Inscriptions – The Iconography of Body

The imagery of Magdalena Frey

by Lydia Rea Hartl


In her work Magdalena Frey questions the world of appearances created by the individual, personal view of reality when it observes the world: the view acquires the quality of a seer. The process of looking at and seeing is simultaneous if you look through the camera as a medium that records precisely what is, and as it is in the world – thus revealing the world itself, albeit in a very personal way. This direct form of seeing creates multiple perspectives. When Magdalena Frey condenses what has been seen, and really exists, in her collages, then new stories and new worlds are opened which allow the universal to become apparent behind and beyond the particular, without denying the latter.

In this kind of seeing, the stakes are high; this is not without risk. Life loses everything that is calm and secure when you look at it in this way, even when the life observed and captured by the eye of the artist seems at first to follow a clear path or depicts domestic utopias, embellished with everyday kitsch or exotic romanticism. Quite soon, however, nothing is left of the simplicity and banality first associated. For the collages and montages connect up to form a space that gives the senses articulation and in which understanding becomes possible – even that which hitherto seemed banal suddenly makes sense, as if enveloped in a kind of rapture. This connection happens with and through the vision of the other: The observed look back, look at the observers in the way certain figures of saints in churches look back at us – knowing, silent, and assured. After that, everything is different: The echo of the images has a reverse effect on us, free of vanity and posturing, our presumptions are denied, and our life is revealed, relentlessly and at the same time full of poetry. From now on we believe different things.

"In my personal development as a woman and in my artistic concerns, the thematic field of femininity has more and more become the central focus of my interest. Consciously or unconsciously – the pinpointing of female attributes, the female view of this world, the interest for my own basic given situation and the public reception of female lives, determine the plans for my artistic work. In digital imagery, it is possible to concentrate several levels of meaning in one picture ... The intuitively artistic approach to the taboos of contemporary life is only possible in a disciplined fashion, otherwise the public may take offense, and this will make it very difficult to deal with the work of art in a serious fashion" – in such unpretentious, almost dry words Magdalena Frey describes her artistic journey and seems to suggest rather than to state that her work, mostly cycles of images, almost exclusively revolves around taboos, which she not only persistently digs up and explores, but provides a platform for, and this in a society that believes itself to be one of the most free since the beginning of history. Wherein lie the taboos? Four themes are prominent, if not easily separable from one another: a specific form of cultural anthropology and interculturality develops during her expeditions, both at home and in foreign countries, for example Roma, polnische Küche (Polish cookery), Landmeter, mujer mexicana, Bruder und Schwester, Bosnisch (Brother and Sister, Bosnian), Fahrtenbuch USA (Logbook USA). Maria M, m-98 and Hausaltäre (Home altars), deal with the themes of female lives and female perspectives. Frauensache (women's issue), Abbruch (interruption/abortion), Scham(kleid) (Shame(dress)), Eingriff (intervention) and Girls Cut deal with traumatic injuries and the resultant shame. And apart from the more or less expected heroines of daily life, she has lately done portraits of famous women: Susanne Wenger, Friedl Kubelka, Anni Brus and Andrea Sodomka.

The series of works are inspired not only by the specific context and reality of Magdalena Frey, but have become more and more the result of her exploration in other cultural areas, which at first seem to be foreign and distant: an ethnologist on an expedition, not only in the Weinviertel region of Lower Austria, where Magdalena Frey lives, but also in Poland, Mexico, Central Africa, USA, Syria and among the people we now bashfully label "with migrant background" as a definition of origin even when they own an Austrian passport. At second glance however one notices common traits that appear throughout the work cycles: The central theme, with variations, is the unhindered view of the manifold expressions of female experience and the question of what female identity and identities in general can be. Often this includes her own body and the exposure of individual existence itself to the eye of the camera: very much in the tradition of Vienna Actionism. Despite the generation gap, Magdalena Frey acknowledges how much she is indebted to the Viennese activists.

