During her researches, however, Wenzel became aware that she actually preferred to look at the books rather than seeing them in real. She notes that “the documentation betrays the sculpture of its essence of three dimensionality. But through this abstraction I could joyfully discover shape, colour and purity of form, as if I would look at a photograph. This has something to do with time and perspective. Photographs and sculptures have in common that time is frozen. The difference is that you can move around a sculpture. So via the movements of the viewer it gets a new time aspect. When you look at a documentation of a sculpture, it’s finally holding still and the only movement imaginable is the one of your eye and what is happening in your head.” For her Figures series, the artist focused on the physical form of the human body, depicting the female body in the most impossible positions: “Figures is a work that plays with the idea of the body as a sculpture. Movement and posture are captured in time through the medium of photography. My photographs show anonymous models in a figural moment. The face or other hints of personality are not made visible, so the focus lies on the texture of surface, colour and the purity of form.”
Bent into the strangest and most sculptural forms, hiding within textile textures, Wenzel creates performative photographies where the dynamic and twisted sculptures of the human body generate a series of performative moments that are as specific to the medium of sculpture as they are to that of photography. An acrobat as a child, spending her formative years somersaulting and backflipping, Wenzel has as an artist sought for authenticity and a close relation to her own life, offering intimate and private looks into her practice of the everyday. Acrobatics is a way of thinking differently, bodily, since the body too, not just the mind, remembers – it is thought in movement and the thinking of posture as an aesthetic suspension of motion. Working alone most of the times, within the ten seconds time frame of the self-release function on the camera she intentionally uses as a means to limit and suspend conscious decisions, Wenzel improvises a lot in her work and repeats actions until achieving the perfect sculptural posture. This apparently amateurish technique introduces the element of error, chance, and coincidence that integrates perfectly with the artist’s aesthetics, precisely because they are a means to train the body and subvert the authority of the figural at the same time. Humorous poses result unintentionally; their irony charges the image with tensions that expose and play with the structural construction of sculptures, images, and representations. Whether hanging upside down or twisted in between cardboards and textiles, Wenzel’s postures are always headless, anonymous and lacking any facial identifiers. While we know it is the artist herself who poses most of the times in front of the camera, this practice challenges not only conventional ideas of individuality but also the artist’s relation to art historical representation and herself.
Wenzel’s body serves as a responsive form that creates a series of figural instances. The references that can be drawn to performance art are nevertheless secondary – while performance art is defined by the singularity of the moment, here it is the perfected repetition of a pose and the continuous training of the body that instils a reverted sense of the sculptural and subverts the power of symbols, codes, and canonic representations. The sheer simplicity of the compositions is meant to generate very specific suspensions, as the artist refuses the gaze to oppose a dorsal, partial, fragmented, and misdirected representation. A sense of theatricality reminiscent of how vintage circus performers are often depicted in photographs gives these shots a sense of vintage, pictorial, sculptural, and hyper-realistic work at once, humorously playing with the 60’s aesthetics of conceptual art.
The headless body or concealed face do more than simply suspend our most expressive part and reduce the subject to an object. Like missing parts, the asymmetrical configuration of the body points to a double negation: the negation of identity, which in turn can impair our judgment of a work, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the negation of oriented agency and personhood altogether. The photographer thus focuses the gaze on the pure function of the female body rather than portraying individual characteristics that constitute female subjectivity. In doing so, she equally deconstructs the domination of male gaze: since female interest is mostly a question of looking in the eyes and male interest is mostly a question of looking at the body, these sculptural performances result in disjunctive photographs that address particular female experiences. This adds to the artist’s use of textiles and textures of the fabrics as a means to emphasise feminine surfaces and contorted, alternative geometries. One only needs to think of Rodin’s Cybele to grasp a sense of the difference, socio-political criticism, and aesthetic reformulation the artist involves in her work.
Wenzel’s photographies are performative tableaux. These photographic figures are driven by specific narrative, social, and conceptual commentary; while apparently theatrical, these self-containing sculptural scenes deconstruct the male gaze in order to stage the female figure and inspire self-consciousness in relation to social and identity displacement, and in relation to our scripted ways of looking. By resorting to minimalist aesthetics, Wenzel shifts our focus from contemplating the formal dynamics of the female body to exploring our sense of subjective positioning, but also reverts the ostensible neutrality as a display space, prompting us to reconsider the conditions and conventions of visual encounters. The artist de-idealises our routine norms by focusing our attention on the theatrical display of one who can be protagonist and victim at the same time. Confronting us with the displaced and ironic figures of herself, Isabelle Wenzel disrupts our habits of projection and perception; a mannequin almost, left hanging against the wall, her body is every bit a dysfunctional figure forgotten in the department store of art – the place where our cultural commodities and normative ways of seeing continue to lie elegantly displayed and lack the beautifully twisted.
Text by Sabin Bors, April 28, 2015