"This needle, the stitch that you feel inside…"
The photographer Annegret Soltau
In the course of the current renaissance of early feminist art, Annegret Soltau has recently been rediscovered. The photographer has been producing her provocative sewn photo works for 30 years. Image by image, stitch by stitch, she deals with topics such as birth, injuries, and decay. Jutta von Zitzewitz visited Soltau, who is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection, at home in Darmstadt.
||It is not that simple to find Annegret Soltau, even though her studio is located no more than 10 minutes by car from the central train station in Darmstadt. The GPS does not display her address at all, and the cab driver is obviously relieved when I hand him detailed directions. We drive into the woods, past the dog training field and the shooting club, to the former forest ranger's lodge Tanne. It took the photographer and her husband, the sculptor Baldur Greiner, years to restore it. The brick house with the steep roof is idyllically situated on a large property with tall trees. When the taxi stops, Annegret Soltau is already standing by the open window, waving to me. A short time later I am standing in front of the slender, youthful 64-year-old, who leads me straight into her studio on the ground floor. The work surfaces are covered with torn photo fragments of facial and body parts for her sewing projects.
Displayed on the wall are a few of her own works and the exhibition poster for WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, the groundbreaking retrospective of feminist art, which toured the world starting from Los Angeles in 2007. It shows a picture of one of Soltau's string tying performances from the 1970s. "That's how you become history!", the artist laughs. "No, but seriously, it is good that feminist art is finally being reconsidered, and awarded a different status. Before, the phrase "women and art" always had a negative connotation." WACK! marks the beginning of a renewed interest in the feminist avant-garde. In addition to Americans such as Ana Mendieta and Francesca Woodman, artists from Germany and Austria-including VALIE EXPORT, Birgit Jürgenssen, and, of course, Annegret Soltau-document the significant influence of this artistic movement on the current scene. This was most recently evidenced for instance in the exhibition DONNA at the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna in Rome.
Working against prejudices and resistance runs like a red thread through Soltau's biography. She refers to the strained relationship with her mother and mentions the absence of her father, who went missing during WWII. She talks about a childhood of hardship, spent with her grandmother in the countryside. "I was not allowed to read or do the things I liked. I was always told, no, you have to knit." The thread that became her hallmark has its origins in a deep ambivalence: "It is a love-hate relationship, there is so much negative energy in this thread, because you were forced to do handicrafts during your childhood and adolescence."
After she finished her art studies, which she had to pay for herself, a keen interest in body tying dominated her work. Her search for the greatest possible directness led her from etchings to performance art. In the 1970s, influenced by the Viennese Actionism movement and the radical body actions by Günter Brus, she discovered the thread as a medium to draw directly onto the body. In Permanente Demonstration she wrapped cords around the faces of volunteers from the audience. This "drawing" (Be-zeichnung was the German term used by Soltau) left web-like impressions when the cords were removed, resembling early signs of aging. "The documentation of these performances gave me the idea of working with photographs. I just wanted to work more physically, immediately, with my own direct image. A photo is like a real impression. It was the time, after all, when women discovered themselves and wanted to try out new media that weren't traditionally used in that way."
Performance art and photography became a liberation device for Soltau herself as well. After a series of self-portraits that show her in a cocoon made of black thread in various stages of pupation, she made her first sewn photo works in 1975. From that point onwards, her work was influenced by her understanding of human existence as a constant metamorphosis, and the threat to and expansion of the self throughout these changes. She finally became the center of her art: "I am using myself as a model because I can go the farthest with me."
The tactile drawing with needle and thread, which has been her hallmark ever since, can be found in its probably most aesthetic version in the series of self portraits entitled Verspannungen from the Deutsche Bank Collection. "I liked the simplicity of those photo booth pictures, where you simply sit in the booth. It was important to me that the threads connect the various states like telephone wires." The threads sewn across the photos follow the outlines of her face like cobwebs. Eyes, nose, and mouth become fixed points in an ornamental work of strapping and sewing that seems like an especially subtle form of self-mutilation.