Not even at a first, cursory glance are her pictures harmless, although some of the – often shocking – details can only be detected and interpreted upon closer inspection. Magdalena Frey does not stage her photographic imagery: they are not posed for. They are merely influenced by the mutual acceptance of the photographic documentation. It is only in the digital editing, that happens later, that she "stages" her image material, increasingly in a quasi sacred fashion: Her arrangements are close to traditional practices of magic imagery, votive pictures, altars and visual narrations of passion processions: seemingly familiar constellations for depicting sacred lives, from priestesses to fallen angels, martyrs, saints and chosen ones, from the midwife to the daily heroines. In all cultures religious images are always staged, are shown, often only on special occasions, arranged, moved around in processions and other rituals and set on altars or other sanctified places. In order to decode this, one has to understand their contexts and rituals. Thus Magdalena Frey contextualizes and stages her femmes trouvées with her specific forms of imagery, creating a new consciousness of seeing.

The power of observation and the observed image often stand in a contradictory tension toward one another: Many contemporary aspects of oppression are shut off from the "normal" view, or disguised or completely invisible: the veil covering existence, particularly female existence, is not only present in the Islamic world but also in apparently enlightened cultures. Themes such as abortion, pregnancy, female genital mutilation, the handling of sickness and stigmatisation can be included. The mere act of disclosure, revealing such hidden manifestations of disdain or power structures, shocks, hurts and represents a breach of taboos, particularly in a society that proudly claims to know and understand everything and allows art total freedom. Magdalena Frey's work quickly polarises, as it doesn't use the usual voyeuristic strategies and is not at all speculative. It is precisely because of their poetry of visible horror, that they are all the more moving: This makes it difficult for the artist to find her public, even in the world of art and art trade.

The explosive power of the existential conflicts revealed, does not lie in the images themselves: They seem to send out a kind of – sometimes sacred, and in any case strong – contemplative silence and correspond more to cycles of a religious passion than to sensationalist photography. The explosive power is what the viewers feel in themselves when they see themselves confronted with clarity and truth, abruptly, directly, immediately and with no trapdoor. One is not forced to think "around corners": "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" does not apply here, for what is seen is really what it is about – contextualised, however; staged, inserted into further image material that is put together in unforeseen ways and therefore creates the unexpected. Thus references become visible and transparent at the same time, references that are normally not available to observers constrained by daily censure. The unveiling we are concerned with here, is not a simple breach of taboos, in the sense of suddenly pulling away a cover, or secretly watching forbidden scenes: No, this is about a new understanding, an expansion of, a multiplying of layers, and a concentration of information. And this form of revelation demands immobility and silence, in order to be able to read the inscriptions with their manifold complexities.

For Magdalena Frey's stages her images like pictograms, in languages that can be understood in all cultures, independent of age, sex and status. Since the 70s a large amount of art has been created by women and by men who have put the human body, particularly their own bodies, at the centre of their work. Often radically – as in the context of Actionism and Fluxus like Marina Abramović or Valie Export, but also in the process of an aesthetic exploration of the possibilities of new media. Pieces were created which posed the big question as to what one can still think of as identity. These works were often created by artists using their own identity and its mutability, such as Cindy Sherman or Lynn Hershman.

Making changing identities visible, was a prerogative of fiction, above all, literature: only a few were allowed the privilege of dealing with this aspect of being, by using images. The primordial individual, although not recognizable as such, expands and explores, the limits of being – searching for the transition to new identities, beyond the accepted, extant definitions of self. Transformations, that until now belonged in the realm of myth. Suddenly the established sources of identity and being, lost their universal validity – the concept of gender (Duchamp, Warhol), the concept of time (Sherman's attributes, taken from art history), the concept of nature (biological data as definitive matrix), the concept of form (man-machine-connections), – everything is in flux. These processes, which challenge the very assumptions of our lives and culture, are by no means a product of structuralism or post-structuralism. They were created by the radical changes and discoveries made at the turn of the 20th century in both natural science and the humanities. Paul Valéry stated in 1960 that modernism contains "a large number of lessons, directions and `truths`, that are both accepted and recognized even if they are completely contradictory to one another", and further that this is the case "even if these elements exist side by side in the same individual". The nineteenth century could only find psychopathological explanations for this aspect of reality, declaring such emanations as "not being part of normal behaviour".

