The Female Body as a Spectacle

The fragile body rotates slowly on its own axis. The dress wrinkles, the seams stretch. The fabric is stuffed between the surface and the body weight. Turned upward, it is again freed from the pressure of the body weight. The procedure repeats. By way of the repetition, the fabric, the veil, begins to twist like a braid, it forces the thin figure into ever narrower spaces. Maria Hahnenkamp has placed a woman in a blood-red dress on a glass bed. The turning motion is filmed from below. A series of still photographs was taken. The material itself is embroidered with a white thread in a floral pattern. The movement of the woman, whose face never appears, seems like the movement of a restless sleeper, while the recongnizable rhythm is reminiscent of a roller like those used for mechanical ironing. Yet the device here is misappropriated: not used to iron, but as proof of stress. Hahnenkamp teaches us to identify the female body in the turning motion as an spectacle, but further still, to understand the subtle impact of sensual experience.

Vision, as we learn, does not change what we see. Touching and feeling is a different matter. That is to say, in the case of the sense of touch, the perceived object itself changes in the process of being perceived. By touching something, I move and bring about something. Under pressure, the surfahe shape changes and the temperature of the touched object rises. The drape, which in fashion and art history has always been the epitome of style and great artistry, is questioned in this work. It is a mark of beauty, ornamentation, or lines, but also shows signs of distress and torture. The impression is not an artistic quality whre at issue is grasping reality, but rahter an emblem of sensitivity, with which being a body as such is explored. Sensual stimuli that touch the body are not data that are registered, decoded, or accessed when needed. Sensual impressions surface and leave their mark. In a video with the same subject, Hahnenkamp placed transparent foils with quotations from Judith Butler around a torso (“V8/10“). The woman wraps the text ribbons around her like a knot, and then frees herself from them in a countermovement. The lines of text are fragmented and yet comment on the events. It becomes clear that a issue is not personal sensation, but the social body, above all the female body, its formation by way of attribution and internalization. By treating the turning as a continuous event of constraint and liberation, of density and release, compulsion and freedom, it reminds us of the struggle between sensory sensations in the social field. Such a dynamic does not primarily explain that something appears as something, but that and how it appears, and with what emphasis. Hahnenkamp shows the effect of pressure captured in the medium of photography. The qualities of smoothness, roughness, graininess, torturousness seem inscribed into the material of the photographic image. For the photograph is not like the human being able to suffer, but covered with impressions and physical wounds, marked at its innermost by light and chemical reaction. To allude to this procedure, images from a similar series of images are damaged on the surface. Like a floral tattoo the church ornament based on a model from 1860 has eaten its way into the skin ("Cut-Out"). Hahnenkamp has, as it were, torn away the top layer of the photograph. Beneath that, we see the paper that is normally hidden. According to the artist, who never takes the pictures herself, but always commissions professionals, she wanted to show that the photographic illusion is skin thin. Despite knowing better, we grant the realistic visual illusion our belief over and over. By damaging the surface, the image becomes a stand-in for skin. The photograph, as a flat body, itself appears as a support for sensations and impressions. The link to social formation becomes even clearer. Butler speaks in her writings about the fact that the body is a "material saturated with power". At the same time she has faith that it will never entirely accept the "norms of repetition". The body itself can provide liberation resistance. Its impression becomes experience, memory and history.

Thomas D. Trummer

Published in: EIKON – Internationale Zeitschrift für Photographie und Medienkunst, issue #78, 05/2012

Thomas D. Trummer has been Director of Kunsthaus Bregenz (KUB) since 2015, before which he was Artistic Director of Kunsthalle Mainz (2012–2015) and Visual Arts Project Manager at the Siemens Arts Program in Munich (2007–2012). He was visiting scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, USA (2010–2011) and Hall Curatorial Fellow at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, Ridgefield, USA (2006–2007). Previously, he was curator of modern and contemporary art at Belvedere Vienna and visiting curator at Grazer Kunstverein.

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