a specific plasticity. In place of the body is a pictorial body; the skin becomes a pictorial skin, a virtual landscape which, depending on the use of light—brightly diffuse source of light or a sidelight throwing strong shadows—manifests various moods. ”Persistent repetition turns my body into ‘a body.’ And even this ‘a body’ that has become entirely abstract will be forgotten—only pure sound exposes.“19 One time the limbs—hands, feet or thighs—are flooded with a harsh light and merge with a diffuse, blueish background in weightless spheres; another time, the camera comes so close to the body that its outlines vanish and form transparent surfaces with the wall or floor. Hannah Villiger’s body dissolves into the sur-roundings, takes on a new, weightless identity in the sculptural embrace. On a semantic level, Hannah Villiger’s photographs move in a field of prelinguistic profundity that encompasses absolutely new territory. This is all the more noteworthy in that Hannah Villiger photographed her naked body and thereby entered into an area which in terms of art history and the media is characterized by a onesided power structure between the observer and the female visual object. It is not only the larger-than-life format, which she definitively determined as 125 x 123 at that time, but also the entire pictorial structure that opposes an approach of the viewer from a position of power and even renders it unthinkable. The sheer closeness and mercilessness with which Hannah Villiger exposes her body to the view of the camera and the way she breaks it down into segments of individual limbs, joined in new, fragmentary sections, imbues her pictures with an intense sculptural presence which is carried over onto the observer and represents a physical as well as a psychological challenge.

The positive aspect of working with a Polaroid camera is that it creates pictures which can be improved immediately. This became especially important when Hannah Villiger pointed the camera at herself from a distance and photographed without looking through it. A further step in the subsequent manipulation is the square format, which can be tilted until, as the artist wrote, [the Polaroids] ”find an equlibrium all of their own“20.

The somewhat peculiar, synthetically thick colors of the medium also seem to be quite conducive to the search for an autonomy of the picture. However, they can be altered along with contrast or brightness in the large-format print from an internegative. Nevertheless, it is a misapprehension when one imagines the photo sessions of Hannah Villiger a simple nude studies. Her intention of creating conscious pictures compelled her to preclude the accidental as much as she could, to control the position of camera and body as much as possible. The superior control of the composition of a picture was certainly also a reason for the decision to direct the camera to the outside and to regularly photograph the tree in front of the house, to sometimes reduce it to bare branches, to sometimes show it as a thick, green whole, just like she did with her own body.

Exemplary Subjectivity

The concept of the individual as a sealed-off unit lost its validity long ago. The human identity is a phenomenon that is complexly interwoven with exterior reality. What this means for the sculptural construction of identity may be seen clearly in Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills. The artist portrays herself in one part after another, in different dresses, in various sets. Again and again, she assumes new identities. The impression is not just determined by the clothing, the facial expression or the posture of the artist but also the organization of the pictorial space and the position of the body in this context. With Cindy Sherman the environment becomes an essential aspect of the definition of identity. Spatial depth, internal or external space as well as views from below and above are means of suggesting a narrative connection which—like the key scene of a film— characterizes the personality of a protagonist. In relation to Cindy Sherman, Hannah Villiger’s spatial concept occupies a contrary position. The fragmentary body parts have not only been stripped of their functionality but are also shown in a way that reduces virtual space. This becomes especially apparent with those works which concentrate entirely on the skin of the body.

