On My Book Envy

Hannah Villiger

The book consists of three elements: the bright pages and the white cover, the offset-printed color plates, pasted on the pages, the black letters.

The bright pages, reminiscent of blotting paper, and the hard white cover form a unity. They are the space. The color plates are the objects in this space. The black letters are carriers of information.

The book has a size of 24.5 x 18.5 cm. The size of the plates is 11.2 x 11 cm. Every book contains 42 plates and 108 pages. There are 600 numbered copies.

First, I will talk about the title of the book, although it came last. —Envy. There is a provocative shrillness to this word, despite the poised calm of the four black letters. The word describes a dialogue that I conduct with myself. Working on the book, 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.

The book has right and left pages. As usual with books, the title is on the second right page. The following double page is almost blank. On the left page, I had the word ‘sculptural’ printed. The images on the wall of the exhibition space, in combination with the architecture, are ‘the sculpture.’ The plates, pasted on the book’s bright pages, in combination with the blank right pages, I call ‘sculptural.’ The images in the exhibition and in the book are based on the same source material. In the exhibition, there are enlarged photographs, 125 x 123 cm each, glossy, mounted on 1 mm aluminum panels. In the book, there are offset prints of the same Polaroids.

On the third double page, I encounter an image. Only its upper corner is pasted onto the page. The rest of the plate is loose. I feel its paper-thin body. It is reminiscent of the prints, mounted on aluminum, in my shows. It has no white borders, comparable to the pounding of a sculptor’s chisel. It has a slightly glossy surface.

I keep turning the pages. A color plate on each double page. The image is always pasted onto the left page. Usually, you would expect a plate on the right page. By not fulfilling this expectation, you enhance the presence of the blank page. Its space has an overdetermined presence. It is carried over onto the left page and its now equally overdetermined image. I keep turning the pages. I stumble upon an untouched double page. Actually, it is a blank left page. To be even more precise, I know that every book has two blank left pages. While determining the number of pages, I thought that –

  • there should be a rhythm, a kind of bracketing, to stress certain images; a pause, a punctuation mark, should structure the images;
  • that these two pages are absent images;
  • that they interrupt the shadow-like appearance of the back of the plates, pasted onto the preceding page, shining through the slightly transparent paper;
  • at there wouldn’t be enough bright space if all the images were shown in a continuous sequence. I wanted an equal presence of both images and their environment.

I pasted the images in myself, but their sequence kept changing. I tried to let it speak for itself.

The accordion-fold interrupts the piling of images and disturbs the calm of the single image. At the end of the plate section there is a double page. Printed on the right page are the number of the book and some information on the plate section.

Then there’s a blank double page separating the plate section from the appendix. In the appendix, there are some informations on the images in the exhibition, a text by J.-Ch. Ammann, acknowledgments, and the copyright, as usual on the right page.

I take pictures of myself.

I am my closest partner and my most obvious subject.

With my Polaroid camera I listen to my naked, bare body, the outside of it, the inside of it, traversing it. Thus, I create images that I can correct immediately.

The Polaroid camera is easy to use. It helps me to find and center myself.

Photography makes it possible to grasp eternity in a brief moment of time. 

I take pictures because I perceive objects.

I use light intuitively.

How do I start to work?

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.

At the same time, there’s always a formal idea, an analytical consideration. For example, there are four surfaces: leg, foot, arm, ground, and three sources of light: sun, flashlight, artificial light...These are conscious images.

The longest distance between the camera and any body part is between my raised arm and my toes. I always trigger the camera myself, sometimes without looking through the viewfinder. I tilt the camera to an angle of 90, 180, 270 degrees. I turn myself— literally—upside down. Often I keep tilting the Polaroids on the wall until they find an equilibrium all of their own.

I use all methods that I know of to dissolve space as we know it and its laws of gravitation.

My aim is not to just represent a given but to create an autonomous work of art. To this end I use the means of painting, sculpture, performance, and photography.

Persistent repetition turns my body into ‘a body.’ And even this ‘a body’ that has become entirely abstract will be forgotten—only the pure sound exposes. Maybe this is the reason why the images never show neither eyes nor sex.

By switching the first and the last letter of the word Neid (envy) becomes Dein (your).

Translation: Martin Jaeggi 

This article was first published in: Jahresbericht des Basler Kunstvereins. Basel: Kunsthalle Basel, 1986, pp. 24–25.