„I Myself Will Be the Chisel“

Hannah Villiger’s Sculptural Photography

David Levi Strauss

My skin is itching and burning; my thoughts are restless and want something to eat; the eyes want to see, to think. They demand and bother me... my entire body is much too present. I need... to extinguish this feeling, to calm myself.

Hannah Villiger, „On My Book Envy“

That shadowless light. Simply to be gone. ... 
A single leg appears. Seen from above. You separate the segments and lay them side by side. It is as you half surmised....You leave the pieces lying there and open your eyes to find her sitting before you. All dead still.

Samuel Beckett, „Heard in the Dark 2“

For each of us space begins and slants off from our own eye, and from there enlarges itself progressively toward infinity. Space, in the present, strikes us with greater or lesser intensity and then leaves us, visually, to be closed in our memory and to modify itself there. Of all the means of expression, photography is the only one that fixes forever the precise and transitory instant. We photographers deal in things that are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished, there is no contrivance on earth than can make them come back again.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment

Is not this rather the place where one finishes vanishing?

Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable

The progress of Hannah Villiger’s art, over the twenty-five years she was given to work, was to pare down and simplify her means while building up and complicating what she could do and say with them: complete freedom within strict limits. In the end, it all came down to her alone in a room with a camera, photographing the inside (her own rapidly dwindling body) and the outside (the cityscapes of Paris from her open window), to form a complete, if condensed, picture of the world. The catalogue for the first posthumous exhibition of Villiger’s work at the Kunstmuseum Lucerne in 1998 opens with a photograph captioned Atelier Paris, showing a small, spare room with white walls containing only an adjustable floor lamp on a long cord and a T-square hanging from a nail. All that is missing is the artist and her camera, her ideal (and envied) companion in confinement.

From her beginnings as a sculptor, Villiger always sought the most economical means to materialize her sculptural ideas, and photographs increasingly came to fill this need. She used photography to document her three-dimensional sculptures and actions and also (along with drawings) to work things out and to think visually about sculptural problems. Her two earliest artist’s books, produced in Rome, show that these two uses of photography were both operative in her work from the beginning. Objekte 1975–76 consists of black-and-white photographs of small, free-standing sculptures, while Sky 1975–77 is a purely photographic book, containing images of palm branches, balls, blimps, helicopters, airplanes, and birds suspended against a blank sky. A photograph of a palm branch falling through the air, with a view of the Amalfi coast far below (pp. 14–15), is all about scale and depth of field, and a photograph of a photograph of a palm branch lying on a table next to a plant in a glass of water (p. 16) provides at least three levels of abstraction. The sequencing of the images in Sky is very deliberate and, again, photographic.

Villiger recognized in photography a particularly effective way to investigate entropic actions: vapor trails from jets, water sprayed from an irrigation pipe, hay being turned in a field, and the leaping and falling of flames. Her photographs of burning palms and ricocheting boccie balls are conceptual images, but they avoid the anti-aesthetic deadpan pose of earlier conceptual photography of the late 1960s and early 1970s by artists such as Ed Ruscha (Various Small Fires, 1964), Douglas Huebler (Duration Piece #7, 1969), and Alice Aycock (Cloud Piece, 1971). Villiger’s burning palms, especially, display an exuberance that thrusts them between conceptual and expressionist modes, more like the photoworks of Robert Smithson (I’m thinking here especially of the Mirror Displacements). Like Smithson, Villiger had no interest in the ‘craft’ of photography—in learning to make good negatives or prints—and was drawn as a sculptor into a photographic inquiry that had nothing to do with the conventions of art photography. Also like Smithson, she retained throughout her life a certain ambivalence toward the camera that sometimes edged toward fear, or envy. “There is something abominable about cameras,” wrote Smithson, “because they possess the power to invent many worlds.

As an artist who has been lost in this wilderness of mechanical reproduction for many years, I do not know which world to start with. I have seen fellow artists driven to the point of frenzy by photography.”1

Villiger showed both objects (sculptures) and images (photographs, drawings) together in exhibitions. At the beginning of 1980 she photographed two of her sculptures—a rank of warping planks (p. 75) and a spiral roughly cut from plexiglas (p. 76)—and realized that her photographs of these objects were more compelling (and, ironically, more sculpturally satisfying) than the objects themselves. This was a turning point, opening up a tremendously productive period in her work.

At precisely this moment of creative breakthrough, at age 29, Villiger learned that she had contracted tuberculosis and was hospitalized. Her hospital room immediately became her new studio, with drawings on the walls and sculptures on the floor. A number of Polaroid images that figure prominently in her later grids were made in this hospital room. Consumption and confinement emerged as the operative signs of her mature work.

When she was released from the hospital, Villiger wrote on the first page of a workbook, “viel grenzenloser” (more, without any borders). In order for her to attain the expressive freedom she craved, and to do “more, without any borders” aesthetically, she would have to bring the borders in close, and then put herself into the resultant enclosure. In September 1980 she was hospitalized again. When she came out this time, she took a photograph of an open window in her apartment, and wrote in her workbook, “Ich werde selbst zum Meissel” (I myself will be the chisel). The stakes had been raised, and from this point on, her work took on a ferocious new intensity.

