“That’s the beauty of art … You never know the outcome.” – Robert Ayers in conversation with Cornelia Hediger.
It’s a real pleasure to begin the new season with this conversation with Cornelia Hediger, who is responsible for some of the richest, most engaging photographs I have seen in a long, long time. In her two most recent series, Doppelgänger and the brand new Doppelgänger II, Ms Hediger has emerged as a visual story-teller of remarkable complexity, ambiguity, and depth. Single pieces have the character of brief, self-referential episodes; and the fact that she is always her own model, employs the same locations repeatedly, and often re-uses image fragments in more than one picture gives the series as a whole an almost novelistic air.
The doppelgänger is the usually malevolent personification of the dark side of the personality that has been widely explored in Germanic literature since the beginnings of romanticism. Ms Hediger’s subject is thus psychological dilemma. Her settings evoke mid-twentieth century Europe, and she never shies away from the romantic or – even less often – the erotic. While her pieces maintain a near-narrative specificity, they are also available to each spectator’s personal reading and in this she works at a level of sophistication that is only achieved by the very best contemporary art.
Given the degree to which Ms Hediger reveals herself in her art, it is not entirely surprising that she prefers to remain personally anonymous. That fact was where we began when we spoke earlier this week, but our conversation ranged over many aspects of her work’s content and technique. Thanks to her candidness this interview makes a fascinating introduction to her Doppelgänger II show which opened at the excellent Klompching Gallery in DUMBO on Wednesday (September 7).
Cornelia, your work is increasingly widely known and appreciated, but the artist behind the art is something of a mystery woman.
I like that. I want to be completely mysterious. I don’t want to be seen with my work. I don’t even want to turn up at my openings. I want to talk about what the work is, but not about me. It’s difficult because after all, it is me in the image, but I don’t have facebook, I don’t blog. I consciously try to stay completely ‘not-found’!
OK, let’s confine ourselves to the pictures in that case. Tell me, what are the principal differences between this new series, Doppelgänger II, and the previous series?
It’s the same thing. It’s a continuation. The set up and the structure are the same. It’s an internal dialog with myself. It’s almost like a visual diary.
The drive comes from looking at myself, or looking at my life. It comes from my past and from my upbringing. I look at other artwork of course, and I read, but I don’t watch TV and I hardly ever go to the movies. That’s not my inspiration. Life is my inspiration.
And does that lead to the separate panels, and the distortions between them?
Well, the self is broken up. I’m made up of many different parts, depending on when you catch me: if I’m having a good day or a bad day, for example. That is the fragmentation of my own being.
But to be honest it was a technical decision to go in the direction of the fragmented image. From the very beginning I always did self-portraiture, and always with a self-timer. When I’m shooting these pieces I work by myself, I don’t have an assistant, and I don’t use photo manipulation or photoshop. So I had to figure out a way to get myself in the picture without cheating, and I decided that this was the way to go: to shoot it in sections and then put them back together again. That’s the real reason why I arrived at this process.
Once I started experimenting with it, I discovered the distortion which is unavoidable when you shoot this way. I found it really interesting – I could make myself look really tall, or shrink things. And I found I was creating these other worlds. I never want these to look like the United States in 2011. I want to get away from that. So I use environments that could be in Europe, I use clothes from the sixties, or a hat from the eighties. I mix and match to make my own reality, to create my own distorted world.
And you think of them as self-portraits?
Yes. It’s self-portraiture, in that I use myself and it is about myself. I don’t want to push them on anybody else and insist that this is the way it is. Whatever you want to get out of them is fine, but they come from within me.
It’s not like Cindy Sherman who plays a character. I don’t play a character. I’m more interested in Francesca Woodman – digging in and getting it out in a raw uncomfortable way sometimes. Maybe that’s the reason why I don’t want to show up to my openings!
Without prying into your biography, can you tell me how you arrived at the photographic territory that you working in?
I grew up in Switzerland. I didn’t go to art school until my late twenties. I went to Rutgers and for the first three years I was a painter because that’s what I wanted. In my third year I took a photography class just because it fit into my schedule, and I just fell in love with it. I guess I realized I could express myself better through photography. I never wanted to work as a documentary photographer – from the very beginning I always built my own little things and made up my own scenarios. I immediately turned the lens on myself. I wasn’t interested in taking images of other people. But it wasn’t that I wanted to see myself particularly – for many years I always cut my head off.
The Exit series was the first body of work I did. It’s all in black and white. The body is always blurry and unstable, and that’s how my life was. Nothing was stable, I was constantly running, and that’s very apparent in the work. And I wasn’t comfortable with myself and so I never included the head.
Then I went into color for the next project, The Future is Cancelled. This was when I used a dummy. I used the stockings and the dress. There are personal reasons why I did that: I wanted to have an interaction with my other self. I worked like that for a couple of years, but obviously the dummy couldn’t stand up. It was always lying down, and that was how I came upon the Doppelgänger work. It was one progression into another.
