Nothingness in the midst of pictures¹
Spaces in which time seems to be standing still. Photographs taken in May 2008 depict the interior of a Viennese nursing home for old folks. The people who used to live here have long been moved to a new building that lives up to present-day standards. Working with an analogue camera, Elisabeth Czihak discovers the spaces of the huge building block, parts of which have been expanded and refurbished for decades – a building with an uncertain future. The building slumbers, all locked up, in an in-between state, and sometimes there is the janitor of the building watching over its sleep.
The photographer sets about securing traces. What remains in the spaces in which people spend their last days? What do these sites reveal – places that even when they were inhabited were sort of interim spaces, situated between social participation and relegation, on the fault lines connecting life and the earth.
It is one of photography’s main characteristics that it stops what is moving, freezing it in an image, reproducing it in these shots. The world that is depicted is unmoving, for more than a year. Except perhaps for the mold that is silently spreading, the slowly decaying plant, the gradual paling of material.
An interest in the sculptural quality of things constitutes the basis of Elisabeth Czihak’s work. Architectural structures and the abstraction of objective forms are the points of departure and constants that she analyses in various media, sculpture, drawing, silkscreen and photograph.
Her photographic series are structured like documentaries. She limits her work to simply photographing places without arranging them or staging them. She always seeks out sites of action without actors. Spaces without any people, empty, in which the absence of human beings is replaced by relics and traces of life that once resided there.
As in Roland Barthes and in Phillippe Dubois photography is characterized as a trace leading to the point of departure for an entire theory of photography. On the one hand, photography gives testimony to “it was once like that“ while, on the other hand, it directs attention to signs that were not so visible until then.
Elisabeth Czihak’s documentations are rendered narrative to a certain degree when given the large format the beholder is able to become immersed in the photographic world. To the extent that photographs are not bound to the sites of production or to functions by means of further information, the beholder’s fantasy is put to test. While wandering through picture spaces history and stories rise up, becoming part of the reconstruction. What were the antique pink curtains concealing? What stayed behind in the cabinets and why? These reconstructions, however, are always dependent on the sections of the spaces that are made visible and the differences between the pictures that thus become eloquent.
The changing light is a protagonist in this silent cosmos. Windows are decisive elements of the pictorial composition, pointing to a light exterior, the “other“ in the window frame. A merging of various levels of reality and its perception in time and space takes place. The photographs thus refer intrinsically to their essence as a projection medium. Lightness penetrates the various fluted glass panes from the outside, dipping the rows of cabinets in a warm daylight, which is continually broken and reflected again on various surfaces such as the smoothly polished floor. The floor is often expansive, serving as a stage on which the inside of a flower pot, now torn out and spreading out on the ground. By turns, the floor is veiled with remnants reminiscent of plaster or snow covering over what has transpired over the course of time.
Similar to her drawings, the surfaces of Elisabeth Czihak’s pictures are informed by contrasts: expansive, equally quiet fields of color are juxtaposed with fragmented, often rhythmically structured zones.
The anonymity of the habitats presented here has a stronger effect given the hardly personal design by its inhabitants – contrasting, for example, with the deserted apartments of Harter Plateau in the photo series that Elisabeth Czihak created together with Walter Ebenhofer just six years before that.
The pictures of the Viennese nursing home are still not depressing. They are not sites of horror or lamenting documents but rather photographic spaces of light silence with playful titles such as “Indian yellow“, “mountain ahorn“ or “antique pink “.
The objects, relics appear to be left to their own devices, detached from their original function, to emerge as beings with autonomous forms and structures. The curtains are charged with theatricality, the shattered flower pot with symbolism, the open and closed cabinet doors develop their own rhythm in the composition of the photograph – a rhythm that remained non-visible in their earlier functional life. The oscillation between former functionality and present autonomy in the picture makes these photographs so fascinating and lighter than what they actually show.
The cautious detachment from functionality by virtue of which the spaces become free for stories, the projections of the beholder, lend the still lifes a poetic melancholy. It is here perhaps that the “symbolic void“² of photography emerges, its spaces being traversed by a “trace left by the disappearance of the entire remnant“³, a “nothingness in the midst of pictures“⁴.
¹ Jean Baudrillard: Paroxysmus (English: Paroxysm), Vienna 2002, p. 139
³ Jean Baudrillard: Das perfekte Verbrechen (English: The Perfect Crime), Munich 1996, pp. 135 f.
Stefanie Hoch, 2009