Binding, Stitching, and the Haptic Thread
“It is precisely in the breached boundaries of the skin in such imagery that memory continues to be felt as a wound rather than seen as contained other”
Through her preoccupation with the body and threads, Annegret Soltau’s (b.1946), childhood influences infiltrate her work. Her techniques of wrapping and stitching the body, however, are not concerned with the finesse of delicate needlework historically associated with femininity. Rather, they challenge representational and cultural expectations of norms of traditional ‘needlework’. Soltau’s collaborator and friend Karin Struck suggested her use of needle and thread was more evocative of surgical stitching than feminine embroidery. And, more recently, Jutta von Zitzewitz described Soltau’s stitching as a red thread of resistance and prejudice, no doubt in response to her early life and relationships.
Brought up by her grandmother on a farm in a small community near Luneburg, in northern Germany, Soltau’s formative experiences were inevitably based around the many physical and practical necessities of such a way of life. From an early age she learned how to sew animal intestines for casings (for sausages or puddings), knitting and other utilitarian tasks. Between the ages of 16 and 20 she worked at numerous jobs, including assisting a doctor during emergency operations at the docks in Hamburg. Through these initiatives she was able to move away and support herself during her artistic training in Hamburg, and later Vienna and Milan. In Soltau’s moving biographical portrait written in 2008 we learn that her childhood was shaped by deprivation. The photographic images discussed in this article demonstrate her concerns with issues of physical and emotional constraints and connections in terms of relationships and self-identity.
Many of Soltau’s earliest drawn portraits are of heads either wrapped in hair or threads, or appear to be decomposing into a series of crazed webs invading and literally de-facing the women she depicts. Kathrin Schmidt’s suggestion that this opens up the possibility for Soltau of getting closer to the haptic thread, that is, of inviting touch, extends the parameters of interpretation of the work. In a Deleuzian reading, the haptic, through sensations connected to touch, enables or stimulates an affective response. In her early portraits, hair as an embodied material, reminds us doubly of the body. The body (in the form of hair) wraps, decomposes or becomes web-like. Soltau shares with us her discovery of the beginnings of a tactile visuality of the human form.
By exploiting and exploring the technical process of etching Soltau realised the possibilities of touch in the engraved lines on the etching plate. This offered her a sense of being able to feel the action and physicality of etching and, from this, of being literally able to trace a visual tactility of the human form.
This collision between sight and touch where suggestions of the haptic were bound into the concept of a process (the etched line that the finger traces on the plate), stimulated Soltau to work more three-dimensionally. She wanted her ‘drawing’ to be felt by the person, for the body to become central to the action, to physically ‘feel’ the thread.
Her earliest experiments in the series Selbst (Self) (1975-6) can be seen as pivotal to many of her later techniques and works. Photography became not only an integral component of her work as a method of recording, but also as the vehicle for her artistic expressions. We can see in Figure 1 how she almost synchronously wraps and photographically records her actions as she incrementally constrains her head with threads. This method of wrapping combines drawing with physical touch in such a way as to produce a haptic experience of the self, that is to say, a form of touch involving active exploration of the body. The threads constrain and constrict the artist’s face as she binds herself, but once unbound traces of the threads remain temporarily incised into the flesh. Like ghosts of her earlier actions, these marks recall a presence that is now an absent reminder or memory. They challenge notions of time in that it is impossible to say with any accuracy when memories fade, or when wounds heal. In other photographs of the Selbst series Soltau records peeling off the threads, lifting them up and over her face as if discarding a mask, until they are no more than a pile of tangled threads. They remind us of body waste, of discarded hair, abject detritus that although part of us, we abhor once expelled and rejected.
Around the same time Soltau began to explore the binding of her body to its environment. When questioned as to the importance of black thread as opposed to any other colour, She explained its practicality, “I only use black thread because it symbolizes the line from which it has developed. Also, it is more precise and gives a stronger contrast. Coloured thread would get lost easier and not be so effective.”
