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                                                                 I’d Rather Stand

                                                    Mia Unverzagt’s photographic series


Photographic seriality is one of the basic principles of Mia Unverzagt’s work. Repetitions, along with their conceptual counterpart, deviations, seem to provide a framework for the individual image within the whole and thereby to test it with regard to its validity. Instructions, vague or detailed, to the people being portrayed; questions as a basis for dialogues that prescribe a particular attitude – these are integral parts of this artist’s oeuvre. Often there is a visual framework: a particular place, a prescribed selection of clothing, the way those garments are draped, etc. These constants, which are inscribed into the serial works, create the same “starting conditions” for the people being portrayed. They thus constitute a setting in which the action can take place. This framework is defined by the artist, but the result of the (inter)action remains radically open.

Even though instructions or questions directed at the people being photographed are the starting points for numerous pieces, in the final product language eludes the individual photos and the series as a whole. Language creates the environment, the mood; it forges a path to the topics being addressed, some of which are emotionally very fraught, but it does not take the form of a legible individual story. Yet language is the instrument par excellence for perceiving the world, as it relies on the relation of one subject to another. It thereby generates a social relationship that implies an other, an interlocutor, someone who in the course of the artistic interaction develops opinions about certain topics, including sociopolitical ones – opinions that are pushed along by the artist’s implications.

The topics that Mia Unverzagt addresses in her work indubitably fall into the category of questions that pretty clearly have to do with perception, and thus with self-perception as well. There are questions about gendered behavioral structures, concepts of gender that simultaneously evoke, provoke and question ideas about identity, social relationships and linkages that point to the social norms and roles, traditions and values of various generations – and to the transformation of these structures. For the artist, the structures that underlie human interaction themselves become legible either through conversation with the subject of her pictures or in the objects of daily life. Clothing, perhaps because it is so close to the body and can thus veil or reveal, hide or stage, that body, becomes a decisive, albeit ambivalent, element. Clothing as disguise, as costume, or on the contrary as “uniform” – that is, as a moment of uniformity, as a vehicle for identity or as the code for a role – is consciously used and interrogated in this photographic series. The use of the apron as a symbol of a feminized domestic sphere or the unifying monochromism and beige colorlessness of other series offer just a few controversial examples for the relevance of garments in the artist’s work.

The body and its posture, its staging; the face and its expressions, its pathos – all these nonverbal signs form a visual pool of meaning that represents a very instinctive, direct medium of communication. The viewer perceives these aspects and thereby recognizes a universal human problem rather than reconstructing the individual story of the person being portrayed – a story which the viewer would in any case be unable to recapitulate. The space for reflection that is thereby created is open for the associations, experiences, memories and projections that arise with the image’s reception.

Her basic principles of series and repetition notwithstanding, Mia Unverzagt’s photographic series are not scientific experiments performing empirical societal analysis. However, they do expose societal structures that make it possible to perceive social contexts by focusing on the individual in clearly defined, and at times paradoxical, situations. Language often serves as a springboard, but from there the image itself must work together with the recipient’s desire for perception.

The title of the photographic series Wait Until You Are Called implies an expectation. The viewer is able to “read” the instructions directed at the people who are depicted in the work through their postures and expressions and through their ways of being together. The instructions keep the waiting person motionless and tense and thereby anchor him or her in the spot where they are. Frozen in a state of attentive motionlessness, seeking the moment of being called, the promised sign that will bring about some resolution. Distraction and concentration, play and introspection, togetherness and isolation determine the scenery; the agony of holding still makes time becomes palpable, almost as if this moment were being separated out from the continuous flow of time. The experience of waiting for someone/something or, conversely, of keeping someone waiting not only determines the relationship the people being photographed have to the artist’s performative instructions  but also reveal a division of roles that is characterized by hierarchy; that inequality is transferred onto the viewer as well. He or she becomes a participant in the tension, the boredom, the posture of expectation. At the same time, however, the settings are imbued with a lyricism that comes both from the selection of the location and from the artist’s further instructions to select one’s “own disguise” from a large number of garments that are made available. The colorful clothing contrasts with the charm of the abandoned, dilapidated house, which reminds us of a fictional place of childhood… Villa Villekulla, where Astrid Lindgren’s literary creation Pippi Longstocking lived.

