Atlas Gallery is delighted to present a mid-career retrospective of German artist Frauke Eigen. The show is an overview spanning 23 years of her career, starting with the seminal work Eigen produced in Kosovo’s war zone and culminating in a group of abstract photograms created only few months ago and never exhibited before.
Eigen (b. 1969, Germany) began her career in 1995 with the BT New Contemporaries Award for her series of large scale images of burned walls called ‘Lichtenhagen’. Lichtenhagen is a district of Rostock, Germany. In 1996, a year after finishing her MA at the Royal College of Art, London she worked in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Mexico and Ukraine, to later focus on abstract natural forms, developing a distinctive aesthetic of reduction of shapes and contents, yielding images of great elegance and softness. The visual language she created is capable of shining a poetic light elevating any subject, from daily, worn-down objects and vestiges of war, to lyrical shapes of nature.
All Eigen’s works are analogue, black and white images printed on extra matt fibre-based paper, which is hand mounted with rice starch. There is an extensive process of manual labour involved in the crafting of each work, resulting in unique objects of exquisite beauty. The tactile aspect of her technique is vital; “I use my hands to develop the films and while printing, and I feel the actual paper in my hands. As Japanese writer Sôetsu Yanagi wrote: ‘the beauty of everyday things is that things done by hand are more soulful because the hand is closer to the heart”.
Eigen’s images are calm, subtle, yet arresting. They evoke an atmosphere of silence and force us to stop for a minute and just look. Her arbitrary cropping of a scene or an object into only partial details and the great variety of grey nuances convey a different kind of hugely evocative abstraction. “Working with a Hasselblad I look down through a view-finder and the object photographed is face to face. I only have 12 pictures on a roll of film, therefore I have to be precise and accurate. This method educates me to be careful about everything I am doing. The light plays the most important role in the search for a harmonious picture; its significance is the reason why I chose ‘Shoku’ as the title of my book. Shoku is an old Japanese measurement, which refers to the luminance of a candle”.
In 2000 Eigen travelled to Kosovo and witnessed the exhumation of a mass grave of genocide victims. Their belongings had been removed, washed and left to dry in the sun to be later used as evidence in the trials in The Hague.These poignant fragments became the subjects for Eigen’s Fundstücke Portfolio (‘Found Objects’), a copy of which will be exhibited at Atlas. Other copies were notably acquired by the Imperial War Museum (IWM) and the National Gallery of Canada for their permanent collection. In today’s world, this body of work is more relevant than ever.
Her subsequent Los Angeles series “Item Nr.” was shot during a three months residency at Villa Aurora. By coincidence, Eigen ended up in Skid Row, a neighbourhood in Downtown Los Angeles with one of the highest numbers of homeless people in the United States. Here again Eigen did not photograph the people, but was interested in the hidden reality of this surreal area.
This idea of the reduction to the essential led her to Japan. “The precision, purism and accuracy of Japan’s culture and aesthetic interested me. How much can you take away and still get a good picture?” The works from Japan are not impressions of Japan. “I am not telling a story but I am interested in the successful form, shape, structure, and how through this beauty comes into being. After ten years of travelling extensively to areas of atrocity (Bosnia, Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo, Afghanistan) and tumult in my own life I felt I had to turn to beauty. Japan was healing for me. I experienced beauty and attentiveness which moved me to tears, something I usually only know from music or art”. In a country shaped by the conjunction of tradition and modernity, Eigen turned her camera to architectural details, to plants and flowers, to close-up portraits, switching from subtle nuances of her surface textures to stark deep, solid blacks.
In this series Eigen’s elective framing and exclusion of context becomes even more explicit. “All of my work is a section without any reference to the place or time and only in the title one finds references to its places. Extract from any context, it is a search for the absolute. It includes architectural studies, nature and the nude. The idea came to me in the subway. I saw a women’s neck covered by a Kimono and I was stunned about its beauty and tenderness. I was wondering whether this could work with all the burden of the photographic history. Can one do a nude, can I do nudes? I think as an artist one has to take risks.”
The latest photograms, Fotoformás, are an organic evolution of her formalist search. How much can you reduce and still get a good picture? We are saturated by imagery of things, compositions filled with objects, while Eigen’s work is a refreshing, delicate game with the void, with empty spaces. “By removing the negative there is not much left. Just forms and beautiful gradations of grey. These works also show the result of taking risks and pushing the boundaries of what is possible to achieve with analogue photography”. In a way, these photograms sublimate all the elements of Eigen’s practice: beauty, form, reduction, a rhythmical language of shadow and light. These exquisite graphical compositions are made with pieces of cut-out paper of various shapes and sizes. Eigen is keen that they reflect the present and relinquish any feel of the photogram of the 1920s and ‘30s, refusing the association of analogue photography as a form of nostalgia.