Meet Me in the Library 9 p.m | Swiss Artist Zilla Leutenegger

The Center for Contemporary Art ,Tel Aviv, Sept. 2007

Zurich-based artist Zilla Leutenegger’s (b. 1968) work fuses drawing, sculpture and video into a full harmonious piece that pushes the boundaries of each of these media, exploring their intersections, their mutual operation, and the interrelations between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional. Her works transpire in the elusive intermediate realms between realism and fantasy, fiction and reality, playfulness and melancholy, dream and memory. They are typified by a dreamy quality and a legend-like atmosphere of peaceful solitude. Her simple-looking images seem to have been drawn from the world of childhood

In this context, the artist reveals that during her childhood, her family moved around, and she was often forced to switch schools and friends. She thus developed a private world that still accompanies her, a world possibly more stable and tangible than the real world. While working, Leutenegger states, she indeed transpires somewhere between the reality world and the imagination world. Nevertheless, she is not interested in didactic myths. She deems her work neutral, one which need not explain itself.

In her current project, part of which was specifically created for the Center for Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv, Leutenegger leads the viewers into a four-room apartment1 consisting of a kitchen, a study, a corridor, and a bathroom (the only room inaccessible to viewers, into which they may only peek). Rather than a real model of a home, this apartment is a loose sketch of a space, which leaves vast room for imagination. “I began working on the Apartment project in Barcelona in the winter of 2004, where I presented the Corridor (the staircase – N.G.A.) alongside other rooms; I continued with the Kitchen which I featured in Switzerland in 2005. In 2006 I created the Bathroom, first presented as part of a comprehensive project of the Apartment which debuted in Germany. Now the time has come for one of the most important rooms in the apartment for me – the Library. I am very happy to present this room for the first time here, in Tel Aviv…” (Zilla Leutenegger, 2007).

The apartment discernible in Leutenegger’s work is far-removed from the perception of “my home is my castle.” Its virtual non-material sections illustrate the illusionism required in order to establish the sense of security associated with the domestic. Moreover, it is a house through whose walls one may see what is going on inside, a house that fails to provide even an inkling of privacy. The house’s penetrability and its inability to protect partly account for the introversion of the woman transpiring therein, who strives to fill some of the functions which the house fails to provide via the boundaries of her body and self. At the same time, this house conveys a sense of tranquility, familiarity and magic, as in a children’s game which allows for the invention of a fictive home by the power of the imagination and fantasy, a house whose concreteness is possibly equal to that of an adult’s house. Leutenegger’s home is comprised exclusively of contours outlined in an ostensibly simple manner, and it is illuminated by means of video “drawings” projected on the walls. As in the cinema, the sense of magic it elicits may dissolve abruptly if the projector goes out. As long as it is switched on, however, we, the viewers, are invited to take part in the stirring world before us.

The classical drawing medium acquires new movement qualities in Leutenegger’s works. Via what she terms “video drawings,” she challenges the boundaries of the projected figure, which transpires within a delimited and defined space, as well as the qualities of light, which acquires material traits. We are left astonished vis-à-vis the live drawing, like Pygmalion marveling at the sight of the sculpture he created, which the mere power of his passion transformed from a cold material entity into a flesh and blood woman.

In her work, Leutenegger creates a subtle and sophisticated theatrical performance. The minor nature of the domestic acts depicted in the projected drawings reinforces the sense of beauty inherent in simplicity, imperfection, banality. It is interesting to find a similar perception in Japanese aesthetics, which gave rise to the concept of wabi-sabi, denoting “a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete; a beauty of things modest and humble,” inclined toward nothingness or evolving therefrom. Wabi-sabi is a type of beauty inherent in the intimate, unpretentious, earthy, obscure, and simple…2. Leutenegger, on her part, characterizes her works as addressing success attempts, as well as failures and dreams. “The times I particularly try to succeed are precisely those where I fail,” she says. “Failure is an important part of my work. My drawings communicate weakness and constant search. I try to be as honest as I can when I work, which may be why my works convey a child-like naïveté.” Determining the value of an activity based on different qualities in the process of its making and the sentiments partaking in it, rather than according to quantitative assessment of results and purposes, is habitually perceived in the West as a female mode of thinking. In this context too, it is interesting to consider another concept originating in the Far East, the Taoist wu wei (inaction or nondoing), whereby result-minded thinking in fact hinders accomplishment of that very result – an idea that may sound paradoxical to Western ears. The idea of we wei prompts non-intentionality and effortlessness as modes of existence.

