The Body is the Scene The Picture the Location

by Edith Almhofer


Magdalena Frey plays with the magic of the picture and the power of the gaze. In digital picture montages she focuses on individual existence and takes advantage of artistic creation as a fascinating possibility for confronting a mediatized public with elaborately constructed images of the private. She vehemently advocates a new concept of female identity. She experiments with her own person as uninhibitedly as self-confidently, using extensive pictorial findings to explore the mechanism of effects, to which the attempts to constitute a female self are exposed. The leading role in this mise-en-scene is assigned to the concrete body, the concrete biography, the concrete life circumstances of the artist. The world of experience of her everyday reality is the theme, material and medium of her entire oeuvre, which meets us as an unbounded self-display that does not flinch even before the sight of what is most intimate. This is not only a caricature of the glamorous images of women that proliferate in the neo-bohemian milieu of the cybereconomy, terrorizing hosts of women with their artificial appearances trimmed to the conventional stereotypes of virgin, mother, whore. In this way an artistic terrain that is not at all new is tentatively (re-) conquered: representation. This innovative oeuvre thus raises a number of fascinating questions that are not only relevant to photography. To what extent can and does contemporary art fulfill the function of representing, imagining or depicting individual or collective experiences, wishes, needs or interests? How relevant are the central intentions of every representation, the grounding of identity and the affirmation of authenticity now and for whom? What is representation able to achieve in terms of distinguishing between own and other in the charged field between self-empowerment and stigmatization in the age of globalization?

With the present series of works, digitally generated from photographs since 1996, Magdalena Frey brazenly questions the status of the picture in our society with an ironic jab at the discussions of this issue that have been carried on since the eighties. With a radical criticism of the current politics of visibility and making visible, she counters the seemingly unresolvable contradiction between the much lamented loss of meaning of the (photographic) image, which can no longer be credible in the age of simulation, and the unmistakable increase in the significance of a general image and media culture. Her multifaceted work reacts to the presumed totality of public images and the direction of the gaze conveyed through media with intervention. By allowing us to recognize what is not supposed to be seen in our world, her works draw attention to what is absent in our visual culture, everything that should not or must not be perceived, what is taboo or excluded. For instance, when medical images of the female body, which generate a hypervisuality of the body and its processes and thus depoliticize the body, are juxtaposed with personal perceptions of the body, of gender, then the doctrine of total visibility is abruptly unmasked as an effective instrument of domination. Behind the presumed interest in the well-being and health of women, which ultimately turns the body into a speechless object of scientific discourse, there is hidden a wish for absolute control over the female capability of reproduction, which only becomes apparent at a closer look. The view of feminist struggles for self-determination, which essentially focused on one's own body, women's sexual freedom, desirable reproduction technologies and the right to abortion, is effectively blocked by scientific visualizations of the female body.

In order to unmask the dominant conditions, the artist assumes a classical standpoint. In a continuation of the Hegelian definition of painting as a "visibility made interiorly", with her work she declares visibility and making-visible the proper domains of art and newly discards the functions and typologies of images. She directs the gaze to that which is not worthy of depiction in the cultural mainstream. In order to ensure comprehensibility and clarity, Magdalena Frey calculatingly makes use of the visual strategies that are most familiar to us from modern image media. She combines disparate, temporally and spatially unconnected images of reality, joining realistic photographs in her digital montages into large-surface, opulent picture carpets. Unlike electronic media that propagate a dynamic linearity of reality with their rapid sequences of cuts, however, the artistic mise-en-scene achieves a radical deceleration. Although the finely woven compositions are fascinating with an explosion of visual focuses and image levels whirled together, the works are equally impressive because of the compression of information. They present complex photographic fixations of the moment when life has come to a standstill, but has also become observable at the same time. This method of selection is accompanied by a radicalization and contextualization, whereby fragmented body images, symbolically charged segments, are confronted with both public images of women conveyed through the media and private photographs. At the same time, something of the life contexts of women becomes visible in a previously unknown way, something that is continuously faded out and suppressed in our image culture: the different facets in which women perceive their existence and their life contexts.

The directness with which the artist explores the female body clearly rejects the concept of the obscene. In manifold alternating images, the view of female genitals is varied without any sense of embarrassment. Not least of all, this thwarts the voyeuristic moment that constantly speculates with the close proximity of shame/embarrassment and seeing. Outside perception, the gaze of another that falls on the self, its curiosity provoking a need to cover oneself, is replaced by self-perception. When the oversized portrait of a naked vagina forms the center of the composition "Quelle" ("Source"), interwoven like a palimpsest, when it is flanked by glamorous pictures of women, what becomes visible is not merely the derivative character of the cliché. Primarily there is a formal assembly of what actually seems incompatible: the cliché of successful female life and the reality of corporeal existence. It explores the degree of the permeation of private and public images, whereby the latter are arranged like a wreath of adorning elements. The inner-pictorial function of these portraits is primarily an ornamental one: the frame-like arrangement of the single vignettes poses their significance as binding carriers of meaning for discussion. The constructed mutual relationships between the various picture elements condense into a citation that presents the universal validity of the criticized ideal image beyond all the limitations of race and class in its historical dimension:

By making visible the conflict between public and private images, Magdalena Frey newly poses the orders of the symbolic and the imaginary for disposition. In continuing a tradition of a visualizing technique already founded by the avant-garde, her montages convincingly succeed in breaking open the customary order of the perception of things and relationships. At the same time, the specific disparity of the interwoven images makes spaces appear that elude being entered and make temporal intervals tangible, which are found between the events. This is the secret of all these works, which certainly succeed in the representation of what cannot be depicted but only felt: the internal film of the imagination and sensation that distinguishes an individual artistic position.

© Edith Almhofer

Gumpoldskirchen, December 2002

(Translated from German by Aileen Derieg)