Images of Shadow

Brief notes on the photographic installations of Gina Lee Felber

by Klaus Honnef, 1990

The famous cave parable used by the Greek philosopher Plato in the 7th book of his treatise „The Republic“ has been cited so often, not only in the context of photography, but also in earlier discussions of art, that one can scarely ignore it in approaching the shadow world that Gina Lee Felber conceives and realizes in her „photographic installations“. In Plato’s allegorical dialogue, the inhabitants of the cave are, of course, fastened with chains and unable to turn their heads. They can only see the shadows cast by the objects carried along behind them, made visible on the wall in front of them by a fire that is also behind them. Thus their total visual experience is limited to the perception of reproductions, of fleeting silhouette-like appearances devoid of any material substance. From very early times critics of different shades of opinion have found sustenance for their attacks on the illusionary nature of the visual arts in Plato’s cave parable. And in an age which, under the still constantly growing influence of the mechanical and electronic mass media photography, film and television, has apparently chosen the picture world of the reproductions as the model of the „real“ world, Plato’s philosophical discourse takes on an almost prophetic character. „Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still revelling, its age-old habit, in mere images of truth“, in the words of Susan Sontag’s devastating critique in her collection of essays „On Photography“.

On the other hand it would be quite wrong to see in Gina Lee Felber’s „photographic installations“ an optical illustration of the illusion that was played out in front of the watching eyes of the prisoners in Plato’s cave, although the parallels are astonishing. The images the philosopher awakes in the minds of his readers are almost strikingly realised by the images of the artist. And indeed, if these images do have a connection, it has more to do with the cave parable itself than with the aid and comfort that opponents of art and photography commonly draw form it. For the observer of the projections the artist produces using photographic means is the prisoner who has already been freed form Plato’s cave, and who can only picture the abandoned world of shadows in the memory or the imagination. Of course, this does not mean that he or she has actually seen the light of truth. However, the opportunity is there for everyone, and it is for this reason that Gina Lee Felber’s „photographic installations“ are more or less the very opposite of the perfectly simulated world of advertising, of the glossy magazines, of films and television- in short, of that elevation of everyday things into the status of museum exhibits, which is fostered not least by the mass media.

But it is by no means empirical reality that provides the model for the universe of shadows in Gina Lee Felber’s „photographic installations“. Rather, it is a specially created artificial reality which owes its existence exclusively to the creative activity of the artist. lt is a reality of purely aesthetic origin. Using simple materials like wire, paper, plastic sheeting, wooden sticks, or found objects, Gina Lee Felber constructs highly imaginative objects, usually in pastel shades. After completing the objects, she uses the camera to photograph them form particular angles, often concentrating on details. In this way she transforms one already artificial reality into another, into a new, photographic reality. She uses a normal commercially-available camera, without any particular technical paraphernalia, and highly sensitive film. She lights the whole scene with lamps placed on the same side as the camera. Calling her pictures „photographic installations“ does not only have the purpose of drawing attention to the actual origin of the shadow pictures, it also explicitly emphasizes the artistic and aesthetic quality of this world, which holds its own against both the empirical reality and the reality of its aesthetic reflection in the mass media. But the objects only provide the basic materials for the photographic transposition, it is only for that they form the origin. For they in turn are preceded by drawings. These act as sketches and studies for the objects, which are not actually objects in the true sense, but look instead rather like models for stage sets. Nevertheless, the drawings also lay claim to, and possess, an aesthetic value of their own, by virtue of which they open up another level of artistic reality. The strength of the forces tending towards aesthetic autonomy in the individual disciplines within Gina Lee Felber’s artistic work is illustrated not least by the fact that the objects that at first used to serve merely as models for the „photographic installations“ have long since developed into indepen­dent and highly imaginative and impressive aesthetic forms2 And it is for this reason that one needs be aware of their existence in order to make an adequate approach towards the photographic works. In the context of the artistic oeuvre, the status of these objects is just as independent as that of the drawings, the paintings and the object installations. Gina Lee Felber is an artist for whom the medium of photography has opened up particular aesthetic possibilities that cannot be tried out in the other artistic disciplines. Indeed, the technical law of photography, by which every photographic object, no matter how real it is, is inevitably transformed into a network, of light and shadow- or as in the negative, where light and shadow are reversed – turns these possibilities into a decisive and productive aesthetic factor. The structural elements of photography govern the pictorial statements made by Gina Lee Felber’s „photographic installations“. Essentially, these are quite simply genuine photographic images, which initially refer to themselves. They reflect a photographic reality par excellence, before they go on to allow scope for a wealth of associations. In this sense the artist takes a more apt approach to the medium than those photographers who force it into abstraction.

It is not easy to describe the photographic works of Gina Lee Felber, and a description would tend to treat them in too literary a fashion. lt is as images that they affect the observer, mobilising feelings, orchestrating moods, provoking anxieties, and appealing to the imagination. Against backgrounds which are in part brightly illuminated, there appears a branching network of shadowy forms of varying density which occasionally seem to feel their way towards the sphere of nameable motifs. But it is the imagination of the particular observer that identifies such motifs. Enclosed basement-like rooms in a chaotic state, whose aesthetic order nevertheless gradually reveals itself, open up before the eyes of the observer. One is completely drawn into them, as the pictures in the photographic installations are larger than the usual photographic format. They might be pictures taken after a catastrophe, but also the reverse- pictures that could come form impenetrable primeval ages, before everything began to be. Their most striking feature is an unmistakeable ambivalence. Things whose outlines one thinks one has recognised have lost their solidity and compactness. The shadow image of a hammer (the model for which is not actually a hammer) has soft outlines. If one looks closely one immediately sees that the shadowy forms resist unambiguous classification. For that reason the artist does not regard the titles of her works as a guide for the observer, or as a „crutch“, as she vividly puts it herself. But on the other hand, the titles, which incidentally are fixed upon only after the work is finished, lend her „photographic installations“ an additional poetic dimension.

Perhaps Gina Lee Felber’s shadow images summon us back to Plato’s cave, and perhaps also, in contrast to the demands of the philosopher, they convey the hopeful message that there is no one truth, and that a creative person, an artist, can create order in the chaos of this world, an aesthetic order at least, and one that is capable of leading to insight.

1 Susan Sontag, On Photography, New York 1977, p. 3
2 Cf. Gabriele Honnef-Harling, Catalogue Gina Lee Felber, Wittlich 1990