This aspect of the world influenced Magdalena Frey's beginnings. In her photographic work Mutterkuchen (placenta, 1985), Frey deals with her exposure to the process of change in pregnancy and birth. Relatively soon it becomes clear that her way of looking at things is very objective, cool even, despite the emotions that her work provokes. She approaches her themes with the precision and imagination of a scientist who is convinced that what she discovers is sufficient in itself. That is why the staging of her images tends to be more and more contemplative, more and more similar to iconostases, i.e. staged spaces, almost religious in their quality, inspired by the temples of everyday life that surround us. This form of sacred simulation robs them of their banality, every element, and every particle used, however small, takes on the function and meaning of a holy relic. The more complex her use of the medial possibilities of digital montage becomes, the more her work develops towards creating digitalized image altars.

This way of staging both image and space, serves to concentrate her experience with the unfamiliar, with the unknown, not only in her own context (Landmeter, Hausaltäre, Eingriff), but also with experiences gathered in her travels around the world, from Mexico to China, from Poland to Central Africa. Thus series of works are created – vice versa this time – that make the unfamiliar available to our experience, by means of a personal closeness that is a very distinct product of her staged contexts . What is striking about this is the absence of clichés thanks to the process – which may sometimes seem paradox – of including precisely such clichés in the image altars.

In Magdalena Frey's pictures, the portrayal of the female body moves between attraction and repulsion, between images of real bodies and icons from art history, between holy and profane bodies: an aesthetic of the body, composed between visual lust and taboo. The technical eye of the camera and the subsequent electronic methods of image processing used by Magdalena Frey combine with her specific perspective as an artist, in order to concoct this highly explosive mix. Eyes, skin, openings in the body, whether natural or artificial, like wounds and scars, all these things are stigmata, interfaces between the inside and the outside, the visible and the invisible. In Christianity in particular, one is highly familiar with this kind of metaphor of the body. Christ's wounds describe a limbic state between life and death, shortly before his transformation and transsubstantiation. It is no accident that in visual art, the wound in his side is often depicted as a slit similar to the female vulva: both are signs of a stigmatization, and both bleed from time to time.

Only extraordinary events and processes excite our attention, but they also expose us to danger if we really look closely. That is why the list of existing taboos is long, even though we find ourselves in an extremely exhibitionistic society. The head of a Gorgon could not be looked at in reality, but its depiction in painting was not forbidden – a way of detouring the terrible and ominous by using a medium, a man-made artefact. We often avoid the confrontation with today's taboos through the fact that they are reproduced endlessly in the mass media and this seemingly endless repetition and the high circulation, transforms that which might have been initially frightening into something we can observe calmly from a distance. The fate of the female body is cruelly exposed to both taboo and trivialisation. This not only applies to the presentation of young and beautiful bodies, but also to the depiction of methods that damage the body, either temporarily or permanently, the body which can only be young and beautiful and attractive.

As life goes by, the body picks up its inscriptions through which it is both embellished and scarred. In any case its stories are told. Physical experience plays an essential role in the construction of identity. In the case of the female body this is primarily the experience of regular change, from the menarche to the menopause, and with this the experience of an irreversible flow of time that makes it much harder for women than for men to sustain a feeling of omnipotence, independent of age and their actual strength and energy. But more than that: those women who give birth experience in a unique way the feeling and necessity of symbiosis, and at the same time the feeling and undeniable necessity of separation. All these processes and their accompanying physical circumstances, menarche, menstruation, menopause, but also birth and abortion, are subject to a visual taboo, – their presentation or visualization are connected with feelings of shame and guilt – but nevertheless, they are part of the real life of every woman.

