Notes on “zwei Frauen”

The two female protagonists of Maria Hahnenkamp´s series “two women” (2001), both dressed in red, came together to bounce off the gaze and to deny vision. They act as red guards. Their mission is radical and non-compromising - namely to occupy pictorial space in a way that will leave nothing to be seen. To keep the gaze out and to launch their assault on the viewer, they form a phalanx of bodies, positioned right in the foreground of the pictures. This setting has something highly aggressive and confrontational about it, and the response it creates is frustration.

The series represents a highly reflected play with the promises of the pictorial space of photography. For this body of works, the artist placed the female bodies behind a glass plate right in front of the camera. Due to this glass barrier, the bodies look flat and compressed. Paradoxically, the denial of vision goes hand in hand with an abundance of visual information. There are folds and curves, patterns and textures the viewer can concentrate on, but still, the overall impression is a lack of visibility. Due to this situation of visual castration, the viewer becomes inventive and counter-weights the deprivation by referring to the in-between spaces. The gaze creeps into folds and behind slightly lifted clothes in search for a dimension beyond the surface of the image. Between the bodies, gaps and slits open-up which carry a promise of depth and a full view. The, at first sight, indeterminable abstract forms of these spatial intervals turn out to be reminiscent of vaginal forms and ultimately refer the viewer back to his/her scopic desires.

As Linda Hentschel (2001) pointed out, scopic desire is intricately linked with the construction of pictorial space in the early Modern period. Implied in this spatial concept is the promise of pure vision, of a potentially unrestricted view of even concealed and hidden things. Due to this promise, the act of viewing becomes libidinally charged and ultimately informed by gender issues. `Vision cannot be separated from the construction of space, which in turn cannot be separated from the constructions of gender upon which sexuality is mapped, usually violently.´ (Wiley 1992, 364) As no act of viewing is ever neutral, but always culturally mediated, gender aspects flow into this seemingly mathematical model inherent to Western representation. This leads to what Hentschel calls a `sexualization of pictorial space´ (2001 : 30). The viewer, originally designed as a rational, autonomous, centered and mostly male subject, ideally positions himself in front of this space, ready to penetrate the represented area with his visual acts. The eye as visual agent, subjects the space that opens up in front of him to the regime and power of the gaze. In a metonymical shift and process of replacement, the desire for the female body depicted in the picture, gets projected onto pictorial space as such. Feminized pictorial space becomes the other of the male gaze, the other that is open to appropriation, conquest and subordination.

Maria Hahnenkamp´s figures act as a `task force´ against this sexualized use of space: It is a tight and crammed space. But, despite their closeness, these females do not get together to snuggle up to each other. Instead, they demonstrate solidarity and pursue a shared strategy of generating a lack of vision. At the same time, these images hold a promise of vision and play with the notion of a dimension of increased visibility beyond the surface. The bodies themselves do not justify any sexual projections. They have something high-necked, analytic and straight about them. The fully covered female bodies cannot be held accountable for the explicit erotic appeal of these images. The scandal of the intimate resides in the splits and the slits between the bodies, which create a kind of penetrating reflex with the viewer. It seems as if the gaze wants to take up the impulse to enter via these gaps and folds in order to regain the gratification of a full and unrestricted view. One cannot but also sense the fantasies of violence, which seem to be located in these in-between spaces that would have to be stretched, widened, torn open to achieve a better view. The chaste red models play with the desires of the spectator, but the offer that they propose is less immoral than deeply disillusioning. Which viewer, comfortably at home in Western representational systems, would want to find satisfaction in the anteroom of the foreground before his/her scopic desire, geared towards the depth of space, could build-up its full phallic power?

Monika Schwärzler, 2014

Hentschel, L. (2001). Pornotopische Techniken des Betrachtens. Raumwahrnehmung und Geschlechterordnung in visuellen Apparaten der Moderne. Marburg: Jonas Verlag.
Wiley, M. (1992). The Housing of Gender. In Colomina, B. (Ed.), Sexuality and Space (pp. 327–389). New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Monika Schwärzler – Professor at Webster Vienna Private University, Department of Media Communications; PhD in Philosophy at Vienna University; academic training at the Museum of Modern Art in Vienna; teacher at the Webster University in St. Louis, MO, and in the foreign programme of the University of Oregon; teacher in the International Summer Programme of Vienna University and in the postgraduate Museology courses of Basel University; founder member and member of the Board of the T.K. Lang Gallery at the Webster University. Research fields: Art and media theory, aesthetics and history of photography, visual culture, animated film.

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