As you know, you keep on working and things change. You just have to be flexible. You find another way. That’s the beauty of art, I think. You never know the outcome. If I did I wouldn’t do it any more. It would be so boring! It’s a constant challenge. That’s what we artists do: we encounter a challenge and learn something new.
I wonder if you think of your work as a sort of performance art.
Yes, I think so. Especially the earlier work. It was very performative. One of the images from the Exit series, the one where I’m running through a hallway, I have 98 negatives of the same shot, me running through the hallway over and over and over again. So it was like a performance until I had created the shot and the feeling that I wanted. The Doppelgänger work is still performance, although it’s done very differently. I don’t feel the movement like I did before, when I was performing, but it’s still a kind of performance. Nowadays I’ll work for a whole day, or two, or even three, on the environment alone. A single set of six little frames takes from morning to night just to shoot. And you have to look like the character is surprised, or it just happened, but it’s not like that. You plan it for hours and hours to make it look like something. In the earlier work it just happened.
Yes, how do you do all that planning? Do you use a storyboard?
I come up with the idea and the characters, and then I make a drawing. And then I make a grid and I put the characters in and the environment. But you can’t translate it directly: with a pen you can bend every line, but with photography you can’t. Still, I have a very good idea of what the characters are doing, or if they shift their weight on to one foot, or if they are leaning against the wall, or whatever. And then either I create the environment first, or I look at the clothes first: I decide what kind of clothes I want to wear, what the color-palette is going to be, and what kind of mood I want to get across.
If I pick the clothes first then I go to the Benjamin Moore store to pick the color for the wall. They know me really well there – they give me a discount! I come with a bag of clothes and I pick a color. They say, “Your apartment must look really colorful!” but I tell them that I paint it over and over. It’s always in the same room, so there are many coats of paint in my bedroom. Right now I have three different colors on three different walls. And I have a small bedroom! It’s pretty crazy!
So I paint the room and then I measure things out. I bring in different furniture. I have a lot of different rugs that I bought on eBay, and then I lay out the environment. I even put up wallpaper and install lights where there are no lights.
Have you always been so obsessive?
In the first series, I didn’t do pre-shoots, but now I put a lot more time into the props, into the dress, into the background color, into the drawing. They are way more elaborate. With some of these environments I’ll just sit there looking at them for a day figuring out how I want to use them. Many of the finished images are re-shoots, because often I’m not happy with them first time around, so I re-shoot them and I re-shoot them, and then I’ll edit and re-shoot again. So they’re not so spontaneous as the first ones. They’re more elaborate.
I think they’re equally elaborate in their content. They’re oblique, multi-layered, impressionistic. You allow a lot of room for interpretation.
It’s not as clean-cut as one idea. I never want to spell it out all the way. I come up with a topic that I might actually struggle with myself. It might be a boring topic – It might be about trust, or thinking “I really screwed myself over on this,” or “How could I have handled that differently?” – but I’m a visual person and I want to make it visually interesting.
I talk to myself all the time, and there’s an internal dialog in each one. In 7.10.09 for example, she’s sitting on the stairs holding her head, the other one is looking at her, and the other one is already running up the stairs. There was something going on in my life at the time that I really had to ponder. But I never want to say what was happening in my life because I’m a very private person. I’m hinting at things. I’m using my body to work through it, but it’s not only about me. I’ve had people look at an image and start to cry, because the image brought something up that they were experiencing. It depends on your own personal history.
And your relationship with your own doppelgänger?
Often in the Doppelgänger series it’s one observing the other. The whole idea of the Doppelgänger can lead to suicide. You want to get rid of the other, because it’s not a comfortable experience to meet your doppelgänger. It’s not what you want.
But in your work there is almost always an erotic undertow to the meeting.
I can’t deny that there’s a sexual content. That’s just part of who I am. I’m a sexual being like anyone else. It’s part of who everybody is. I might just live it out a little bit more in my work, or the sexual part comes out more. I’m not more in touch with it than usual but in the work I’m not afraid to live it out honestly. In my personal life I’m very careful about such things. This is just my way of living it out.
So what would you say to the criticism that you’re conducting your therapy in public?
Well, I’ve thought about that and I don’t think I would argue with it. Some of these images are almost like a conversation I’d have with my shrink: “I did this, but I should have done that, and then I saw myself doing something else.” That’s why I don’t want to spell things out clearly, because it shouldn’t be about my therapy. I’m not trying to dump anything on anybody.
What are you trying to do?
I want people to react to this work, and even it’s a negative reaction, that’s better than being indifferent. I’m not trying to offend anybody, but I’m not trying to please anybody either. I’m just doing my thing. I made most of the first Doppelgänger series without even knowing that it was going to be shown. It’s work that’s important for me to do whether or not somebody’s going to see it. I did it because I needed to do it. I just had to do it. I felt they needed to be done.