Shame, guilt – another metaphor of female existence therefore is the mask, the veil, the demure, deferential gaze towards the ground. In the "laboratory of power" as Michel Foucault calls it, this is a clear statement: If you internalize the relationships of power and at the same time play both roles by utilizing your own body instead of overcoming its enslavement, you yourself become the principle of your own suppression. What happens when you take away these masks, lift the veils? The Fluxus artists in particular make this laboratory of power visible by not starting with the "simple" picture but placing and staging it in a context, which involves a critical reception and perception of self in a mediated focus, that doesn't even stop at exposing the own body. Günter Brus stigmatised himself with a "female" wound in 1971 during his action Psycho-Dramolett, Dan Graham constructs complex machineries in which he sends his audience into precisely this conflict of seeing and being seen, Cindy Sherman works her way through the complete visual repertoire as ordained by art history, in which her own persona is finally dissolved in the multiplicity of her staging, and Michael Jackson's autoaggressive transformation into a pale-skinned pop diva has etched irreversible signs of decay on the real body.

Magdalena Frey does not look for glamorous idols. Her search is for unusual and unusually uncompromising biographies. This is readily recognizable in her portraits of Susanne Wenger, Friedl Kubelka and Andrea Sodomka, three generations of artists ,living in and through Vienna, who are all connected by an interest Magdalena Frey shares: dealing with the unusual, which in today's world easily loses its visibility and perceptibility, not shying away from a confrontation with the self, be it through a personal or mediated overcoming, and overstepping of borders. Anni Brus is part of this tradition, the beautiful and intelligent wife and muse of the Vienna Actionist, graphic artist and writer Günter Brus, after whom one of his first and most important filmed actions is named: ANA 1964, to which she contributed her body as a canvas. But not only this: she was a fellow traveller in those early, difficult years of Actionism, enduring both exile and poverty, but with a clear vision and a clear stance. Günter Brus, by the way, wrote some short texts on Magdalena Frey's series Maria M, associative four-liners that show how close he is to her approach.

Susanne Wenger is almost a century old: The fragile artist left Europe in 1949. Ever since she has lived in Nigeria in the context of the Yoruba religions, where the power of the taboo plays an important role. In her sculptures she combines European and African high culture and is one of the last Yoruba authorities today. Friedl Kubelka, born 1946 in London, is a photographer and psycho analyst. In 1971 she began a long-term project: For a year she took pictures of herself daily with her camera and repeated this process of self-observation every five years. This complex and quiet form of searching for and defining identity, without any kind of "plot" or "story" beyond the act of portraiture itself, shows how multi-dimensional a photographic moment is and was a great influence on Magdalena Frey. Andrea Sodomka, born in 1961, is a musician of Magdalena Frey's generation. She is interested in intermedial strategies, creating networks of architectural, social and virtual spaces. In Magdalena Frey's portrait series of these four women, she combines and interweaves what strikes her as essential by means of her technique of associative multi-layered imagery.

New lamps for old: in a society of spectacle, as Guy Debord calls it, or /and the surveillance, as Michel Foucault would say, the most important thing is the mask, and the presentation. In a greying society, where the expectation of longevity is constantly increasing, and the birth rate decreasing, the ability to stay "forever young" is paramount: very young, very beautiful, very healthy, very strong. To achieve this norms and measurements, as well as comparisons and competitions, are needed, thus creating programmes and products to repair the imperfections that nature provides. Ideal measurements, global aesthetic standards defined and distributed by the mass media of a communications-and information society. In this way the human body is viewed as a realm of possibilities, where new tests and corrections can be carried out. The human being as a test object, as a perpetuum mobile, reproducing itself out of itself, using all possible ingredients: artificial or biologically grown organs, of either human or animal origin, spare parts made of the most different materials, technically produced. Even self repairing genes are being considered, both spare part and tool. The ethical borders of these processes are discussed, but the technical development and the economic advantages, combine to render such considerations superfluous. Reality is real.

