Artist: Isabella Hollauf
The exhibition Uneven presents a constellation of photographic and filmic works by Austrian artist Isabella Hollauf. The seemingly documentary-esque filmic and photographic images of mostly abandoned health resorts and recreation centers confront the viewer with images of absence. Deserted swimming facilities have for a number of years formed a consistent figure in Hollauf’s conceptual, poetic photography. But the documentary quality of the images is deceptive. The artist is not interested in a veristic, objective visual language that articulates what is observed from a controlled distance. Rather, Hollauf seeks out such abandoned bathing establishments and swimming facilities and “accesses” them in order to situate them in relationship to her own body.
In her aesthetic practice, Hollauf references her own immediate, on-site perceptions. Space or place do not form external quantities that can be accessed, observed, and appropriated. Rather, they stand in an osmotic relationship to the “place” of one’s own body. The parameters of this decidedly kinaesthetic-informed way of seeing are physical position, i.e., one’s own viewpoint, and, to the same degree as well, the body in motion, and thus one’s perception that shifts in resonance with the surrounding environment. The body therefore is less the center of perception than it is the basic medium of perception. As thematized in the photo series and even more so in the film Aquarena, bathing establishments by definition address the body itself. However, they are not merely places and institutions that choreograph, mold, and influence bodies, but are also locations for relaxation and entertainment and are therefore charged with libidinal energy.
The four-part photo series Heusweilerbad (2016) is presented to the viewer in four different image sizes. On the gallery’s long wall, three horizontal-format photographs are positioned to one side of a vertically installed photo strip. Although the loose configuration of photographs hung with clips give the viewer the sense that they go together and reference one another, actively relating the various image formats and sizes proves challenging. The artist is not simply showing the viewer a place to look at, in actuality an abandoned swimming facility, but forces one to read them in a particular way. The individual photos only depict incomplete, fragmentary views of the location. But just as and even more importantly, the viewer follows a specific, choreographed way of looking at the given image sequence. The photos do not simply become smaller when read from left to right in order to create the impression of diminishing perception, the slipping away of what is seen. Whereas the first vertical strip of images in the series depicts a kind of wide-angle shot of a diving platform jutting out of a deserted swimming pool between overgrown greenery, the view in the second image in the series switches to what’s in the immediate vicinity of the camera. The view points downward, toward the ground, thus presenting only details. In addition, in the third and fourth photos, the image format becomes successively smaller, as if the viewer is again denied or stripped of a close-up view or experiencing the location in an immediate, kinesthetic manner.
With Hollauf things are always about authority in a discrete way, more precisely about the questioning of authority and the supremacy of the gaze. Inherent to her work is an element of hesitation and failure that resists not only the taking-in and appropriating of space (and place), but also the self-assuredness of one’s own perceptions. Accordingly, her images also in no way provide commentary on these places; they are not easily interpreted and defined. Instead, Hollauf’s images persistently call into question one’s own way of seeing and one’s own process of perceiving. The image here is a notation, perhaps even a kind of trace of the physical, pictorial accessing of the location. Of course, the individual image, the particular detail, does not seek to be a “successful” image. With Hollauf the dimension of showing, presenting, and representing is pushed into the background and subtly subverted. The images almost come across like non-images and often conceal more than they show. The viewer is prompted to close the gaps between images and complete the spatial diegesis. This evocative form of “image making” by the viewer can be understood as a kind of counterpart and analogy to the artist’s own exploring of places. The image is not easy to see or recognize here, but strives for a modality of perception that favors the indeterminate, what’s more: the incongruous and irregular—hence the title “uneven.”