The principle remains valid, however, when she works with a background. Decisive is not only its neutrality, white or blue cloth, but also the use of blurring, which is somewhat more pronounced in the upper area of the picture. It thus works against the effect of spatial depth in favor of an enhanced flatness. These measures deprive the body segments of a conclusively definable identity. Without denying her body, Hannah Villiger presents it in the focus of a fundamental, in a certain sense proto-individual physicality. Her sculptural concept flattens the referential character of photography. She creates open visual systems which, as essentially self-referential visual objects, only find their place within the architecture of the exhibition space. This structural openness brings the work of Hannah Villiger close to Frank Stella, whose canvasses structured by stripes are derived from a concept of the picture as a purely self-referential surface, a suppression of pictorial illusionism in favor of signification as emanating only from the viewer’s experience. Hannah Villiger does not paint any stripes but rather photographs her body and brings herself into play as an exemplary subject. Thus the picture becomes the vessel of a living physicality, as was the case earlier with Jackson Pollock’s gestural painting. If he was about dynamic movement represented on canvas as the result of a violent release, Hannah Villiger’s pictures of body segments are restrained, as it were. From this perspective her concepts—as astounding as this might appear at first—may be compared with the painting of someone like Helmut Federle.21 The simple, rectangularly arranged beams with which Federle structures his canvasses can in fact be brought in connection with his initials, a phenomenon corresponding to an attempt to bring himself into the picture without unambiguously saying ”I.” To this extent, they largely correspond. If the large-surface pictures of the painter move between symbolism and formalism, they nevertheless occupy a field that is largely defined by abstract, conceptual considerations. This is very different with Hannah Villiger, for whom bodily reality remains the point of departure in defining the picture. In fact body parts imply a context of signification different from the shape of the medium of the picture, paint poured out onto canvas or symbolical formal structures. Corporeality means life, authentic reality. It corresponds to the most pure form of human existence, which continuously finds new and different forms of expression.


The manner in which the sculptor Hannah Villiger uses the camera is essentially different from traditional photography: she does not point her camera to the exterior world appropriating it as her own in her pictures but she rather uses the camera as an instrument to work with and on her own body, wresting new pictures from it, again and again. ”Let us act as if we consisted of two persons”22 — thus Hannah Villiger paraphrases the relationship to her camera, with which she cultivates an intimacy in which the differentiability between one’s own and another’s viewpoint, between subjectivity and objectivity are obscured in constellations as multi-layered and as they are contrary.

The actual creative act is accomplished in the intimacy of her studio; it defines itself by decidedly excluding the social. Even though the artist aims the camera from the outside at her body, the distance between the lens and the skin remains nevertheless limited to the intimate space defined by the reach of her arm, i.e. the posture of the artist. The camera as the incarnation of an ominous second person is thus a prosthetic elongation, a mechanical extension of her own gaze. And this gaze is a controlling, dominating gaze, in perfect accord with the artist who now designates all her works as ”Sculptural.” Hannah Villiger does not offer herself up to a stranger’s gaze but she rather is concerned with maintaining her private sphere. Thus the display of an actually definable identity is consciously avoided through careful camerawork and the selection process. In accord with the adjective ”sculptural,” which she used for an individual work, Hannah Villiger designated from then on each new exhibition as ”Sculpture.” Integration into an actual spatial context represents the second step in her concept of the work. The photographs actually fit themselves into the archi-tectural context of the exhibition space and develop an intense presence. However immediate the confrontation is, however unsparingly skin and body parts are displayed, the strict separation between the performative act of photographing and the experience of the exhibition assures that the actual private sphere of the artist remains untouched. This specific perspective insistence on the separation between the privacy of the artist and the public sphere remains also decisive when the artist steps onto her balcony to photograph the square and the tree in front of her house. The view onto the square is from above and at a great distance, while the view of the tree corresponds to a point of view reserved for the artist herself and is hence wholly private. Thus with the passage of time the tree becomes an alter ego of the artist that she places in space, fragmented and tilted, as a subjectivity that is just as unfathomable as her body covered with freckles.

In the preparatory phase of her solo exhibition at the Kunsthalle Basel, which was set a long time in advance for the spring of 1985, Jean-Christophe Ammann visited Hannah Villiger several times in her studio apartment. Although no particularly close relationship developed between the artist and the curator, this exhibition was a climax of her creative work up to then. She titled it Neid (Envy), which, when the first and last letters are exchanged, becomes Dein (Yours) and plays upon the complex duality of concept.23