Figure 2 depicts a series of photographic records from various performances during 1975 and 1976. The third image on the top row is a frame from Permanente Demonstration am 19.1.1976. Soltau is naked to the waist, her arms bound to her torso; she might be modelling for a life class, such appears to be her composure. On closer inspection however, the black threads cut deep into her flesh, and impressions of where the thread has been previously wound over her left forearm again remind the viewer that her body is indeed ‘feeling’ this embodied drawing. A series of haphazard threads, reminiscent of spiders’ webs, pull her in several directions, connecting her to her environment. The embodied being is trapped within the strictures of its surroundings, and although these ties may be broken or released, traces of them may remain. As in the Selbst series, we are reminded in the final frame from this group of images of the complexities and ambiguities of life; the discarded threads suggestive of either the body or life’s detritus. They also act as reminders of the decomposition of the inner flesh below the visible surface lines of ageing.
In those performances where Soltau carries out the binding on members of her audience rather than herself, for instance Permanente Demonstration am 21.1.1976, questions arise as to issues of power, of victim and perpetrator, of deprivation of liberty, of reduction of identity. Hans M. Schmidt describes Soltau’s performances as acts of mummification, which on completion change the viewers’ perception of the participants. He suggests that from initially empathising with the increasing physical restriction of the participants, once the limit of the wrapping has been reached, the viewer feels “less a feeling of compassion than a relatively disinterested curiosity.” In this reading, issues of ‘otherness’ might be seen to arise once the body no longer looks as we expect it to. If it no longer fulfils our perceptions of the body because it fails to remind us of our own, or reminds us too much of what our own might look like in similar circumstances, for instance, bound, degraded and abject, then our reactions to it might be called into question.
From such performances, Soltau developed her use of line and thread into a method of assemblage through the stitching together of fragments of photographs, furthering her experimentation of notions of the haptic. Her strategies of exploring this concept seem to unconsciously echo a transference of emotion or feeling between the physical body and the line in ways that cannot be reduced to a single interpretation. Soltau’s Tagblick (Dayview) (2002) works, seen here in Figure 3, reference her own dental surgery. Her aesthetic surgery focuses on the eyes, our mode of seeing the world around us, of understanding it visually. These images refer not to an unknown victim, but to the artist who is both victim and perpetrator, patient and doctor, stitching herself together with a needle and strong black thread. Her injected eyes transfer their pain to ours, in a haptic violence. Those photographs of her face obliterated by an all-seeing eye play upon the language of “I’ and ‘eye’, as identity is suggested as simultaneously fragmented, overwhelmed and horrible.
The final series of photographs discussed here Verified Self (2009) [Figure 4], are a combination of black and white, and colour photostitchings of the artist’s head. They suggest what might be underneath the surface of the skin; that is, other faces, other identities. The ambivalence of identity, its unfixedness, and the differences between what is seen and what is felt is deeply disturbing. In a quest to ‘verify’ or confirm identity, complexities around the issue of authentification; of discovering exactly who we are, might recall work by Claude Cahun or Cindy Sherman, Francis Bacon or Hans Bollmer to name a few. But, unlike these artists, Soltau’s commitment has been to a persistent investigation of a notion of the haptic, and the discrepancies between what is fragmented and what can be put together, imperfections, mis-matching and variance.
Implicit in this, and equally important are the reverse faces of the photographic frames. In these more abstract, and ambiguous representations of the head we recognise stitching that loosely corresponds to the front faces. However, where the sewing around the face appears fairly evenly spaced and becomes secondary to the facial imagery, the threads on the Rückseite (back) follow the same outlines, but include knots, crossed stitches, long geometric lines and loose threads, mirroring the chaos of the disfigured front face. Through these discrepancies in the physical form of the head, maybe even of identity, we are again made aware of what is not visible but can be felt at a different level; for example, as traces of experiences or pain. Pictorial play between front and back reiterate differences and similarities between the outer and inner body, between sight and touch.
Soltau’s exploration with issues arising around physical and emotional deprivation, include the uncertainties and discrepancies of identity, and affective responses to constraints of relationships. Her probing of identity suggests there is no intact embodiment, the inner and outer may not correspond. Instead, she shows us that the body is a physical and emotional site of disintegration, which through our relationships with others and ourselves repeatedly re-connects and re-forms. In Soltau’s work this appears either through binding, or stitching together the wounds, accepting their traces, assenting to mis-matching and difference, and the traces of pain.
TEXT BY HEATHER HANNA
©All pictures Annegret Soltau