The act of walking, the repetitive movements undertaken when accessing different yet fundamentally similar abandoned places, is analogous aesthetically and in terms of process to the serial and repetitive qualities inherent to the jewel-like Teflon objects Flexible Ringe (2001). Also at work here is a supposed repetition of the same, a sequencing of simultaneous modification, like the elements or segments of a chain. Hollauf uses prefabricated thin strips of white Teflon only a few millimeters thick. The individual circular bands, which almost appear to be drawn, are solid and yet malleable in keeping with the material properties of Teflon. They appear simple and graceful, but also have a playful quality. The variability of their formal, even sculptural look evokes more of an early childhood urge to play than the process of sculptural form finding. Simple, flat circular bands are manually reshaped into complex and quasi-anthropomorphic forms. The thin, malleable, circular bands also form an intermediary between two- and three-dimensionality, between drawing surface and sculptural space.
Here again, the medium of the body forms an essential point of reference for spatial and process-based aesthetic reflection. At the same time, the body forms the support medium and ambit of the quasi-ornamental Teflon objects. Here one would actually have to speak of a kind of anti-jewelry, since it is not about about drawing attention to something aesthetic, exhibitionism, or about symbolic coding or enhancing the wearer. Instead, the artist starts from another radical form of questioning sculpture, the aspect of sealing or closing off, of separating and insulating, which is also specifically reflected in the choice of Teflon as a material as well as in earlier objects made of rubber seal. The artist uses insulating materials that neither look easy to wear nor are they physically comfortable to wear for longer periods of time. Insulation material is used for interrupting connections, for instance two pipes; i.e. to separate two “spaces” systemically. Accordingly, the “function” of this anti-jewelry lies more in its sculptural-performative aspects, given the way the wearer’s physical-spatial reaction focuses attention on the Teflon bands. By placing something objectionable on themselves, the wearer or test-person is made to subtly call into question the phenomenological and spatial-ontological relationship of their own bodies to these small sculptural formations. To speak of interaction here would be both an exaggeration and banal. Instead, Hollauf creates an element of physical, spatial bewilderment, a temporary coherence (wearability) coupled with a simultaneous disruption and unfamiliarity, creating a certain degree of uncertainty within the wearer or test-person.
These works also reveal the tension between showing and concealing, between the public (visualization) and the intimate, which is constitutive of Hollauf’s aesthetic practice. The Teflon rings function as a kind of spatial drawing marking the body, which reveal it and at the same time partially enclose and involve it. The slide series Latina Teflon (2001) shows the artist handling these Teflon objects, “trying them on,” so to speak. Hollauf's intention is not to examine every aspect of this specific tension, to shine light on or exploit it semantically, but the artist seeks to destabilize each particular aesthetic-spatial status, an in-between, a space of possibility between physical applicability and sculptural self-presence.
The film Aquarena (2007) by Isabella Hollauf and Josef Dabernig, and featuring music by Michael Moser, can be largely understood, alongside a site-specific and cultural-historical reading, as an abstract-sculptural inquiry into the medium of water. From a scenic and straightforward documentary perspective, the film presents two different swimming facilities. Hollauf visits the one, Dabernig the other, and, following a certain choreography of movement, they each “swim through” the respective facility. The nearly twenty-minute-long film is introduced with the shot of a mural of St. Florian as a cultural-historical anchor point, so to speak. Acoustically and musically a rudimentary sinusoid-esque, indeed practically signal-tone-like violin sound can be heard, which is immediately counteracted by the minor interval of a second. A matter-of-fact speaking voice begins reading paragraphs from an old city statute, specifically water-regulation provisions. Over the course of the film, this speaking voice forms a recurring prosaic-narrative figure, a narrative cantus firmus, so to speak, which contributes significantly to the structure of the atmospherically evocative audio track. After the film opens with auditory-atmospheric and narrative layers, the actual scene of the first half of the film is introduced. In a strange, almost surreal scenario, the protagonist (Isabella Hollauf) climbs into a completely deserted swimming pool surrounded by one-story residential buildings comprising the immediate town center (Scharndorf in Lower Austria). The out-of-place swimming pool that looks almost like an installed film set is simultaneously isolated and “framed” by the adjacent streets and buildings, so that the scenario oscillates between a strange form of immediacy, even intimacy, and exposure/the public realm, albeit without observers.