The artist presented a selection of her body-pictures which had been created in the last two years (see p. 51). In the stairwell, moreover, she showed once again the photo-block that she had already created in 1980/81 (pp. 78–79). At the same time Hannah Villiger also had a show in Zurich at the gallery that Susan Wyss had opened in the meantime. The relationship seemed to have relaxed somewhat and to have found a continuation in professional collaboration. In January 1986, only a few months after the exhibition at the Kunsthalle Basel, Hannah Villiger was offered a generous space at the Centre Culturel Suisse in Paris. The exhibition, once again organized by Jean-Christophe Ammann, concentrated in the main room on an ensemble of pictures showing the tree in front of Hannah Villiger’s house. The placement of the body-pictures in the lateral cabinets reflected their intimate character without, however, isolating them: ample open spaces connected the various perspectives, created a place that could be experienced like a variegated landscape in which the differences disappeared between distanced observation and physical involvement in a differentiated fluctuation between inner and outer space. The fact that the seemingly objective look at the outside world was located in the center of the architectural context and the body- pictures, however, were displayed in the surrounding cabinets, and that hence the directions of the viewpoints were interchanged, was once again an indication of Hannah Villiger’s concept of multi-layered contrarieties in which the differentiability between subjective and objective viewpoints loses its sharp contours.

„More quickly, more aggressively, more sexually“

Just as already in 1981, Hannah Villiger made a getaway after the opening of her large solo exhibition at the Kunsthalle Basel at the end of 1985—this time to Paris, where for six months she resided in the Aargau studio at the Cité des Arts and would subsequently look for her own apartment and finally stay there. The rejection of the definite, the joy in adventure and in chance, in the expansion of danger zones, which Christiane Meyer-Thoss ascertains in Hannah Villiger’s work process24, may unreservedly be applied to the life of the artist. In Paris her intensity and curiosity, satisfied between 1983 and 1985 by her work, were once again increasingly directed to the exterior world. A particular point of attraction was the club Tango that was popular with Africans. The artist freely lived out her sexuality and—as everything she had once decided—excessively. At the end of 1988, she met her future husband Joe Kébé. Joe Kébé came from a Senegalese family of architects and lived in Paris in order to study. During her time in Paris, Hannah Villiger stayed in contact with her Swiss friends as well. There were, however, only a few points of contact between the various spheres in which her life took its course. If the works in the years between 1983 and 1986 arose in conjunction with Hannah Villiger’s withdrawal from the world, her art and life came in intense conflict in the following years. During 1988, in a double exhibition at the Galerie Peter Bläuer and at the Filiale Basel run by Eric Hattan, she presented, along with photographs of the inner courtyard of her Paris apartment (pp. 169–172), a group of new pictures of individual body parts photographed in close-up, overlapping like transparent sheets: the body is lost in indiscernible abstraction (pp. 167–168). Soon, however, Hannah Villiger’s work would take a turn pointing in the opposite direction. The etherealized atmosphere of the diffuse, watercolor-like pictures stood in an all too obvious contradiction to the intense, active, sensual life the artist led in Paris. ”Abstraction must be capable of realizing itself through the universe of the artist. Wisdom, no pursuit of mere inventing, thus figure is still important“.25 This conclusion by the artist introduced a new direction in her work, a new chapter in Hannah Villiger’s creative work. The workbooks from that time are filled with writing and unmistakably testify to an intense desire to bring art and life into harmony once again. Much of it seems strained, which is understandable not only in regard to the new living situation but certainly also from the perspective of the final separation from Rémy Zaugg. Hannah Villiger tried out intellectual self-sufficiency, worked intensely and even experimented with plaster reliefs, all of which she destroyed. Likewise the series of black-and-white photos of the torso of an African (see p. 55), as well as riverbank foliage and landscapes that are tilted at a 90 degree angle, give evidence of the defiant protest of an artist who was ultimately responsible only to herself and who shrank back from no risk whatsoever in her search for the new that would correspond to her new living situation.

What appears to be a crisis from the outside but ultimately constitutes the unique artistic self-understanding of Hannah Villiger colored the solo exhibition at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst in Basel, which opened at the end of 1989 on the occasion of the award ceremony of the Manor Art Prize.

