The dialectical interrelations between the scene of production and the work’s presentation, between the setting of the artist’s labor and the physical presence of the body, are recurrent themes in Sophie Thun’s photographic oeuvre. The places where she exhibits her work often serve her as points of departure for photographs that show how her body imprints its presence on them.
For her exhibition Stolberggasse, Thun has further developed this approach and adapted it to the necessity of digital dissemination. Surveillance cameras installed in the gallery enable visitors to watch the action in real time on the website and now, after the Secession has reopened, also on a monitor in the foyer. While the Grafisches Kabinett remains closed for visitors (like the entire building before), you can enter part of the show that is not under video surveillance: the stairwell.
For her intervention here, Thun has reproduced the worn walls of the stairwell at her house at Stolberggasse, its old-fashioned stenciled paint pattern, and presents a photograph of herself on the mezzanine landing. In this self-portrait, a characteristic form in her practice, Thun alludes to the conventions governing the depiction of the (nude) female body in general and more particularly to Marcel Duchamp’s iconic painting Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) and its afterlife in art history. For the complex composition, she cuts up the negatives of several shots and reassembles them such that the captured poses relate to each other. The flagrant sexual overtones are intentional, yet any objectification of the female body or voyeuristic cathexis are undercut by the artist’s self-determination—holding the remote release, she is always in control of her image—and the assertive gaze with which she fixes the beholder.
In the exhibition space, which you can see as live transmission on the screen, the artist has set up her darkroom. Working here in isolation, she makes photograms of selected objects from her apartment.* The inventory of things she arranges on the photosensitive plates ranges from toothbrushes and kitchen utensils to books, from tools and paper clips to scrunches. The only disqualifier is an object’s size: to match the chosen medium, it must not exceed the 8×10″of a large-format negative.
In addition to the implements of her craft and the steadily growing collection of black-and-white photograms, the installation also includes the multipart color photograph Looking at the Window *, a full-scale trompe-l’œil recreation of the window behind it, which was boarded up to plunge the room into perfect darkness. The view from the window, the connection to the outside world, remains an illusion, referring the searching gaze back to the interior. In the picture, it is always the same time of day, the same season, another symbol of stasis that reads both as a nod to the paradigm of photography as a moment frozen in time and as a reference to the current lockdown.
Crucially, Thun does not only display the fruits of her labor; allowing us to see her at work, she prompts us to reflect on the places, mechanisms, and performances associated with art production, unfolding a multifaceted scrutiny of its processes and prerequisites. For one, on a very concrete level, she showcases the sophisticated technique of analog image-making, which we can watch in the red light of the darkroom from the moment of exposure of the individual objects under the enlarger to the development of the black-and-white baryta prints.
No less importantly, her body and its actions repeatedly become motifs of image-making, figuring both in the online video feed and in the contact prints, where the artist’s hands holding the objects in place emerge as white silhouettes.
In light of the virtually complete isolation from each other imposed by the authorities as part of the measures against the coronavirus pandemic, Thun’s transferring her project into the digital realm also raises questions concerning the complex interplay between self-motivation, heteronomy, and surveillance. Given that someone may be observing the exhibition space at any time, those phases when the artist is not within the camera’s field of view and appears to be doing nothing take on equal importance: there is no telling whether they are to be interpreted as well-deserved time off, laziness, or productive idling.
* The body of work is being produced with support from the f/12.2 project fellowship of DZ Bank Kunstsammlung.