Following the acoustic addition of a cello as contrasting voice to the violins, the camera begins to investigate more of the space surrounding the seemingly out-of-place, circular-shaped swimming pool. The subtly dissonant sonic lines and surfaces that rub against one another seem in part to be commenting on and intensifying the absurd scenario—which, in terms of visual language, switches between documentary and the surreal—but which then in fact strips the incident of reality, transcribing it onto a pre-linguistic, associative level. Finally, near the end of the first half of the film, the speaking voice once again ruptures the surreal image-sound continuum—which until that point served entirely as an analogy for the continuity of swimming—and directs the viewer’s attention to the surrounding environment: visible are fields dotted with wind turbines, an old enamel bathtub dumped in the landscape, etc. At the end of this scene, in a cultural-historical, anchor point-like way, the viewer reads a prayer posted on the village well, hinting at the sense of reverence former inhabitants had for water. Water functions here as an intermediary between different connotative realms, images, and modes of experience. The protagonist swims through, metaphorically speaking, a polysemous structure, a layered image of the medium of water.
The second half of the film is dedicated to a new location, which is visited by a second protagonist (Josef Dabernig). Forming the introduction and musical accompaniment is a polyphonic, entirely figurative, then almost fugue-like interplay of two violins and a cello. Here the protagonist swims through the otherwise deserted pool of an aging thermal and hotel complex in Romania. This half of the film is also accompanied by selected paragraphs from the bathing regulations—this time instructions on noise prevention and air pollution—read aloud and repeatedly interrupted. Analogous to the first half of the film, the protagonist swims through the pool. Here the musical evocation of space is latently more expressive but also more unsettled, disquieting, and dramatic due to the discreetly restrained gestures of the strings (flageolet tones and pizzicati). Images of overgrown nature, virtually re-conquered areas, make the location and sequence of actions seem unreal. Eventually, the documentary quality of the images softens, almost completely transformed and re-semanticized by the interplay of visual syntax, broken narrative structure, and musical spatial evocation, by a projective place that alternates between archetype, the real, and place of remembrance.
Seeing in the film Aquarena is also less about observing and recognizing what already exists. As in Heusweilerbad, here too the gaze provides successive, additional benefits and sees with the continual help of imaginary as well as remembered parts. The temporality of perception plays a fundamental role in this. The imbuing of what’s seen with meaning, and recourse to what’s retained and remembered, necessitate a certain amount of time, perhaps even a “duration” of the image and the gaze, which Hollauf’s work also always tries to address. In these works, the observer directs the eyes toward a latent gap, an absence needed to imbue them with meaning that is both connotative and reminiscent. And so that memory is not misunderstood as a simple instrument of recourse, reference is made here to a temporal paradox that is characteristic of the photographic and cinematic works of the artist: Hollauf presents abandoned places of recreation, of relaxation, and bodily experience. But beyond these seemingly neutral connotations, the swimming pool, perhaps analogous to the playground, is a place where the widest variety of modalities of bodily experience and the most varied forms of “places” occur and overlap. One could therefore certainly speak of a heterotopic place, which does not simply address the real body, but captures the subject along with his/her spectrum of libidinal impulses and his/her imaginary. In her work, Hollauf repeatedly goes to and returns from the point of precognitive experience. In her understanding of the image, memory does not simply function backwards in terms of recourse, but also works in a protentive and projective (perhaps even utopian) way in terms of a remembering “forward.”
Hollauf’s images always also include an element of visual loss of control. The artist is interested in the state of undirected looking and unintentionality. It allows for an image concept that often operates in a precognitive and selective, dream-like unfocused manner. Of course, it is not about passivity or convenience, or neo-romantic escapism, but about a cautious and yet invariably consistent questioning of one’s own vision, one’s own perceptions, one’s hidden conditions and coordinates. Hollauf therefore also reflects on the dispositif of the particular image, gaze, and observation, but not in a “knowing” sense—one that verifies, objectifies, or intellectualizes—but always in consideration of one’s own fundamental “system” and medium of perception, one’s own body, with its vagaries and its own temporality.
Text: David Komary
Translation: Erik Smith