The problem with which Hannah Villiger struggled lay was her dissatisfaction with the artistic vocabulary that, as we have seen above, was based on an exclusion of the social. The wish for expansion and opening is clearly visible in the pictures which she showed at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst (pp. 204–206, 210–213). By working with mirrors, their sharp edges now and then concealed within her hand, Hannah Villiger extends the visual structure by means of a multi-perspective component. The sharp-edged glass implies the split of conflicting metaphors and tells of a need to alter the thematic focus. Attributes such as African cloth, bottles or glass are built into the pictures, on which—mostly treated like an additional pictorial object—her hairy genitals are repeatedly shown. The attempt to integrate her new lifestyle, her sexuality and her fascination with African culture into her work turns out to be a difficult undertaking. It seems that Hannah Villiger wants too much at once, cannot resist the urge to tell us about the actual and thus loses herself more than once in rhetoric. Nevertheless this period of work generated impressive works as well: legs crossed in front of her genitals, a yellow background (p. 185); a hand that just barely covers belly and genitals (p. 184); a hand placed on the ground between feet, ready to jump (p. 186). In simple constellations Hannah Villiger rediscovers her center that had drifted out of the picture.26

Machine Célibataire

From the perspective of an attitude of refusing to compromise, the work which Hannah Villiger presented in the Christmas exhibition of the Kunsthalle Basel at about the same time is of central importance. When one does nothing else but photograph one’s own naked body, it seems obvious to direct the camera to the most intimate zones as well. The workbooks in fact contain repeated musings on the question of how she can integrate her sexuality into her work. Starting in 1988 the artist had begun to conceive, along with the individual works, blocks which she created by bringing together six, twelve or more individual photographs. They were sequentially numbered. Having meanwhile reached the number six, Hannah Villiger finally had the courage to stimulate her vulva and clitoris during the photographic sessions and to display them in a twenty-part large- format block. The ensemble of images is situated right on the border to por-nography. The hugely enlarged folds of skin and the red flesh hardly arouse desire but cannot shed a last trace of obscenity. It is less the taboos that—at least from today’s perspective— make it difficult to deal with Block VI than the pictorial conventions that are characteristic of this area in particular. Whereas up to then Hannah Villiger could distance herself from the traditional representations of the female body by means of her work with body fragments, her sculptural strategy in regard to the unambiguous motifs of Block VI suddenly corresponded to one of the preferred practices of pornography. Even if the artist organizes the pictures in a manner that her genitals do not offer themselves to the viewers as a seductive center of desire and hence avoid the functionalized reading typical of the genre, the associative field still remains so unambiguous that it is difficult to read the images in another context. It is nonetheless interesting that the autoerotic aspect that is implicit at least as a subtext in all of Hannah Villiger’s pictures becomes actual in Block VI. The motif of the machine célibataire summoned up by the masturbating artist is of central importance in connection with the self-understanding of Hannah Villiger. The fact that a female artist lays claim to a privilege characterized as masculine and hints at an autoerotic act that does not serve to seduce, but fulfills itself in completely self-referential terms, corresponds to a statement that is equally precise and courageous. When Hannah Villiger notes, ”More quickly, more aggressively, more sexually. Lonely —with yourself“27, she locates this work in the context of the decisive problem of how to assert oneself in the tension between art and life.

„Passion is my existence“

The multipartite blocks of photos on which Hannah Villiger began to increasingly concentrate represented an utterly essential dif-ferentiation and extension of the artistic concept. And they ultimately showed her a way out of the crisis and soon led to a new culmination. The first work that was designated with ”Block” was created in 1988. But even earlier, in the second presentation of her picture cycle from 1980/81 on the occasion of her first exhibition at the Kunsthalle Basel, for example, Hannah Villiger had begun to group pictures on the wall. The first blocks, created around 1988, remain quite restrained. Block I follows the principle of multiple viewpoints derived from sculpture. Individual body parts such as arms, legs, the right or left breast, the nape of the neck or parts of limbs and torso were photographed frontally or in profile from a relatively static perspective and afterwards spread out in a panorama. The entirety suggested by Block I is based on the simultaneity of several views joined on the compositional level into a visual whole. From the repetition and serial arrangement of similar body segments, for example the armpits in Block III, 1988, surprising visual forms arise that abrogate the unity of the body in favor of new compositional principles. By multiplying Hannah Villiger opens up a way to intensify and thereby break down actual identity, or as she herself puts it, the ”individuality” of her body in favor of a ”meta-individuality“.28 The immediate placement in real space which was already decisive for the individual works is deliberately intensified and ultimately brings about that expansion and opening she was striving for in the individual works of the years 1988 and 1989. ”The space around the pictures influences the division of the block. The pictures should be strongly interconnected so that they will form a distinct unity“,29 as Hannah Villiger wrote in a description of the guiding principles of her works that reached a new peak in 1990. Hence the tender intimacy expressed, for instance, in Block XX and Block XXV, both from 1990, should be understood as a response to a play of surfaces defined by calm moments of movement. The limbs embrace each other in tender touches in the individual pictures and unite into a rhythmical whole: body-skin and picture-skin merge in the intensity of the pulsating breath. It is not by chance that these works coincided with the first period of the love relationship between Hannah Villiger and Joe Kébé. They express a sensuality that is lived to the full and that equally includes thinking, acting and feeling. In these works, which are among the most impressive that Hannah Villiger ever created, it seems that she finally fulfilled her wish to unify her life and work, the intensely experienced nature of the body and an equivalent art work. When she noted in her workbook, ”Passion is my existence“,30 this accordingly refers to all areas of her existence, to art as well as to life

