Maybe I should spend hours and dollars on perfecting myself so you will like me…
Werkschau XXI – Maria Hahnenkamp
Maria Hahnenkamp is one of the most important Austrian artists of the second generation of feminists. In her work – mainly photographic – she engages critically with the status of the female body in our society, moving the discourse forward. In contrast with her predecessors, she no longer puts her own body into performative or precarious situations but analyses the media’s way of dealing with the female body per se or the psychological effects on girls and women who see themselves permanently confronted with the media presentation of a standardised and idealised body. Hahnenkamp undertakes a search for a manifestation of this complex system of power and subjugation on a level that is simultaneously aesthetic, sensual and intellectual.
For centuries women have been depicted by men: reading, working, as wives and nursing mother, courtesans or socialites. The female nude was usually obscured behind an allegory or mythological subject. It was in the early 20th century that the first self-portraits of nude women began to appear and from the 1960s on women artists finally and vigorously reclaimed control over how their bodies were to be depicted – no longer as just as young and seductive but also as pregnant, suffering or sick.
In Hahnenkamp’s typologies the exclusively beautiful female body provide the impetus for a critical consideration of the place that women – all too often reduced to their physical appearance – occupy in the gender hierarchy. Moved by the power of the images, Hahnenkamp collected depictions of women in books, advertising, fashion and porno magazines, compared their contours, poses and gazes which, fragmented by reproduction she then confronted with each other. Chains of images are thereby created which essentially relieve the bodies of their erotic connotations because they are focussed on ‘empty’ sections of skin (Slide Projection 5a); other works of this work complex tell of a pictorial vocabulary of a single issue of the fashion magazine, Vogue, they analyse facial expressions in the pornographic and seductive pictures of the fashion industry or compare the form of Christ’s open wound with that of a monstrance and a vagina (Slide Projection 1). The wide-ranging visual material obviously representing the male gaze on the female body creates an awareness of the bias of the viewpoint.
In 1994 Dietmar Kamper invented the drastic formulation the “prison built of pictures” which surrounds women, tying them up, pushing them towards imitation, exerting pressure on their self-confidence. “Nowadays people no longer live in the world. […] They really live in the pictures that they make of the world, themselves and other people, that someone made of the world, themselves and others for them1 In short: How are women shown in images and what effect do these images have on them.”
In Judith Butler’s The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (1997)2 Hahnenkamp finds theoretical underpinnings and uses 2007 quotations from it in the series, Cut-Out. She demands an intellectual consideration of the subject of women in a manner that is over-simplified and steeped in clichés as presented in magazines, daily newspapers, advertising images, Instagram etc. – the image of a woman reduced to her seductive body. “It becomes clear that it does not only concern personal feelings but a social body, above all the female body and how it is formed by ascriptions and internalisation.”3 Sentences written on strips of transparent film are wrapped around the (clothed) bodies of the models and may be read as decorative accessories yet they convey an additional message: “Let us […] think of a further remark made by Freud to the effect that the ego is, ‘above all a physical one’, not simply superficial but the ‘projection of a surface’. In addition, this physical ego takes on a gendered morphology so that the physical ego is gender-specific too.“4
2016. Let us take a look at the current situation. Users of Youtube, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat and Co have extended the “prison built of pictures”. In the meantime a not insignificant proportion of the images of women are published by the girls and women themselves in the form of selfies. Considered benevolently, one can commend their (self)confident handling of their own gender identity with its social acknowledgement and selfesteem. In contrast to the traditional role of the female model at the mercy of the male photographer, the selfie conveys self-reliance over how the woman presents her body and how she wants to maintain “control over her own image”5 as journalist Teresa Bücker defends the reproduction of the self via selfie. Nowadays not only the rich and famous or photo models have an impact on the media via images, even the girl-next-door has her followers. Teenagers create their own image worlds and share – similar to celebrities – their fulfilled life.
In 2000 Maria Hahnenkamp launched a confrontation that followed from a similar observation: in the (double) Diaprojektion 3 [Slide Projection 3] two women who lived at the same time in different conditions are presented. Though one is anonymous, the other world famous, seen together there are striking similarities as far as demeanour, style, gestures etc. Hahnenkamp: “It is a story about growing older and more unhappy. I never wanted to do anything with Marilyn Monroe because she was unduly ‘pre-empted’ but circumstances forced my hand – the same posture, the cigarettes, the birthmark – there were unbelievable analogies.”6 The serious differences were formulated by Friedrich Tietjen: “while the image of the actress had been reproduced countless times and had become an icon, the image of her counterpart only avoided the rubbish tip by chance.”7
What is the reality behind the representation really? After all, the Monroe photos also have the bitter taste of her mysterious death too8. That is the question that should also be asked of the fashion and fitness blogs. If one traces the general and specific conditions surrounding their production something quickly becomes clear: what is presented as an example borders on bulimia and dysfunctional consumerism. And not only has exhibitionism taken on new dimensions in forums of this nature but – and this is particularly bitter – young women do not even notice that social media postings like this are once again conditioning them into accepting erotic bodies as their ‘destiny’.
