This piece originally appeared in print in So It Goes Issue.4, Autumn 2014.
'She could sleep here, waves crashing over her skin, dancing on her eyelids, covering her with its continual circular motion. She realises once again that she could happily never leave, would prefer to live inside a camera, inhabiting the secluded intensity of the projected spectral image’ – from Fractal Scars, Salt Water and Tears
Entering an Esther Teichmann show is like being led into the giant cliff-edge camera obscura in the short story that accompanies Fractal Scars, Salt Water and Tears. Reality is transfigured and we fall into a different world, a nebulous twilight zone, ‘the camera’s belly’. In glistening caves dripping with paint, milky skin is bathed in an inky blue light, languid bodies twisting and turning through primordial landscapes.
Here, we are in the dark, wet space between image and reality, having slipped past the banal function of the photograph into the unknown. To Teichmann, the magic of the camera obscura endures: “It’s like live theatre. There is something about it that is beyond language. It doesn’t matter that I understand how it works, that doesn’t take away from it. It’s the transformation of what is real into something else, something other.”
Having grown up in the Black Forest in the Rhine Valley, the dense swampland that dominates her work belongs to her past, harking back to the strange subtropical climate of her childhood. Though threaded together by a visceral and womblike quality, the photographs were made across the world: familiar haunts five minutes from her parents’ home in Germany, alligator-infested rivers in Florida, waterfalls outside New York and road trips in Australia, all the way back to her home studio in London. Dislocated from their diverse geographic locations, they are subsumed into Teichmann’s mythic topography, becoming part of her search for ‘home’.
Populating this otherworldly realm are the fleshy bodies of Teichmann’s mother, lovers, sisters and friends. Delicately slipping into a fictional landscape and the tangible relationships the figures embody, her muses are caught between worlds under the ground glass of the 5x4 frame, the photographic act becoming a powerfully intimate and complex way of looking, fraught with desire. “Often I love someone, but I love part of them as image. In some ways, it unfolded organically. The reason that I take pictures is to spend time with the people that I desire in the widest sense. I guess there’s something about the photographic that creates an intimacy outside of language.” Carnal bodies animated with movement writhe near decaying classical sculptures, bodies long gone. As Susan Sontag once sombrely asserted, ‘the photograph of the missing being will touch me like the delayed rays of a star’. Teichmann’s intricate studies burn with an apprehension of this loss, an attempt to grasp time and overcome it.
Though heavily influenced by theory, literature, painting and film, the sheer physicality of the photographs speak outside of language, combining with these references to create an exotic, mythic space that feels real. The slippage between experience and narrative takes place during all stages of the photographic process, from the shoot through to the darkroom, printing, collage and painting: “That time in the darkroom, or that time with the image, I have to grapple with it physically in some way. That was almost too fast, or too distant, someone else’s hand.” The resulting installation acts like a portal; otherworldly species brought back from the sea then flecked with paint and exhibited on a pedestal. There are huge, theatrical backdrops, an evocative fragment of text and the corporeal figures of the artist’s family and friends.
The future promises to piece together more fragments from this illusive place. Teichmann has upcoming projects involving moving image and sound. An earlier video involved transcribing a story recounted by her mother about trying to reach Teichmann after she had lost a partner in a car crash. Placed against Super 8 footage shot by her father driving through the Black Forest, the original text was then rewritten by the artist, then spoken again by her mother. The process explored ‘how slippery memory is, how slippery our different positions of it are but also how we, as a survival mechanism in lots of ways, have to fictionalise experiences. As an artist, maybe that’s a way of making them more true.’
Words by Sophie WrightImages courtesy of Esther Teichmann