Career — Known Unknown

On April 2, 1991, Hannah Villiger’s son Yann was born. Surprisingly, the artist never produced a work about pregnancy31 – Hannah Villiger was never concerned, however, with documenting her own life. Experienced life was the point of departure but not the content of her work. The fact that she now had a family to feed—her husband Joe Kébé was not granted a work permit in France—was, of course, an additional burden. In spite of the participation in various exhibitions, Hannah Villiger’s career progressed quite haltingly. It was a time of great retrenchments in the art market, and until 1994 exhibitions at galleries remained unproductive for her as far as longterm support was concerned. A further reason for her lack of success, especially internationally, may be the fact that photography in the late 1980s and early 1990s continued to occupy an outsider’s position, and collectors were restrained and skeptical.

Nevertheless, in Switzerland Hannah Villiger’s work had established itself as already almost classic at the beginning of the 1990s. In 1994, she was invited along with Pipilotti Rist as the representative of Switzerland to the Biennial in São Paulo. The architects Herzog & de Meuron were responsible for the star-shaped exhibition design. Retrospective exhibitions at the art museums of Zug and St. Gallen not only expressed respect for her work but also stood for the unbroken relevance of her creative endeavors. The fact that Hannah Villiger was nonetheless never able to establish herself on the international art market has less to do with her work than with the fact that she never managed—at least during her lifetime—to use the opportunities of the art market. In this context, Paris, the new focal point of her life, proved to be disadvantageous. Her life there was essentially limited to a private sphere and work in the studio, whereas her career continued to be oriented towards Switzerland. From this perspective it is not surprising that in 1992 Hannah Villiger accepted a four-year appointment to teach the sculpture class at the School of Arts in Basel that Jürg Stäuble offered her. She found the encounter with young art students quite appealing and enjoyed her new duties, but at the same time she found less and less time for her art.

„It is as if I were to fashion a figure“

The multipartite blocks of photographs on which Hannah Villiger now worked almost exclusively had the advantage that the arranging and shifting around of the individual pictures was based on procedural steps which were somehow better suited to the weighty responsibilities of her current way of life than the intense photo sessions in the studio were.

At the beginning of the 1990s, what had once been quiet impulses of movement was gradually heightened to a performative dimension. In Block XVI, 1991/92, for example, the arrangement of images seems to shake. The interplay of the single images photographed from above the head suggests a dramaturgy of dance—now slower, now quicker whirls. The changing color of the background—red, bright green and some blue—enhances the impression of a frolicsome, slightly reeling movement. A vastly changed frame of mind manifested itself about one year later in Block XXX, 1993/94, which Hannah Villiger showed at the Biennial in São Paulo and at the Galerie Peter Kilchmann in Zurich. The light became harsher, more theatrical, and the limbs wind and stretched like a foreign and exotic being around the horizontal axis of the picture (pp. 224–225).

