With loving empathy
Based on photographer Mary Willumsen’s lewd photographs, Nanna Lysholt Hansen examines what it means to take over someone else’s body of work with body and soul.
In several of her projects, Nanna Lysholt Hansen (b. 1980) has searched into other people’s homes and lives in order to search for connections between body, space and time. It may sound abstract, but the abstract sizes always become completely concrete in Lysholt Hansen’s works, which can almost be seen as a synthesis of sculpture and performance art garnished with an interest in newer image technologies. As can be seen, for example, in the video work The Return to Waight’s Court from 2012-13, which could be experienced at Nikolaj Kunsthal earlier this year. Here, Lysholt Hansen had gained access to private homes in a block of flats in London, where she, with the video camera as a witness, measured and examined strangers’ rooms with her body.
The presence of the body in space and its connection with the static objects of the world of things are often basic components in Lysholt Hansen’s projects, and it is always the artist’s own body, with all its gender implications, that is set aside as a sculptural and performative medium. Her visits to Waight’s Court’s private home are therefore also mostly sculptural interventions, where the artist’s body, for example, lying on the floor in a narrow hallway, marks both its own extent and that of the room in a way that transforms the intimate everyday reality of the home into something alien, while at the same time it points to the objectification of women in a patriarchal society.
In her exhibition at Ringsted Gallery, however, Lysholt Hansen moves in a slightly different direction, namely with adoptions of and interventions in the photographic oeuvre of the photographer Mary Willumsen (1884-1961). At the beginning of the 20th century, Willumsen made discreet erotic recordings of scantily clad women at the Helgoland bathing establishment by Swanemølle Bay and sold them as postcards in Copenhagen kiosks. This brought her into the police spotlight and led to a charge in 1920 for the production of lewd images.
Since then, however, her pictures have been recognized for their artistic qualities, and the photographs have, among other things, been exhibited at the Glyptoteket.
Lysholt Hansen has used Willumsen’s photographs in several works. But instead of visiting Willumsen’s home, Lysholt Hansen takes up residence in her body, so to speak, taking over her technique as well as her models’ poses. Dear Mary (Steel) is a further processing of a series of pinhole camera recordings entitled Dear Mary (Memories of the Future), which Lysholt Hansen made in connection with the Sculpture by the Sea exhibition in Aarhus in 2013. Here Lysholt had built a bathhouse, in which a camera obscura and a narrative sound system were installed. The house functioned as a pinhole camera and photo laboratory, and several times a week Lysholt used the bathhouse to document live performances on the beach. Here she posed in minute-long performances by the beach for the pinhole camera and developed the motifs on steel plates with clear brush strokes from the smearing of the liquid emulsion.
The resulting motifs are difficult to see. They are dense fog formations of expressive fluid emulsion, under which one faintly senses a figuration: the bars of a window, the planks of a wooden bridge, a distant horizon line, the contours of a body. All marked negatively, which further complicates interpretation. The material in which the motif is created insists so penetratingly on its own existence that it almost completely steals the image. Insofar as the images show a body, in other words, it must give way to the image’s own body, the image’s strange mush of shimmering darkness that can also be seen as a visual censorship, a smeared black bar that demonstratively mimics the censorship that Mary Willumsen in his time was exposed to.
A total of 24 pinhole camera photos from the series are shown at the Ringsted Gallery, and in addition several smaller works as well as a completely new recording that was created in connection with a live performance at the exhibition opening. Here, the entire gallery was first transformed into a photo studio, where Lysholt Hansen performed in front of the audience as a Willumsen model for approximately 30 minutes in front of a primitive pinhole camera. After this, the entire gallery space was darkened, and Lysholt Hansen evoked the image in the dim glow of four red darkroom lamps. The whole elaborate ritual surrounding the recording and development of the image – the slowness of the analogue world – thus became the primary event.
Lysholt Hansen’s work with Willumsen’s photographs is a thought-provoking and visually stimulating play with psychological phenomena such as projection, identification and incorporation – identity constructions that in various ways point to the individual’s close interaction with fellow human beings and the engulfed takeover of other people’s identities. Mary Willumsen is an obvious figure to throw herself at for Lysholt Hansen, partly because her fate in the hands of the police seems so determined by her gender, partly because her images with their erotically playful qualities are so closely connected to Lysholt Hansen’s interests in the performative of photography and video media properties.
Dear Mary (Steel) is a successful and promising small exhibition, in which we are presented with an episode of the more comprehensive study of Mary Willumsen, which Lysholt Hansen is in the process of, and which will be published in book form. In its consistent appropriation and displacement of Willumsen’s work, the project is an interesting extension of the idea of re-enactment, which in various variants has haunted the art world in the past decade. In Lysholt Hansen’s version, however, the re-enactment unfolds as a strange inverted or anachronistic family bond, where the child gives birth to the mother, the art conceives the artist – or as a regular and almost alchemical declaration of love, as the direct address of the title indicates.
It is certain that something is called to life in these works, and that Lysholt Hansen manages to extract the maximum from his infatuation with Mary Willumsen.
Free translation of ”Med kærlig indlevelse” by Rune Gade, Dagbladet Information, 28.11.2014