Caring For the Mushrooms – this photographic series’ title tells us of the artist’s instructions. However, it does not refer, as we might expect, to the daily preparation of food on a stove, but rather to a specific act in the forest, where mushrooms generally grow without human involvement. In the forest depicted here, a man clothed only in surgical scrubs comes into contact with his environment. Barefoot, he walks across the foliage- and moss-covered forest floor, kneels, touches the plants, lies down next to the mushrooms on the earth, merges with a sawed-off hollow stump in which small mushrooms are growing. Concentration and focus on the task at hand characterize this absurd set-up, yet it also reflects an almost tender interaction with the forest environment and the plants – a state of absorption in the place and the task. This absorption into the whole becomes especially clear in one image of the series, in which we see only the garments and not the person who was wearing them. They have been hung on the branches of a tree and conjure up an image of leave-taking. The person has apparently dissolved into the forest setting.

Pink for girls and light blue for boys – clothing color is but one example of the gender differentiation that begins in infancy. The color pink (and pastel pink in particular, rather than the more aggressive hot pink) is a symbol of tenderness and femininity. Thus the pink-clad woman shown in the photo series Slapping the Flowers, a mature woman with grey hair, appears to us as a conservative representative of bourgeois society. This is underscored by the petit bourgeois ambience that is depicted in some of the pieces (a furniture set like that found in countless living room or dining room décor schemes) and that contributes to the impression that this is a person who conforms to and accepts a traditional understanding of her role.

The artist’s instructions to slap the flowers involve a certain sense of sadness or helplessness; the action contains both that sadness and a comic absurdity. The moment of striking out, the concentration on the act, the gravity with which it is carried out, and the result after the woman has, apparently with some pride, completed that act, are captured on the images in this series. The destruction is ore poetic than cruel, and the petals (likewise pink), a few leaves and a little soil lie picturesquely on the white tablecloth. The moment of slapping the flowers is not depicted, for the camera passes over the plant and only captures only the hand’s movements and not the object that is to be “punished.”  An empty space is created for our projections as to what else could conceivably take the flowers’ place.

Aprons seem to us to be relics from the not-so-distant past. The apron embodies the traditional female sphere of work; it was typically put on over other garments in order to do housework without soiling the clothing underneath. In this regard, the apron is a sartorial counterpart to the worker’s blue coverall, which represents a male and mostly outside-of-the home sphere of work. Given this gendered division of garments and places (the apron is female and domestic, the coverall is male and outside of the home), the abandoned dwellings where the images of this photo series were taken themselves serve as a kind of commentary. Has the typical female sphere, which was characterized by traditional housework, changed? Has it become an outdated gender cliché?

The artist gave the woman being portrayed several aprons, of varying designs, to choose from and to wear while posing in front of walls inside empty high-rise apartment buildings in Bremen-Tenever – walls papered with old-fashioned patterns, some of them worn and faded. The images show only small sections of the room, but we see that the apartments are empty and abandoned. This creates the impression that the woman, who is portrayed in front of various walls, could have been left behind, that she, a model with an apron, is also a worn-out cliché that belongs to the past. In this context, she herself becomes an image of the past.

The photo series Femininity and Power starts in a place where the two concepts named in the title are traditionally understood as opposites – in Mexico, a Latin American country where patriarchal structures support a culture of machismo. There the artist portrayed Mexican men and women, to whom she directed a different question depending on their sex. The men were asked when in their lives they had felt most feminine, and the women were asked when they had had power. The resulting conversations, during which the artist heard the individual stories of the people being portrayed, are not part of the work. They do not accompany the photographs anywhere as text or documentation.