Starting in 1993, harsh, theatrical light characterized not only the blocks but also individual pictures and the diptychs she now created. This light has a strange effect. The limbs, bluntly placed against a black background, join in relieflike structures. The pictures articulate themselves as virtual sculptures, as products of a sculpting hand. Although the perception of her own body from the perspective of someone opposite of her was always an essential component of Hannah Villiger’s work, the images suddenly begin to tell, not of proximity to themselves, but of distance. The tender aura, the atmospheric texture arising from the interplay on the picture’s surface of the volumes of touching limbs and the actual space, recedes in favor of an attitude that places her own body as an alien material in a dark pictorial square and builds forms from flesh. ”I photograph around my body, I can change its form, select segments. It is as if I were to fashion a figure.“32 The middle part of the body can seldom be seen; the extremities dominate and join into wholes that sometimes seem threatening. This menace fundamentally connected to a monumentality that more and more comes to determine the pictures. Although Hannah Villiger had already worked with largerthan-life formats early on, they now drew the observer directly into the spatially expanding picture. In the works created around 1995, an impulse seems to arise that points in exactly the opposite direction. Hannah Villiger excludes the observer, establishes a dividing line between a privately experienced physicality and her art.

„What is there more than lying, sitting, standing and moving? Being dead. Being absent. ...Love for oneself, for men, for women, for animals“33

Who knows in what direction Hannah Villiger’s creative work would have developed further, which danger zones she would have entered, what discoveries she would have made? When Hannah Villiger died of heart failure in 1997, much too young at the age of 45, after yet another resurgence of her persistent lung disease, numerous unfinished works were in her studio: cityscapes photographed from the window of her apartment in a highrise building on Rue Esquirol in Paris (p. 245); blocks of carefully photographed pieces of cloth (pp. 258–261) relating a joy in colors, a lust for life and love; models of sculptures now hopelessly awaiting their completion.

Art and Life, Desire and Fulfillment

From an art-historical perspective, Hannah Villiger belongs to a generation that built upon the achievements of minimalism and postminimalism but gave back life to their abstract conceptualism, gave it flesh and blood and consequently a new relevance.

Hannah Villiger also has a central role in the context of a female self-understanding in art. It is interesting that in this regard she seems to rather belong to a younger generation than to somewhat older female artists such as Carolee Schneemann, Valie Export or Ulrike Rosenbach. Mainly because she was not guided by gender problems but simply superseded them and laid claim to a fundamental physical and psychic autonomy with her art. In superior style she escaped the appropriation of the female body implicit in our culture that is reinforced on a daily basis in the media. She distinguishes herself in this regard from a younger generation of both male and female artists who preferably articulate an experience of reality disrupted by the omnipresence of the media. Whereas artists such as Pipilotti Rist, Ugo Rondinone, Vanessa Beecroft or Jeff Koons formulate concepts of the self, glittering in the perspective of advertising’s promise of happiness, Hannah Villiger cogently insists upon the authenticity of her body and the uniqueness of her personality. Although photography’s claim to the status of an art form is almost as old as the medium itself, only in recent years has it been able to establish itself in the context of art. This is basically the result of a new understanding that has finally freed the medium from the taint of applied art and mere documentation. In no way different from the photography of the likes of Thomas Ruff or Andreas Gurski, which arises from a dialogue with traditional forms of art, the sculptor Hannah Villiger redefined the medium as well. She belongs to a generation that opened new territory in a pioneering achievement from which younger artists obviously profit today. Hannah Villiger was undoubtedly one of the eminently important female artists of her generation. She was never timid about going further without hesitation, constantly seeking new challenges and responding to new callings. The tension between art and life, desire and fulfillment is the theme of an oeuvre that makes a claim that could not be more fundamental and relevant. Hannah Villiger allowed herself the freedom to rush headlong into life—with all the consequences.

