“BODIES AND VALUES” – Encounter Bodies Outside of Regimes of Gaze and Traditional Movement Patterns
Yvon Chabrowski & Hubertus von Amelunxen
Philosopher, art historian, and photography critic Hubertus von Amelunxen in conversation with JUNGE AKADEMIE fellow and visual artist Yvon Chabrowski about her series of works BODIES AND VALUES. The video sculptures shift the focus to the screen, the glass surface of the monitor: In the four works of the series – SCREEN, SWAYING, LEVEL and HORIZONTAL (2020) – the performance makes the surface of the screen visible as a component of the monitor and the image itself. The glass membrane, the surface of the screen, which defines the interior and the exterior of media imagery, itself becomes the object of the performance.
The observers see the performers Runa Hansen, Martina Garbelli, Nasheeka Nedsreal and Maria Wollny life-sized in the space, which is defined by the respective monitors. They hit, touch, feel, breathe, stand, slide or lie on the screen we look through every day. This creates the feeling of meeting the performers, because they are shown in relation to the monitors with their life-sized proportions – as life-sized as the observers before the monitors.
Hubertus von Amelunxen: Who or what do we encounter in the image? And how does the image encounter us? Let’s talk about SWAYING: You call it a sculpture. Why? Because the frame hangs and swings in the space, it has no back however? Because it moves, driven by a motor, and its swinging allows us to feel gravity and balance? As an observer, I am initially struck by the fact that the moving object of the image appears to be trapped in the image, that I am witnessing an existential predicament – I will come back to that later on. But first of all: What is it? A video, an image, a sculpture, an installation? If naming it would help, could you give me a specific designation?
Yvon Chabrowski: SWAYING is a video sculpture. You can approach it from various perspectives because you can move around it. My artistic practice has evolved from my earlier relationship with analogue photography and from observing media images. I wonder to what extent do media images relate to our own bodies? When I was growing up in the 1990s in East Berlin, I took photographs out of enthusiasm in order to capture the rapidly changing society around me. In the photo lab, I could then focus on the images in a moment of deceleration and distance myself from their context.
Today, I am interested in how social dynamics are expressed in the media imagery. During the conception phase for SWAYING, I was preoccupied by the vertically-running stream of images of a social media platform. There, we come across lots of different images – private snapshots, media and advertising images –, and we literally touch them through the glass surface of our user end devices. On social media channels, the news feed is endless and “feeds” the reward centre of our brain as we swipe over the glass surface with our finger. After a while, we lose oversight and any sense of time. A kind of vertigo sets in and you can no longer locate your own body. Where are we – what perspective do you take as a user on an end device with a glass surface? Who is guiding our gaze? How can we determine our own stance when our body is in the grip of this vertigo?
From this analysis and this experience, I developed SWAYING in collaboration with the performer Martina Garbelli. Unlike in the virtual space of the social media platform, we gave the body swinging upside down a secure hold. Martina’s movements are precisely aligned to the visual space – a 50-inch monitor. She swings herself toward the surface of the screen – sometimes touching it softly, sometimes with force. Observers may sometimes be gripped by a feeling of vertigo themselves from the swinging of the monitor, but without losing their footing. Gravity and balance allow us to feel our own bodies – triggered by the moving monitor in which Martina powerfully swings upside down in a secure space.
HvA.: Yes, it is a sculpture. Firstly, because the work is three-dimensional. No sculpture made of stone, marble, wood or cardboard. It is a screen: flat, the only visual space in the room, like a painting opening up into the space through movement, adding a further dimension of time to the volume. Your work creates a radical antagonism increasing to the point of painful physical contact between the observer and the performer Martina Garbelli – in such a way that the antagonism becomes a conflict that none of us can win. She encounters the glass surface physically; we encounter it spiritually. No matter how cautiously we approach her, we cannot lessen the violence she is exposed to. Her gaze, her movement, her struggle concern us. Swaying, the title of the work, is a euphemism, because through the repetition she is eternally subjected to this movement to the point of injury and reaching the other in vain. The work could also have been called Sisyphus; there is no boulder to lift or carry, but humans are separated from any outside, from any alterity by the screen. For me, the impression of this work means a terrible encapsulation of human existence, a piece of Samuel Beckett. Is it the case that, unlike photography, you need theatricality for the video, for the film?
