Earlier this year, I came across the photography of Vlatka Horvat, a Croatian-born, New York-residing artist. Though Vlatka mainly uses photographic mediums in her work, I would hesitate to label her as just a photographer. With a master's in Performance Studies from Northwestern, and a bachelor's in Theater from Columbia College, Vlatka's photographs capture something visceral about a moment or a space. Her images typically depict an anonymous figure in a compromised state of dissection—a woman, searching for something, appears decapitated by the hole she's peering into—and the work feels much more like a document of a performance, or a conceptual tool that questions its own nature. I had many questions I wanted to ask Vlatka; her work seemed gleeful and melancholy at the same time, and it balances on an provocative line between photography and theater. I was curious to know how Vlatka saw her work, what her intentions and curiosities were, and how she approached and navigated the duality in her work.
1. Wanting Something and Its Opposite at the Same Time
This is That: I was introduced to your work via the Hiding series, which I saw on a blog somewhere. Can you tell me a bit about how this came about for you, in terms of the inspiration? I like that you're playing with the true nature of hiding, in that you're never truly gone from the photos. There's always a sliver of you revealed—can you talk about this intent and its importance to the work?
Vlatka Horvat: The Hiding images show a person trying to (unsuccessfully) hide behind more or less commonplace objects—a bag, a coat, a chair, a fire extinguisher. These objects are often too small or the wrong shape to conceal her properly, so her body is always partially revealed, sticking out from behind these quite inadequate hiding places. We see only the legs, the feet, the hands, the back—clues of a person rather than the whole person. I was interested in the paradox of posing for the camera and at the same time hiding from its gaze; making an image while attempting to disappear from it. There is something foolhardy about that… I guess you can see these images as failed attempts to be concealed, or as examples/demonstration of hiding that doesn’t work.
The only things consistently hidden in the images are the protagonist’s eyes and face. So the logic she seems to be operating under is ‘if I don’t see you, you don’t see me.’
2. Wanting More Than the Body Can Do
TisT: I'm interested in what you mentioned in your response to question one: this idea that "presence is always a kind of a problem," and then the notion that at some point, there's always "someone missing" in the process of making your photos. Though your work is rooted in a kind of performance, and even installation, you use photography to document it. Is there a connection there, between the problem of presence and photographing it (or the absence of it)? How does photographing yourself in these works help you in trying to depict a desire that "exceeds physical possibility"? Going back to this idea of wanting to be revealed, how does a photo transcend or elevate, or perhaps complicate and obscure, physicality and presence for you?
VH: Yes—one of the central concerns of mine is this question of presence. My interest is framed through the body and its centrality in these acts and encounters, which are, as you point out, related to performance... from quite concrete, specific questions of how body occupies space, how it relates to other objects, how it negotiates tasks and ‘being there’… all the way to the wider, more abstracted questions of having a body in the first place and making sense of its physical nature, its object-hood, its limits and possibilities, and ultimately its reach toward something that extends beyond the physical world.
I think that to yourself you are always, at least to some extent, not fully ‘there.’ There’s always some aspect of lived experience to which you don’t have access, from which you are removed. I’m not necessarily talking about the kinds of ‘removal’ that happen “in your head”—wanting to be somewhere else, getting lost in the space of fantasy, imagination, daydreaming etc.—though these can certainly be part of it. I’m thinking more of the way we can experience our bodies as something strange or foreign. In the work I try to articulate that sense of estrangement by depicting the body as fragmented, or taken apart, continually reassembled and reconfigured. Oftentimes it’s a body on the edge of something (of failure, of collapse), or on the brink of something (of possibility, of change)—it’s not clear which!—though in any case, a body in a more-or-less perpetual state of in-between-ness and transition.
3. Life Is Not Lived as a Series of Frozen Fragments
VH: (cont.) After working with video and photography for some time, I started feeling like I wanted to be freed somehow of those constraints in my work; this is what initially prompted me to start working in collage. All my image-based works on paper (as opposed to text-based ones, which operate rather differently) re-use fragments of the body from my photographic or video projects—reprinted, photocopied, cut-out, etc. A nice thing about collage is that it opens up the category of ‘what is possible’ in representation. Being twice removed from the event, from something live, collage is not bound by the limitations of what a human body can do in time and space, but it can still try to speak about these things. The possibilities of what can be shown/done to/with the cut up or re-imagined body in a collage are not limited by what a body can physically do or enact.
Photography as a mode of representation fixes time, turning movement into stillness, so inevitably there’s a fundamental tension in its relationship to presence and to lived experience. Obviously, life is not lived as a series of still poses and frozen fragments! And any moment that photography catches is always gone already, a fleeting moment lost.