Without being aware of the fact that “many photos only appear to be spontaneous snapshots”,9 they orientate their appearances and lifestyle of their idols as long as they do not reveal the truth like blogger Essina O’Neil. “I do countless photos trying to look hot for Instagram” she admitted to her followers and made no secret of her addiction to Likes. As a consequence, she re-edited all the picture captions: “NOT REAL LIFE – took over 100 in similar poses trying to make my stomach look good. Would have hardly eaten that day”10.
From today’s point of view, one of Hahnenkamp’s early works appears like a vision of these eruptive developments. In 1992 she shot hundreds of photos of a woman undergoing beauty treatment. But Hahnenkamp’s photos reveal nothing of this. A radical act by the artist eliminated their entire content. This was done roughly at first, using an electric drill with a sanding attachment, thereafter sanded by hand with a fine grit and finally sewn together. The ‘typically female’ concerns were thus irrevocably erased. The act of erasure was explicitly captured in documentary photos showing the artist engaged in sanding. White gloves indicate subtle, fine craftwork that produces nothing material but social criticism. The mechanically radical gesture, depriving the photograph of its depiction, to eliminate all information, to reduce the photograph to its support medium, is Hahnenkamp’s reaction to the appropriation of the female body by the media. The act of erasure is reminiscent of Erased de Kooning Drawing by Robert Rauschenberg who in 1953 thought over the borders of art and the image in a conceptual manner and questioned the picture in itself. Can an artwork be created by erasure too? In both cases it was a prolonged process, the images were stubborn. What remains are traces indicative of the removal, the pencil lines pressed into the paper or the marks left by the sandpaper, scratches on the gelatine layer. The power of works like this lies in the fact that we do not know what the pictures showed11 – de Kooning’s drawing was, by the way, one of his Women series – the fascination for us resides in the artist’s decision. The erasure of the contents of the pictures was time-consuming in both 1953 and 1992 but contrary to the pictures posted nowadays it was at least possible.
The abraded photos are the most radical early work and embody the two themes that run through Hahnenkamp’s oeuvre: her mistrust of the “image of women” and her distrust of representational mediums/media in general. They are represented in equal measure. Over and over again the membrane-thin layer of gelatine of analogue photography that serves as the sole and ultimate bearer of information is the site of manual interventions which are situated between acceptance and attack of this ambiguous surface and lead to the best-known work groups. For them Hahnenkamp used photographs – details of women’s bodies, gallery walls, the corners of rooms and abraded photos – and perforated or embroidered them with Catholic ornaments or tore the ornaments out of them. The gelatine layer on the surface is thus doubly “inscribed”: by light and the ornaments. The emphasis of the line is noticeable: linear ornaments, outlines, ribbons of text and letters – in the last exhibition picture frames have been added which display the fall of representation.
And so Maria Hahnenkamp is always also concerned with making pictures, with the tools – the light of the flash unit, for example, is reflected in the Regina series – with the characteristics of photography such as positive and negative (Regina/Fragmente), with the gestures of the manipulation (embroidery and sanding), with an aesthetically accurate execution and a closeness to the subject – in content as in fact. She prioritises the vivid fragment over the informative overview thereby launching resistance to visual curiosity on a formal level too. Cropping is characteristic for photography which can only ever show a section of reality. The decision to excerpt one part encourages the impression that the reduction of women to their bodies is only a partial truth. “Essentially my method is based on fragmentation. With it, I can engage with a subject without pre-empting it with specific images.” (MH)
- Dietmar Kamper, Bildstörungen, Ostfilden 1994, S. 7
- Judith Butler: The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection. Original edition: 1997
- Thomas D. Trummer, The Female Body as a Spectacle, 2012, Link
- Judith Butler: The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection. Original edition: 1997
- Teresa Bücker: Das nackte Selbst. Selfies sind ein Akt der Emanzipation.
In: Zeit Online, 23 October 2014. Last visit 16 May 2016
- Maria Hahnenkamp in an interview with the author, 2008
- Friedrich Tietjen, Pictures and Images, 2002, Link
- Marilyn Monroe died under mysterious circumstances at the age of 36.
- Franziska Zoidl, Schön sein zum Schein, Der Standard, Beilage CURE, April 2016, S. 69
- Essena O’Neill auf essenaoneill.com/ (deactivated)
- Cf. https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/98.298