The presence of the element of surprise in the work process, which in Leutenegger’s art may be a by-product of non-intentionality, is as important to her as the way in which it operates on the viewers. “I don’t like repeating myself or improving what I do. I always like to deal with new things. The artistic medium should be a mere means.” The combination of techniques – drawing, sculpture, video projections, and especially video projection of the drawings themselves – indeed spawns surprising combinations. Discussing the integration of video and drawing Leutenegger says that the balance between the two ostensibly very different media must be subtle, and that the right atmosphere must be maintained.

From the mid-1990s Leutenegger has been integrating female images in her works (usually representations of her own figure), which refer to the female presence in the domestic sphere and to the cultural construction of the “self” in the 21st century. Her self-portrait, pivotal to many of her works, is represented in her oeuvre in various media, and is characterized in diverse manners. Leutenegger attests that she finds herself in constant search for views of banal motion and states of absence and presence, which she can translate into graphics and space design. These works challenge – in light of their minor, elusive nature, it would perhaps be more accurate to say dissolve or disregard – the prevalent connotations of the notions “woman” and “home.” The woman in Leutenegger’s work indeed takes upon herself the house and housework as a field of action, but she is far from representing a maternal, containing and nourishing figure, the kingpin of a broader family. In Jewish tradition, the common representation is embodied in the verse “All glorious is the king’s daughter within the palace” (Psalms 45:14), which defines the house and caring for the family as a woman’s only legitimate sphere of action. In Leutenegger’s work the woman appears as one who operates by and for herself, indrawn and self-sufficient. She displays schizoid qualities of one who requires no one else or one who may have despaired from the possibility of an empathic human encounter. Thus, despite the intimacy created in the space, the figure of the artist as appearing in her works, does not communicate with the viewer. Like a hostess tending to her business, she allows her guests to roam freely between the rooms of her apartment, inviting them “to feel at home” without having to fuss with them. We can see her looking for a song to play for herself at the kitchen table; resting, reading a book or waiting for a guest in the study; biting her nails, deep in thought in the corridor under the staircase, or taking a shower. She invites us, the viewers, to peek into the most authentic, plainest, everyday details of her life without knowing anything about her, so long as we do not violate her peace of mind.

Despite the repetition typifying Leutenegger’s appearance in her works, due to the minimalist linear style which she employs, her figure appears universal, almost anonymous. “The only reason I present my own figure in my works is that I don’t want to project (both literally and figuratively – N.G.A.) my figure on someone else… Generally speaking I can say that I work with my own figure in order to reconstruct the experience of being alone. The hardest thing is not to play a part. I try to use my body as an artistic medium in a neutral or ’ordinary’ manner. Someone once said that the secret of life lies in art. I feel so too…”


1. As an interesting parallel to this work one may note Micha Ullman’s earth work, Foundation (1989), installed on Rothschild Boulevard, Tel Aviv, next to HaBima Square. It is also a four room apartment, albeit very different – excavated and covered with soil, hidden, and (unfortunately) known only to the well-informed.

2. Leonard Koren, Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers (Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 1994), pp. 12, 27, 32.

Meet Me in the Library 9 p.m, Swiss Artist Zilla Leutenegger The Center for Contemporary Art ,Tel Aviv, Sept. 2007