Hannah Villiger’s Polaroid abstractions enrich the Swiss artist’s retrospective

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Documenting the self, and often in sensual sequences, Villiger used her body as material and subject to liberate her sense of identity

Two pairs of interlocking legs hang suspended in a black, undefined space. I see them, from a distance, as indivisible, swelling, erotic forms, one body rather than the fragments of two, pushed together and partially dissolved. One pair of feet glimpsed in the reddened, rounded curves of heels are otherwise obscured by the calves of the other, which extend out of the frame. Sculptural (1990/91), as the work is titled, is one of many Polaroid photographs by the late Swiss artist Hannah Villiger (1951–97), which are currently on display at Muzeum Susch in Switzerland until 02 July 2023 as part of a large-scale retrospective curated by Madeleine Schuppli and Yasmin Afschar. It is the first to be held of the artist’s work in 15 years.

WN 361, Skulptural | Sculptural, 1990/91 © Foundation THE ESTATE OF HANNAH VILLIGER. Courtesy of Kunstmuseum Basel

Villiger started working with a Polaroid camera in the 1980s. She had previously been making sculptures, paintings and performances, all of which used the body as material and subject, something to be made and remade, over and over again. The Polaroid camera, however, offered her a new form of self-representation that combined intuitive performative gestures with predetermined external structures. She always pressed the shutter herself, sometimes without looking through the viewfinder. Then, she manipulated the results by tilting the Polaroids on the wall “until they find an equilibrium all of their own”, as Villiger said in 1986, or by creating sketches of how and where they should appear within a space. The spatial positioning of the work, size and materiality all contribute to how the body appears in the image and how we encounter it. Blowing up the limbs to a larger-than-life scale, the Polaroids were enlarged via an internegative and mounted on aluminium that lends the surface a certain sheen reflecting external light and sometimes, the viewer. In the exhibition, each image floats away from the wall, balanced on tiny, golden pins. 

Villiger wanted to “not just represent a given but to create an autonomous work of art”, which, given the traditional format of photography and her primary subject, meant she had to find ways of destabilising conventional perspectives. In Sculptural (1990/91), this is achieved through fragmentation and the incorporation of multiple bodies, blurring of the boundaries between the two – it’s unclear where one begins and the other ends. In this work, the proximity of flesh seems to express intimacy or perhaps, co-dependence. Elsewhere, the collapse of space between skin and limbs also becomes a form of resistance against what a body, specifically a woman’s, should look like or how it should behave.

Arbeit | Work, 1982 © © Foundation THE ESTATE OF HANNAH VILLIGER
Arbeit | Work, 1980/81 © Foundation THE ESTATE OF HANNAH VILLIGER

Next to Sculptural, hangs an assemblage or ‘block’, as Villiger called them, of six images. In one, we find ourselves looking down the spine of the artist’s naked back to the upturned soles of her feet, and in others at cross-sections of overlapping, stacked limbs, some of which are abstracted to the point of becoming unrecognisable. The skin, as in much of the artist’s work, is illuminated by bright artificial flash, emphasising the depth and darkness of the shadows in-between and playing on the idea of exposure – of the Polaroid image, but also self. Villiger defamiliarises the body but she also brings us closer to it – in the same way that, say, we might know the imperfections of a lover’s skin, the grooves of their lips, the creases of their knuckles.

Arbeit | Work, 1980. © © Foundation THE ESTATE OF HANNAH VILLIGER

This process of self-documentation often feels erotic, as in a series of works in which the artist photographs her armpit and shoulder joint lying against a white bed sheet. The images, presented in a block of 12, are flipped horizontally, so that the armpit, with its damp, dark curly hair, evokes pubic hair, while the dips and swell of the shoulder joint resemble the curves of the hips or pelvis. However, it is the sensual details – the dark pockets of shadow, clusters of freckles and tendons rising up beneath the skin – rather than the resemblance of specific areas, that make these works feel so intimate. An adjacent block of 15 images taken in the same setting, meanwhile, expresses a very different bodily experience. In these works, we see Villiger’s face, from above, her eyes downcast while her body appears small and shrunken in the shadows beneath; close-ups of her feet, with blisters on the soles, pressed towards the lens and of her shoulders bent forwards, collar bones raised. Each photograph captures, it seems, a feeling of tension that builds cumulatively across the series to create, if not quite momentum, an impression of change. Villiger defies not just the static nature of the photographic image, but also notions of a fixed and stable identity. In other words, she finds freedom in fragmentation. 

Many women artists before and after Villiger have used their bodies to rally against expectations (Carolee Schneemann, in particular, comes to mind), but it is a sad truth that at a time when waves of nationalism are sweeping across the globe and human rights are being reduced, these kinds of images are made to feel suddenly radical again.

Hannah Villiger: Amaze Me is on show at Muzeum Susch in Switzerland until 02 July 2023

Millie Walton

Millie Walton is a London-based arts and fiction writer. She writes about art, culture and books for various publications and has collaborated with numerous artists across the globe. She is the Digital Editor of Apollo magazine and is currently working on a book for a leading London gallery.