In November and December 1980 she exhibited for the first time images made from internegatives of SX70 Polaroid photographs enlarged onto color negative paper and mounted on one-meter square aluminum plates. The images she chose for this show were more frankly autobiographical than anything she had shown previously: a self-portrait showing her blue eyes reflected in a hospital table (p. 30), a close-up of the décolletage of her lover (p. 81), a face with freckles, the window in her apartment (p. 70), a brilliant green plant (p. 73), Villiger, chin to chin with her lover (p. 71), tennis in the lights, another self-portrait showing only her chin and hand in a vest, and a close-up image of red lips. 

A few months later she participated in a group show at the Kunsthalle Basel and produced a small catalogue (with an introduction by Bice Curiger, p. 74) that incorporated some of the earlier entropic images in black-and-white along with more recent color Polaroids to form a coherent and concise visual statement of her emerging concerns. Again, the sequencing of the images is pointed, providing a visual, spatial counterpart to an emotional movement.

At the same time, Villiger began to combine the one-meter square unframed aluminum plates into grids or ‘blocks’ containing anywhere from two to twenty plates, in which the individual images operate as signs in a syntax. The grid structure also further cooled the images and allowed Villiger’s sculptural intentions—to act on the space between the works and the viewers—to be realized in a different way. Jean-Christophe Ammann has said that Villiger used photography “to give her spatial sensibility the form and context of a physical sensation“.2 She intended viewers to experience these imposing blocks of body images in a direct, visceral way—to feel the shifting alignments and compression in their own bodies as they looked at them. This effect does not result merely from the representation of Villiger’s body in these works, but from the physical weight and arrangement of the images. Some people have compared Villiger’s work to that of John Coplans, but the relation is a superficial one. Coplans’ work references the tradition of photographic nudes in a way that Villiger’s does not. Villiger is not making abstractions from the human form, but recording sculptural forms made with her own body. Her method requires her to focus on the body’s extremities, and the harsh lighting she uses tends to flatten the forms, further de-emphasizing the integrity of the whole body and creating an index of fragments. These fragments appear in a non-gravitational space that does not pay attention to the usual up-and-down orientation of the human body. Reviewing Villiger’s exhibition at the Zabriskie Gallery in New York in 1990, New York Times critic Roberta Smith noted Villiger’s pursuit of “a complex, disorienting space,” and said that she was “playing Frank Stella to Mr. Coplans’ Henry Moore“.3 In Stella’s 1986 book Working Space, he argues that great art “is never indifferent to the creation of viable pictorial space, the vehicle of motion and containment“.4 ImIn the preface to her groundbreaking book Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object, Lucy Lippard wrote that “In a broad sense, anyone taking a photograph is geometricizing life.“5 Because the organic form being ‘geometricized’ in Villiger’s work is her own body, the visceral effect is one-to-one: instead of observing the relation of artist to model from outside, we become active participants in Villiger’s multiform investigations of all the possible configurations and arrangements of her own body within the confines of the square. If you look for it, you will find evidence of Villiger’s illness in the images—the knotted swellings and red rashes, and later the chilling geometry of phthisis—but overall, the images are strikingly restrained, even impersonal. If this is narcissism, it is of a very peculiar kind. In fact, these images appear to have been made not by someone who was obsessed with her own body, but by one who was so estranged from her body that she could consistently view it as an object.

In 1985, the Kunsthalle Basel produced a book by Villiger titled Neid (Envy). “Working on the book,” Villiger wrote, “I felt two personified forces within myself: One was envious, and the other was envied. The envious one was envious of the I that took the photographs. It envied the other’s concentration and will. The title also signified my envy of the life of its own that the work took on.” There was the life of the person making the work; there was the life of the person depicted in the work; and there was a third element: the life of the work itself. Both of the first two envied the latter its clarity, its limitations, and its longevity. The function of a chisel is to cut away the extraneous, and for Hannah Villiger that meant getting down to the forms she could make with her own naked body, with as little interference as possible. Eventually, even her body was cut away, leaving only the images. An image in Envy is of the artist’s left hand, painted white, against a white background. The hand is closed as if around a chisel. We know that the artist’s right hand must have held a camera instead of a hammer, but even so it hits its mark.


  1. Smithson, Robert. “Art through the Camera’s Eye.” 
    Robert Smithson Unearthed: Drawings, Collages, Writings. Ed. Eugenie Tsai. 
    New York: Columbia University Press, 1991, p. 88. ↩︎
  2. Ammann, Jean-Christophe. Exh. cat. 4.1: Jean Pfaff, Heiner Richner, Jürg Stäuble, Hannah Villiger. 
    Ed. Heiny Widmer. Aarau: Aargauer Kunsthaus, 1980, p. 53. ↩︎
  3. Smith, Roberta, „Hannah Villiger“,
    The New York Times, 19. January 1990. ↩︎
  4. Stella, Frank, Working Space, 
    Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1986, p. 99. ↩︎
  5. Lippard, Lucy R., Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, 
    Praeger Publishers, New York 1973, p. 7. ↩︎