German artist Isabelle Wenzel creates surreal and dynamic studies of human bodies in motion. In her series Figures (2012), her female models – mostly Wenzel herself – appear as sculptures on a plinth, bent into strange shapes, cowering and hiding. In Building Images (2010) she used similar techniques to make a wry comment on the secretary’s place in the modern office. Her intense focus on the human body and its contortions makes a little more sense when you find out that she was a promising acrobat as a child, spending her formative years somersaulting and backflipping. She currently lives in Amsterdam with her baby daughter.
Hi Isabelle! Where’s your head at right now?
At the moment, I’m preoccupied with an idea about the connection between photography, sculpture and performance. I realised that in my previous work there were some performative moments, yet the figures that I photographed began to look like sculptures, and in the end it was photography, so I’m wondering what the connection is between these three mediums. And what would it mean if I were to do the same action and film it? I don’t know exactly where this will lead me.
A lot of artists seem to be exploring the idea of performance right now. Do you feel like part of a wider movement?
It’s hard to say. For me it’s very natural to include performance in my work, because I was trained as an acrobat when I was a child. Also, I always try to be authentic, which means most of the things I do are related to my life. So it’s obvious for me to use the body, because I have these physical qualities, let’s say.
Would you incorporate live acrobatics in your work?
Well, I’m not really a live performer; I can hardly imagine myself doing a live performance. I really like to be by myself. I think it’s more interesting to offer something to the audience that I have made alone, because it’s very intimate and private, yet there’s still a gap across which I can’t be reached.
How did you become an acrobat in the first place?
It was a coincidence. My mum is a dance and theatre pedagogue. She used to work on a project next to a circus school, and one time a colleague of hers who ran the school saw me fooling around and said, “Hey, your daughter is so good at movement. Why doesn’t she try this out?” I immediately fell in love with training and performing. For eight years I had very intensive training.
What made you fall in love with acrobatics?
It has something to do with thinking in a different way. You’re not only thinking with your head – your body also remembers things. You can reach a mental state [through acrobatics] that you would
never reach if you were just sitting on a chair. Movement is simply another level of thinking. Actually, when you perform super-complicated acrobatic movements, it’s dangerous to think. Usually it’s when you think that it goes wrong.
What made you move to photography and away from the circus?
When I was 16, I decided I didn’t want to be a professional acrobat, because it’s quite a lonely and tough life. So it was a rational decision not to do it. Then, I wanted to become a stuntwoman. I used to skateboard a lot, but when I was 20 I had an accident, which meant I had to have a few operations on my knee. I couldn’t move that well, so I started to photograph a lot. It was never a clear decision; it was just for fun. Eventually I applied to study photography at the Fachhochschule in Bielefeld, Germany. I learned all the technical aspects in three years, but afterwards I really wanted to study art photography, and the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam was the perfect choice for me.
Does your acrobatic training inform your art?
I usually work alone, so when I shoot I definitely involve my acrobatic skills. Most of the time I use the self-release function on the camera, which gives me ten seconds to get into position. This means there’s a lot of improvisation involved in the work. I make a movement, then I check it on the screen to see what it looks like, and so I move step-by-step towards a perfect image, sometimes doing the same action 40 times. It’s a bit like a game between the camera and me. Even if I photograph another model, I go for the same technique. Most of the time it’s the same way of working.
Most people would think of the self-timer function on the camera as a fairly amateur tool for embarrassing family occasions, not as something an artist would use!
[Laughs] Exactly! Most of my friends ask, “Why don’t you use an electronic self-release?” But I say, “No! It’s much more fun this way.” To be under the pressure of time makes it different somehow. I don’t like the idea of holding the pose, and deciding when is the perfect time. I like that it has a touch of this amateur technique. Things go wrong, but that’s precisely what I like about it. A lot of your pictures are pretty funny. Is that intentional? It’s a strange thing, because I never intend my pictures to be funny, but in the end they turn out to be very funny. I don’t really have the recipe for it. It’s something that just sneaks into my work. I really can’t tell how this is happening, but it’s definitely something that’s very important to me.
Read more of Isabelle’s interview in issue 4 of The Hunger Magazine.