I’ve been really excited by the possibilities of working with collage because, just as it is not restricted by the condition of actual body and space, it is also not constrained by the limits of photography and what the medium is able to capture or fix. Since it starts as a photographic image however, collage still carries something of the charge of photographic images. Of course that charge will be different from proper photos, if for no other reason than their second-hand/homemade/degraded nature, a physical condition which marks the fragments in them as leftovers, as reused materials, remnants of something else.
Maybe the reason presence—any presence—is uneasy is because every presence is temporary…infested with some amount of absence, with a sense of that which is not present or seen. I guess being ‘here, now’ is always haunted by the prospect of not being here tomorrow. Another problem of photography as a medium (especially thinking about presence and performance) is its dependence on visibility and what can be seen. Photography has a hard time representing other modes of ‘knowing’—things that are not visible or experienced by looking. On some level I suppose, the recurring gesture of the protagonist in my photos—her repeated hiding, concealing her face, vanishing into objects—can perhaps be seen as an attempt to playfully defy photography’s demand to see, expose, reveal.
As images, many of my photo series enact a certain paradox: that of posing for the camera and at the same time evading its gaze; occupying the center of the frame while attempting to pass unseen. It’s as though the protagonist of the pictures doesn’t quite understand the expectations of presence in front of the camera. She occupies this space of visibility and exposure, but then hides there, which is kind of a wrong thing to do. And she does it repeatedly, from image to image, from series to series, so it seems to be more than a simple mistake; it’s a persistent misrecognition of the situation.
Maybe it’s worth mentioning that pretty much all my works take a form of a series. They function as multiple iterations of the same thing, multiple attempts at the same image or an action in a different place or with different set of objects/tools. I guess what draws me to working in a series is the fact that seriality explicitly reveals the problems of representation by laying bare the multiple attempts at something, by making you aware of the repetition, of a kind of obsessiveness or a struggle.
4. The Hunt Is What Decapitates Her
TisT: I'd like to hear about your process for the Searching series. What's interesting about the series, for me, is how it seemingly mirrors the Hiding works: there's an obscurity going on in both, though under different guises. What it is your intent with Searching, both as its own entity and also how it expands the themes you're already investigating with your other work?
When I was first thinking about this project, I actually started from a phrase; I’m very interested in language, especially phrases that evoke an interesting visual image when taken literally, but also carry a rich metaphorical/referential range of meanings. So I started with the phrase ‘loosing your head’ and tried to picture it literally. I was thinking of the states/conditions in which a person is said to lose her head: in passion, in love, in shame, in distress, in panic (also as a punishment). Basically these states that can be described as somehow ‘too much’—too much to take, too much to stay composed in the midst of them, to stay contained, too much to be able to understand and make sense of. Again, the kinds of states you can loose yourself in. The phrase also made me think of a hysterical woman, in the sense that a person who loses her head becomes a body out of control.
Here this body is very much an active body, doing stuff in the world, in spite of its headlessness (or maybe because of it)…. There’s humor and absurdity in that, but also something uncanny, unsettling and uneasy. The kind of humor that’s borne out of ridiculousness and apparent stupidity of the image you are looking at, and yet it can produce a certain discomfort because it’s also hinting at violence. It’s part violence, part slapstick. I’m really interested in images that can be read as both funny and not funny, and as a viewer you can’t always be sure which way to go.
5. A Body Attempting to Simultaneously Occupy Inside and Outside
6. Language As an Object
TisT: You mentioned your interest in language, and how Searching began as a phrase. You play with language a lot in your work, either literally, or more indirectly, via a title, for example. Talk more about what draws you to this. It struck me as connected to what you touched on here: "I’m not so much interested in depicting situations…, but rather in representing conditions/states: in-betweenness, stuckness, doubt, inability, contradiction, failure..." Your use of language seems to also investigate this idea of odd, uneasy, or ambiguous conditions, in that language is inherently, for lack of a better word, kind of sloppy, or malleable. Do you agree? Do you play with language precisely because it is so play-able, because it allows you a medium or point of entry to these conditions and states?
VH: A lot of my projects are organized around a set of self-imposed restrictions, a frame within which an activity takes place. The work basically gets articulated as a series of attempts to deal with those restrictions, to find the solutions and options inside this provisional framework. So the structure of the system always lives in a dialogue, or in a tension, with the improvisation and play within it...
Please visit vlatkahorvat.com for more information on Vlatka's work. I would like to extend the warmest thank you to Vlatka for her time and effort with this interview.