Published  06/04/2015

Anita Witek: ‘I am opening up a gap between image and reality’

Anita Witek: ‘I am opening up a gap between image and reality’

As she was installing her first UK solo exhibition, How to work live better, Austrian artist Anita Witek talked about how she has used magazines to create photomontage while subverting their content


Janet McKenzie: You combine photography, photomontage and installation in your practice. Can you explain your methodology?

Anita Witek: To explain my present methods connects back to the personal experience of arriving in London to live and the process of discovering and understanding a new culture. I came across magazines and newspapers that became a source of information for me, and which I felt were so much more present and available in London than in Austria. This led to my first series, after coming to London, which was called: Polaroids of places that have never existed (1998). It referred to my own search for a place to live, the illusionary terminology used by estate agents, and in my art practice this involved creating imagined places rather than real ones.

JMcK: Were you creating an ideal place, or was it a matter of establishing a comfortable place to inhabit?

AW: I was not trying to create an ideal place for myself personally, but it was through my art practice that I was responding to this new context that I had arrived in. The cost of accommodation in London was much higher than in Vienna, where the market is regulated by the government. It is not possible for landlords to fix prices as they do in London. The cutting out of magazine images represented elements of British culture that I had only been exposed to from afar. At the Royal College of Art [she did an MA in photography at the RCA in 2000], however, I changed direction and began to experiment with other forms that still engaged with London as a city. For example, I made a video work in 1998 called Do you know where you are, do you know what you’ve done?, where I worked with London Underground to capture CCTV footage of my own commute from my apartment to the RCA. 

JMcK: You spent six years in London, studying at the RCA and also working, before going to New York, and then back to Austria in 2006. How did you come to make the work that you call, Best of … (2012)?

AW: This series started with a photography book of soft-focus imagery by David Hamilton [British photographer, b1933] that I found at a flea market in Berlin. I was interested in going beyond Hamilton’s suggested images in order to access the atmosphere and the settings in which he photographed these models. At the same time, I came across a magazine from the 1970s called Schöner Wohnen [Better Living], which offered tame suggestions of how to put people’s lives in order and live “properly”. I wanted to interweave these two pieces of source material by layering fragments on top of each other, as thoughts and memories are loosely layered.

JMcK: To what does the title of your London exhibition, How to work live better, refer?

AW: The title refers to a work by [the Swiss artist duo] Fischli/Weiss called How to Work Better (1991). This was a list of persuasive statements on how to improve productivity in a factory in Thailand that the artists installed on the side of a building [in Zurich]. I was interested in how these statements about the ways we should work are often applied to how we should live, how we should present our homes and lives to others. This tension is embedded within the title, which I intend as a kind of collage in itself: I have crossed out “work”, but it is still very much present in the sentence.

JMcK: I am aware that the installation is not complete and therefore that we would have a different conversation in four days’ time. Does that mean that the installation process itself constitutes a dialogue? And that maybe you are capturing time?

AW: This exhibition in particular is the first time that I have placed my photographic works in dialogue with the wall installations that you see here. Before I started, I had quite an open idea about how the exhibition would look, but working on site has involved a lot of different decisions that have shifted.

JMcK: If I went to your studio in Vienna, what would I find?

AW: Magazines, both contemporary and vintage, collected from flea markets, paper refuse bins. I also collect advertising banners from old billboard campaigns, which I have recently started to use in my work. Cutting an image from its original context (that of the photographer who captured and printed it) frees it from its index and opens up a realm of possibilities for how that image can be used. I am working not with the overall subject but with the things that we might not necessarily notice.

JMcK: In that process, the identity of the image is changed; it becomes something else.

AW: I am using something that already exists (someone has produced it already), so I am quoting it. I am removing the focal point, but, at the same time, I am opening up a gap between image and reality and thereby exposing how these images that we consume everyday are full of gaps, ruptures and possibilities.

JMcK: Are you encouraging the spectator to see reality from a different perspective to that, which is better known or conventional? Is cutting a metaphor for the manner in which we experience reality?

AW: The act of cutting is as much about producing content as it is about erasing content. In my method, I am constantly layering paper so there is never a complete void. There will always be something to break the fall. I remove the focal point but insert new layers in that place. Layering enables there to be more than a single surface can provide.

JMcK: Women by their nature build nests and homes – our nurturing instinct is to create a better life. Is it reasonable to view your work as having a parallel to the nurturing roles we play in everyday life?

AW: The subject matter that I am adopting – cultural forms such as the lifestyle magazine – represent these traditional female roles of homemaking from the 1970s to the publications that still persist today. My use of these magazines could reflect a subversion of this content and history and questions the validity of these prescribed ideals.

JMcK: You use as source material a range of magazines that exist in abundance: Home Beautiful, Vogue Living, Better Homes and Gardens, but you treat them ironically since they spring from commercial interests.

AW: The constant production of these kinds of magazines is fuelled by a set of ideals that can never be reached. They represent an artificial utopia, but one that is created and underpinned by commercial interests. The irony of these magazines is therefore embedded within the content that I am extracting and utilising in my work.

JMcK: Your work evokes memory. Is that a conscious area you choose to explore?

AW: I am interested in how material things are inscribed in memory and can bring up past experiences. Often memory can be a hindrance rather than a help. For example, when you wake up, there are those moments before you begin to think and remember. In my work, I am interested in these moments, in bringing memory into the present, reforming it and creating a new reality.

JMcK: So your work process helps to liberate you from the past, to look to the future?

AW: Yes, it does.

JMcK: Your description of your motives sound rather like those of a film-maker, and the works themselves have a cinematic quality, frame to frame, layer to layer, and a sense of movement.

AW: Without ever intending to make a film, I have always liked moving stills and slide projections. I find the power of still images to be stronger than film. The viewer has longer to analyse the image, to understand it.

JMcK: Does chance play a part in your process?

AW: Very much. It is not a rational process. The overlayering leads to new images being created, through the framing that takes place within my method. The installation freezes the shift that has been made by cutting, but this is a very temporal and site-specific moment. I like the idea that it is someone else who then photographs it and feeds it once again into this feedback loop.

How to work live better is at l’étrangère Gallery, London, from 26 March – 2 May 2015.

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

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