The frameworks within which the portraits of men and those of the women came into being differ in that the two groups, though they wear garments that give them a uniform look, were given an opportunity to choose from among various patterned pieces of fabric; the men had to lay their pieces of cloth across their legs, thus suggesting a more feminine way of draping it, while in the pictures of women the cloth serves as a boldly colored background for the scene. Having the fabric draped across the legs creates an impression of limited freedom of movement as well as one of withdrawal and concealment. In this context, the faces as well as the different emotions the people felt as they answered the questions asked of them become very clear. Although the individual story remains unknown, the expressions are telling. The images speak of uncertainty and distaste, of joy and surprise; as responses to the artist’s provocative questioning, they reveal something about the division of roles and the values that prevail in Mexico’s patriarchal society, and they also spur the viewer to think about his or her own ideas about the relationship between femininity and power. The crucial question here could be stated as follows: What do you think about feminine power – and about male femininity?  

The title Other Fauna conjures up a notion of the exotic, of something that is different from what we are used to. But at the same time it also implies imaginative possibilities. The photographs in this series show children and adolescents looking at plants that are not necessarily familiar to us in the latitudes where we live. The pictures were taken in the Mexican state of Hidalgo, where the photographs were then embroidered by inhabitants of the area whom the artist had previously asked to imagine what the people in the images could have seen. This gave rise to a colorful fantasy world that lures the viewer into the beauty of the imagination.

The words Face It bring up a certain linguistic ambiguity, implying both a concrete act in the literal sense and a purposeful act of recognition in the metaphorical sense. In the various pictures of this series we see two adolescents in an abandoned space that still holds the remnants of a life – a sink, a tiled wall, an empty cupboard. Both people wear beige-colored clothing that does not permit us to easily assign them a gender, although there are some indications, like sheer nylon stockings and sandals. The agony of the moment that captures the series’ protagonists within the few square meters of the room carries over into their gestures and postures. Almost nothing happens, yet the scene feels very intimate. The viewer feels embarrassed, almost like a voyeur gazing into the individuals’ self-absorption.

The photographic series What We Do In the Country involves a loose back-and-forth rhythm of vertical and horizontal formats. The individual photos alternate between two people who, in accordance with the title, at first glance appear to be doing the things people do in the country… or perhaps what we assume people do in the country if we look through a lens of clichés. Yet the staging and the ambience, as well as the tasks being performed, somehow perturb the viewer. The vertical pieces generally show the younger-looking person – who wears clearly masculine clothing, sometimes looks purposefully into the camera and isn’t even phased by an intimate bathroom scene that appears to depict an act of urination. The horizontal pieces, on the other hand, generally show a man who is often bent over, turned inward and facing away from the camera; he is performing typical household tasks like dusting, straightening, scrubbing, etc. He does not look out at anything; by smoothing out or removing a piece of fuzz from his strange clothing with a look of great concentration on his face he is able to avoid the gaze of the other, of the camera.  It is clear that both people are wearing the clothes of others. This can be seen in the voluminous blazer worn by the “masculine” figure or in the much-too-small shoes of the other figure, but also in the style and fabric of the clothing itself.

Even without knowing of the artist’s guidelines for this work – along with her husband she staged a clothing exchange that crossed lines of both gender and generation – it becomes clear that it is about the uncertainty of signs, roles and gender relationships. The masculine and feminine garments not worn by a member of the expected sex, and they also refer to a very particular historical period. They are signs of a recently bygone era. Their style, their cut and their material indicate that they hail from the not-so-distant past. Even without knowing that the artist and her husband are wearing their grandparents’ clothing, it is clear that gender role clichés and their historical roots are under investigation in this work. Precisely because this is not distanced historical costuming but rather part of the artist’s lived past, the change in gender-based activity that is implied by the switching of roles in these pieces becomes a means of reflection for the viewer as well. Thus he or she doesn’t stand and gape at a long-vanished social structure but can instead his use or her own experiences to analyze commonalities between the way things were and the way they are. Looking at this set of pictures, we find one final bit of provocation in the intimate bathroom scene, where the implied act of “standing up to pee” works to ironically dismantle the concept of masculinity.

A nice image to sum up the overall attitude that can be traced through all of Mia Unverzagt’s artistic work.