Translation: George Frederick Takis


  1. This expression is from Bice Curiger. Cf. the reprint of her 1981 article in this publication, p. 74. ↩︎
  2. Workbook, 25.04.1990.
    Hannah Villiger left behind around 50 workbooks in which, particularly in her younger years, she jotted down personal remarks along with musings on art. Later she limited herself to creative notes. ↩︎
  3. Silber, Alex. Exh. cat. Transformer. Lucerne: Kunstmuseum Luzern, 1974, n. p. ↩︎
  4. Hannah Villiger owed the “H” at the end of her name to Rut, her friend of many years. It not only gives it a neat look but also doubles the directions in which it may be read. Now and then she mirrored the double “N” in the middle of her name. The play with dualities that are at the same time selfcontained unities is characteristic of Hannah Villiger’s thinking. It also marks her later use of the camera as an opposite presence that is identical with her. ↩︎
  5. It is certain that Hannah Villiger kept up with the exhibitions at the Kunstmuseum Lucerne on a regular basis. She must have been particularly impressed with the exhibition of Gilbert & George in 1972, as she pasted the invitation in her workbook and years later still referred to the early encounter with this artist couple. ↩︎
  6. Theo Kneubühler compares the situation in the Swiss provinces with the West Coast of the USA or Turin where, exactly because they are border areas with a weak cultural establishment, important creative impulses and innovations can arise. Kneubühler, Theo. ”Die Schweizer Kunstlandschaft (eine Skizze).” Kunst: 28 Schweizer. Lucerne 1972. Reprinted in Wismer, Beat, and Kunz, Stephan, Rücksicht. 40 Jahre Kunst in der Schweiz. Aarau: Aargauer Kunsthaus Aarau, 2000, pp. 146–159. ↩︎
  7. Widmer, Heiny. Exh. cat. 4.1: Jean Pfaff, Heiner Richner, Jürg Stäuble, Hannah Villiger. Ed. Heiny Widmer. Aarau: Aargauer Kunsthaus Aarau, 1980, p. 69. ↩︎
  8. The exhibition in the church was deemed too problematical, and Hannah Villiger had to look for another, less exposed location. ↩︎
  9. Workbook, 02.04.1976. ↩︎
  10. Widmer, 4.1, p. 70. ↩︎
  11. Workbook, 13.09.1977. ↩︎
  12. Harlekin Art in Wiesbaden enjoyed a considerable reputation at that time. Alongside projects with Fluxus artists such as Nam June Paik, it showed in the late 1970s artists such as Ulay/Abramovic or Jürgen Klauke. ↩︎
  13. Cf. Widmer, 4:1, p. 70. ↩︎
  14. The Polaroid picture was already invented in 1948 but characteristically was used in art only some 25 years later. Things are very different today, now that artists are at the forefront of using new technologies. ↩︎
  15. Workbook 1983, n. d. ↩︎
  16. Villiger, Hannah, ”Zu meinem Buch Neid” (On My Book Envy). Jahresbericht des Basler Kunstvereins, Basel: Kunsthalle Basel, 1986, p. 25. Reprint in this publication, p. 135. ↩︎
  17. Workbook 1983 ↩︎
  18. Villiger, ”Zu meinem Buch Neid,” p. 25. ↩︎
  19. Ibid. ↩︎
  20. Ibid. ↩︎
  21. Helmut Federle was among Hannah Villiger’s close friends. ↩︎
  22. Workbook 1983, n. d. ↩︎
  23. Cf. Villiger, ”Zu meinem Buch Neid,” p. 24. ↩︎
  24. Cf. Meyer-Thoss, Christiane, ”Hannah Villiger: Sculptress.” Parkett No. 8, Zurich 1986, pp. 87–90. ↩︎
  25. Workbook, 30.01.1990. ↩︎
  26. As with previous exhibitions, domestic and international critics had reservations about this exhibition. When the same visual material was shown a little later at the Zabriskie Gallery in New York, reviews were devastating. From today’s perspective, it is quite regrettable that Hannah Villiger was in New York during a relatively weak period of her work and thus missed some opportunities in the USA. Nevertheless, Roberta Smith, who wrote a review for The New York Times, recognized the quality of Hannah Villiger’s work based upon simple constellations. ↩︎
  27. Workbook, 10.05.1988. ↩︎
  28. Villiger, ”Zu meinem Buch Neid,” p. 25. ↩︎
  29. Workbook, 05.02.1990. ↩︎
  30. Workbook, 20.02.1990. ↩︎
  31. In the exh. cat. Frammenti Interfacce Intervalli (Genoa 1992), there is a Polaroid showing her pregnant belly. The work has never been enlarged. ↩︎
  32. Hannah Villiger in a studio conversation with Barbara Zürcher. Zürcher, Barbara, ”Hannah Villiger.” Nicht nur Körper (Not Just Body). Eds. Isabelle Malz et al. Baden: Lars Müller, 1997, p. 48. ↩︎
  33. Workbook, 30.07.1987. ↩︎