YC: A very interesting question, because I work with strategies of reduction and deceleration and yet the observer often experiences the relationship to the performer intensively. When I develop a video performance setting, this is based on the research into a specific media imagery that I cannot get out of my mind and want to understand. I ask myself, who is shown and how? I am interested in what bodies are represented in the media by what image iconography and with what narrative, and the different relationships we enter into with media representations of bodies.
When I first saw SCREEN installed, I was quite amazed at how much the work reminded me of Becket’s television plays, which were produced between 1966 and 1986. This also touches on the direct physical reference of the performers to the visual space: you see the respective performers as life-sized in the visual space, which the monitor shows as entirely real and analogue. A 40-inch monitor as used in SCREEN measures 92 cm x 55 cm and a 50-inch monitor as used in SWAYING measures 112 cm x 63 cm. In Beckett’s television plays, it is about fragmented bodies and the loss of identity in an extremely tight section of an image and about patterns of movement that are possible within this. I read this filmic setting as an expression for social relationships and for individual possibilities to develop in a social system. Today, I ask what possibilities there are for being individually visible in a global capitalism based on one language and regimes of the gaze that have grown from colonialism and patriarchy.
YC: In collaboration with the performers for the video sculptures SWAYING, LEVEL, HORIZONTAL and SCREEN, I was interested in the respective regimes of the gaze and the movement patterns that resulted from them.
For SCREEN, I worked with Runa Hansen. At the time, she was in a decision-making phase and didn’t know yet whether she should try to pursue a career as a model. She was unsure of how she could meet the demands regarding flexibility and thinness along with a ready-made repertoire of gestures and facial expressions. In her performance within the confines of the 40-inch monitor, her attitude toward the demands on her body was tangible.
For LEVEL, I spoke with African-American performer Nasheeka Nedsreal about traditional representations of black female bodies – about media narratives and images that result from colonialism and National Socialism. We decided to counteract this repertoire of imagery and to create a moving image with a new perspective on a new narrative.
When I was developing the video sculpture series of works, I was interested in traditional regimes of the gaze on female bodies and the associated social demands one comes up against in certain ways in everyday life, such as invisible glass ceilings or glass projection walls on which social gazes and perspectives are reproduced. Gazes and perspectives that project a certain feature, design or character onto a body like a ready-made form.
If you are asking about theatricality, I think above all about the spatial arrangement of the video sculptures, which incorporates the observers’ bodies into the image as well as putting any other observers who come along in a situation where they have to decide how to position themselves in the space. In the case of HORIZONTAL, the observer lies on a flat platform on the floor that takes in the size of the monitor. Lying on their back, they look at a monitor, which hangs horizontally in the space about a metre from the floor, right above their upper body. On the other side, the performer Maria Wollny appears to lie on the surface of the screen.
In the collaboration with Maria, I am concerned with the visibility and representation of ageing female bodies, which are marginalised in the visual economy of the present. The video sculpture not only creates visibility but also makes it possible to evoke an experience of closeness, beauty and security – in relation to the ageing female body.
The starting point for my performative video sculptures is also social processes and media-specific questions. I am interested in which body images are in circulation and define us, as humans are related to society through their bodies. In the visual representations, you see what role bodies are expected to play in a society. I want to create a performative space for argument and reflection in which you can encounter bodies outside of regimes of gaze and traditional movement patterns.
*in Berlin, lives in Leipzig and Berlin
Yvon Chabrowski, born in East Berlin, studied photography with Timm Rautert und Florian Ebner at the Academy of Fine Arts Leipzig and Ensba Lyon. She graduated from Peter Piller’s masterclass. Her works have already been shown in numerous international exhibitions, including at Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein and the Weserburg Bremen. Kunsthalle Rostock is currently showing her solo exhibition BODIES AND VALUES. Her first comprehensive catalogue, VIDEO AS SCULPTURE, was published by Spector Books.More about Yvon Chabrowski
Hubertus von Amelunxen
*1958 in Hindelang, lives in Lübeck and Berlin
Cultural Theorist and Art Historian
Advisory Board JUNGE AKADEMIE