Like other feminist artists of the 70's, including Cindy Sherman, Suzy Lake, or Birgit Jürgenssen, Soltau anticipated the complex theories of postmodernism on identity and loss of self in works such as Verspannungen. There is no real self, hidden behind the mask. "Limiting myself to one identity-that just doesn't seem right to me." The significance of all this early feminist work for contemporary art cannot be overestimated: "Without it identity-based art, performance art and much of political art would not exist in the form it does," writes Holland Cotter in the New York Times in 2007.
In the male dominated art business of the 70's and 80's, Soltau experienced her pregnancies as an existential state of uncertainty, leading to her work with the image of the body. "I simply couldn't stick to the face. I felt it was a massive intrusion on my body, including in a negative sense." Driven by her fear of the loss of her identity as an artist, she made photo etchings of her pregnancy during this time. She scratched the surface of the negative with a needle, continuing this method to the point of self-extinction in the image.
In the 80's Annegret Soltau's work became even more drastic with her first sewn photomontages. Where the intactness of the image was merely scratched in the sewn photo works, it was completely sacrificed in her sewn photomontages. It is the thread itself that now constitutes the image, reconnecting torn fragments of facial and body parts with large stitches and rough seams.
These works are deeply disturbing to the viewer, as they do not simply illustrate violence, but make it physically so directly palpable that some images are hard to take. "I want to go as far as I can, that's what has always been interesting to me, back then, as well as today," she says. Soltau brings into the open the transitoriness of our existence, which is so carefully hidden in our daily lives. Her methods are tearing apart, cutting up, and stitching back together. The tears in her photographs go through the viewer as well. Through her radical interventions, Annegret Soltau endows the medium of photography with a presence heightened to the point of painfulness, recapturing the long-lost magic of the image. The photograph itself becomes a body, a fetish, a totem, and a taboo.
In her series generativ, Soltau reached her highest provocation potential, applying her strategy of relentless confrontation. Soltau shows her own family in this series: her grandmother, mother, and daughter, in addition to herself-naked, in full color, larger than life, as a patchwork of body fragments, mismatched and sewn together. Soltau combines becoming with passing; she shows that the old woman is already present in the young girl, just as the old woman still carries the girl inside. In the series transgenerativ the group is expanded by the inclusion of her husband and her son.
The overwhelming effect, reached not only through the larger-than-life size of her nude photographs, is intentional: "I want it to hit you straight on", says the petite artist and emphasizes her statement with a boxing gesture. Yet she was surprised at the vehement reactions to generativ. The work was removed from shows and otherwise censored. You can still hear the indignation in her voice when she talks about Siegfried Unseld, publisher of the Suhrkamp publishing house, who had four pictures by Soltau removed from an anthology in 1995-on the grounds of their "aesthetics of ugliness". Because of the undiminished advance of plastic surgery, along with the anti-feminist backlash that can be observed since the 90's, the presentation of aging female bodies is still taboo. Soltau is irritated by these current tendencies: "I want to counter that, and that's why I continue to use my own body. Some women artists from the 70's are using models now that are young and beautiful, and it bothers me. I want to do it differently, even if it's hard for me."
There is no promise of release in Soltau's work. She does not believe in healing, even if she thinks of her biography, her fears and traumas as important motivating forces behind her work. "This needle, the stitch that you feel inside: that is an important impulse." For now, in her work Vatersuche, she has moved away from the body. In it, she stitched documents from her research looking for her father, such as letters, maps, and photographs, into the ripped-out surface of her own face. With this piece, she dealt with a whole generation's experience of loss: "I get so many responses concerning this work. I hit other people's tender spots with it. The self-therapy aspect does not work, but this shared experience is consoling in a way." Annegret Soltau's series Personal Identity, begun in 2007, is also based on her identity work. She uses documents of her own life to sew up, and she follows it through to the end: "When I'm not around any longer, my daughter will finish the last image of the series and sew my death certificate into it; only then will the work be concluded."
Translation: Katrin A. Velder, Boston