Discomforting yet Humorous Positions by Photographer Isabelle Wenzel [+ Interview]

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Dutch photographer Isabelle Wenzel‘s photographs are simple, playful and yet uncomfortable. By bending, twisting, and manipulating the human form into strange positions where the face is generally hidden, the movements of the subject become almost alien-like. In her series, Building Images, she visited a highly organized business area and “opposing this strongly functional environment,” photographed figures in non-functional positions. “It was my aim to turn the logic of an office upside down.”

Most of the images in the series were shot in a studio but Wenzel also got the opportunity to shoot in one of the headquarters buildings of Amsterdam’s business area. “The shooting was like a performance. We made a big mess in the office, throwing papers and shifting the furniture around. Suddenly we became aware that people in the opposite building were standing in the window, observing what we were doing, some were taking pictures with their mobile phones. We had this unexpected audience and it felt like we were doing something very important—messing this place up a bit and pointing out that we were more than the everyday routine of grey in grey.”

In the exhibition EXTREME.SELF you are presenting the work “Field Studies” as part of RAY 2018. What was the starting point to take your own body as an object of staging? Since when have you been working on this work complex?

Isabelle Wenzel: Basically, I acquired this working method during my studies. Since then it has been an integral part of all my projects. From the beginning I realized that I cannot really stand the classic balance of power of viewing and showing oneself. I felt very uncomfortable with the idea of projecting my image on someone else. I had the feeling that I could not conform with someone else. In addition, I’m not really interested in portraying a personality, but rather thinking about physicality and physical states. Movement is a big part of my working process, my identity and my thinking. I use movement specifically to create intuitive, irrational images. I do not see myself only as a photographer, but also as a performer, because I take the role of the observer and performer simultaneously. For several years I explored my own body in a specific studio situation. In doing so, I ran continuously between the camera and the screen to create a picture within a few seconds with the help of the self-timer. This way of working has strong action-related traits, like a performance without a viewer, only between me and the camera. At some point, I felt I had to change something in my process to rekindle my creativity. So I had to expose myself to unknown situations. That’s why I decided to leave my comfort zone and relocate myself and my actions into the public space. Since 2014, I have been working on this work complex ‘Field Studies’, which is an open cycle in which, from time to time, new images emerge again and again. The big change was, on the one hand, that I could react to given circumstances, such as landscape, light, architecture or wind, and that, on the other hand, I suddenly had unexpected spectators, who accidentally passed by my workplaces and showed me partly unexpected reactions.

By freezing your movement – a brief moment of your attitude – the body in the picture can become a sculpture. What is your relationship with photography? What does photography enable you to do?

IW: Photography is a construction. A new reality which I can portray my dreams and emotions with. It is also a mirror and a method of reflection. With photography, I relate to the world.

Photography opens up a new field for performance artists: the camera replaces the audience. “Performing for the Camera” was the title of an exhibition at the TATE MODERN 2016 where the relationship between performance and photography was examined. How do you see yourself – as performance artist or rather as photographer?

IW: Neither nor. For me it is not important to find a concrete term.

You have taken new pictures in Darmstadt especially for the exhibition. How was the work here? Which places did you visit and why

IW: I came to Darmstadt without much prior knowledge. It was quite clear that Darmstadt is known for Art Nouveau, so I wanted to look around on the Mathildenhöhe. Generally speaking my way of working has spontaneous features. I always want to be very directly and intuitively inspired by the location. This means that I try to come to a place with open eyes and if possible search for something abstract, which gives my movements a certain space and freedom of interpretation. The wedding tower turned out to be a playful place, especially because I could walk along the facade. So I could take an unexpected perspective on the building and my body. The second central theme I did in a pool of water. Here I was particularly inspired by the recurring round shape and how I can position myself as a figure in the center.

The exhibition also shows a projection. Have you integrated the medium film in your artistic practice for a longer time?

IW: Since 2010, I have been making videos that reflect my working process but also act as an independent work.

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