Whether grounded on aesthetic or medical myths or the argument of control, anchored in tradition: There is no religious legitimation for the practice, for neither in the Koran nor in the Bible is the mutilation of women – contrary to male circumcision – even mentioned, the Old Testament even expressly forbids it. According to reports of the World Health Organisation, 130 to 150 million girls and women worldwide are affected, and around three million are mutilated in Europe. The effects? Apart from the fact that this is a crude breach of women's human rights not to be violated, in order to maintain their social status in a patriarchal society, the operation itself is highly dangerous: 5 to 10 per cent of girls and women die from it, which is comparable to the death rate for the worst illnesses, and a further 20 per cent die of the after effects.

Art can show almost anything these days, many taboos have fallen, but one still applies: the ban on the depiction of female genitals. The fear of precisely this image has often led and leads to a banning of depiction, even in our globalised world drowned in the tsunamis of mass media images. Apart from a short period of feminist art in the 70s, representations of the gaping vulva belong to the realm of pornography. How much more so those of a mutilated vulva! The archetypical ideal image of the female genitals as a swallowing organ is without a doubt still alive in our present world. As shown on pin-ups and in the world of advertisement, male lust is orientated towards the secondary sex characteristics, – the smooth curves of lips, breasts, buttocks, hips, legs and stomach; not a glance, however, falls on the organ we all came out of. The fear that it could swallow one back, just like it spat us out, is too great. And what is to be seen doesn't correspond to the Apollonian rules of aesthetics: an amorphous, asymmetrical, altogether formless, moist opening into darkness, spewing smelling secretions, slime and blood like a volcano, surrounded by a mandorla of hair. The cycle Girls Cut does not make it easy for viewers.

Other aspects of the female body are hidden from view, non-conformities, such as age, decay, sickness and monstrosity, menstruation, the deformation of the pregnant body, birth, childbed. The visible signs of these processes, puss, menstruation, puerperal flow, the placenta and the vulva as the door of these processes are also visually taboo. The hygienic industries, paper and perfume, and modern clinics only succeed in masking the abyss.

This is all more or less beyond experience and communication, even though we long know that the great philosophical themes can be deducted from observation and perception of the small details, of everyday life. Not to look, not being allowed to look is not only a ban on observation but also on thinking. In contrast to this stands the cycle Frauensache (women's issue), in which the martyrdom of a woman afflicted with incurable cancer is depicted: In the course of the medical treatment undertaken to prolong her life for as long as possible, her body not only carries the inner wounds from the voracious tumors, but is afflicted by more and more external stigmata and gaping open wounds inscribed on her like menetekels. What remains is self-repeating: permanently being thrust back into her own body, the greater the distance is from the original form, until just a flower-like emanation sprung from blood and scars is all that remains, in all its deadly imperfection.

This specific way of seeing is beyond voyeurism as it approaches the unspeakable, both analytically and poetically: using the methods of collage, montage, and diagnostic images showing the inscriptions that the body experiences, creating a unique medium, within an unique immediacy: show your wounds: ecce homo – ecce femina. What result are images of a passion play, the paths, the stations, the picture of martyrs without paradox of ecstasy and plaintiveness. Instead, there is a contemplative demonstration of 'this is what I am'.

Magdalena Frey's work locates itself in the centre of life, at the same time as maintaining necessary distance in order to reflect the multiplicity and ambiguity of the relationships which determine life : a complex structure of viewpoints – of the artist, the women in the pictures and the observer, but also the relationship between very different areas of content, moving like satellites around one big theme: the passionate interest in human existence, developing from the centre of her own being. Questions of gender, traditions, symbolic worlds in everyday life and cultural constructions mingle with one another, and become clearer. Parallel to Magdalena Frey's own sovereignty and self-assuredness, the "aura" of her created images grows visibly : they show life as it is rather than what it claims it to be. No matter how radical the wounds shown may be: The pictures show the people themselves, their rites, yearnings, wounds and abysses, without giving up their poetry: a homage to the power and magic of the seer, that points to the third, the mystic eye.