lifes. The Disappearance of Interiority
There is something uncanny about the way Bettina Hoffmann uses a very
simple and low-tech device to articulate a complex reflection on subjectivity,
violence and images.
The device is surprisingly simple. In photography the subject is alive
and moving and it is the photographer who imposes immobility by taking
the picture. Photography is all about the reduction of reality to an image.
In Bettina Hoffmann’s project the subjects are immobilized by the
will of the artist. Prior to the image taking they are ordered not to
move, not even a blink, as the camera moves around them in a precise and
calculated manner. The videos are therefore moving images that re-enact
the stillness of photography in a strange way.
In this case, the stillness has a double meaning: a formal one linked
to the medium, and an existential one related to the status of individual
identity. Let me first point out the way in which Bettina Hoffmann uses
the video camera. Contrary to the medium’s inherent logic, here
the video camera does not film movement—the models are still—but
serves the purpose of reproducing the static quality of photography. The
movement is thus translated into a succession of still shots and points
of view which unfold continuously as the camera moves. The immobilized
bodies are subjected to very unusual framings and perspectives. In fact,
Bettina Hoffmann takes the liberty to fragment the human body in places
where one least expects it: heads are cut off, arms are left without trunk
or shoulders. She uses the power of framing to its full extent. What is
essential in each shot is not what is placed in the center, but that which
is on the edge of the picture, where it is cut in two with one part off-frame
and another in-frame, with one visible and another invisible. The viewer
is invited to direct his/her gaze along the edges rather than towards
the center where there is little to fix one’s eyes on. This power
of framing is further reinforced by what can be termed inappropriate framing;
a process that actualizes the violence inherent in the images in a systematic
and almost incoherent manner. The reality is subjected to the arbitrary
agency of the medium. The representation of a subject by means of a medium
is relegated to a secondary status. It is this agency of the medium in
all its force that is revealed here.
This unmasking of the medium induces a quasi-existential experience. The
viewer who looks at these still lives can not but face the fact that s/he
is looking at human beings submitted to a photographic sadism that reduces
them to a cruel immobility. These human subjects therefore become objects,
or in the artist’s words “sculptures.” What is shown,
and what the viewer sees is of the order of pure exteriority: a pure and
simple existence in space. The human sculptures appear strictly as a succession
of external shots. The third dimension has to be subsequently recomposed
through the connection of these two dimensional shots. In fact, the camera
literally moves around the sculptures, and it is left up to the viewer
to reconstruct the whole. However, since each shot is always linked to
the preceding one, no matter how hard one tries, the whole will always
There is something inconsistent in the way these images are processed.
Bettina Hoffmann’s videos are anti-portraits. A portrait traditionally
consists of a partial, one-sided view of a human being that can, by virtue
of the image’s “truthfulness,” claim to represent its
subject in full. In this case almost all sides are shown, but the different
perspectives refer only to each other, without being organized around
a unifying entity. We are left with a fragmented reality. At this point,
Bettina Hoffmann’s project shifts from a strictly formal level to
that of a reflection on identity and subjectivity. The human sculptures
are nothing but exteriority, their interiority vanishes in and through
the process. The ordinary viewer has expectations regarding the representation
of the human form. S/he seeks an interiority, a narrative, an identity,
a meaning to be interpreted. On this level, Bettina Hoffmann plays a perverse
game with the viewer.
The videos stage familiar situations, for instance a dinner, a party,
a meeting, etc. The situations are staged much like a typical TV drama
series; they refer to scripted moments. The viewer is enticed to make
up his own story, but faced with such a wide array of potential storylines
s/he simply cannot decide which one is the most fitting and appropriate.
One builds the stories with the elements shown. There is always a set,
made up of everyday objects, and characters staged in relation to each
other. Yet, the connection between the characters and the objects are
paradoxical and inconsistent. The gaps can not be bridged.
The potential narratives are thus severed from any identity, interiority,
or personal history. We are trapped in strictly external relations between
the staged elements: characters, objects, sets. The multiples narratives
have no organizing principle, and they do not refer to any meaningful
An existential violence emerges from the artist’s manipulative use
of the medium. She imprisons her subjects in a situation of complete subjectivation.
They are objectified and stripped of all interiority. In this sense, Bettina
Hoffmann touches upon the postmodern rethinking of interiority. The postmodern
critique asserts that interiority is a modern construction that can be
deconstructed. This is exactly what she does: deconstructing interiority
by means of the video medium.
To sum up the different moments of the artist project: first of all, she
initially subjectifies her models by forcing them to pose as things among
things; then, she subjects the human sculptures to an photographic agency
that frames them inappropriately and violently; and lastly, she delivers
these fragmented, subjectified bodies emptied of all interiority to the
viewer’s gaze. The viewer is now in a position to re-enact the entire
process of domination set into motion by the artist.
Université du Québec à Montréal