Esther Teichmann’s world is a mystical one of caves, swamps and underground lakes that exist somewhere between the real and the imagined, between autobiography and fiction. They are fragments of memory informed by the landscape of the Rhine Valley and the valleys of the Black Forest where she grew up and reimagined as mysterious, womb-like spaces where women sometimes sleep and dream.
Though her main medium is photography, her work incorporates painting, film, sculpture and the written word. Now resident in London, Teichmann received an MA (2005) and a PhD (2011) in Fine Art from the Royal College of Art (RCA) and is Head of Programme of Master Research, and Coordinator for Critical and Historical Studies at the RCA. In 2013, she was a guest professor at the Californian College of the Arts in San Francisco and was Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of the Arts, London from 2009-2018.
Her works have been shown the world over and form part of an ever-evolving archive that is expanded and reconfigured in various forms. For example, she has reassembled and incorporated part of a previous series, Heavy the Sea, into this show.
Her latest exhibition at the Flowers Gallery uses a short story as its jumping off point, with the same title, On Sleeping and Drowning. It’s available to all visitors and full of atmospheric descriptions of moonlight, breaking waves, the groaning of thunder, writhing bodies and seaweed strangling the limbs of a near-drowning woman. She explained the title to me.
“I was thinking about the space of fantasy and desire but also the space of falling into sleep, like giving up control and that same physical feeling with swimming and daring yourself to dive deeper and deeper until your body forces yourself back up. That moment when you contemplate drowning as a blissful state or the potentiality of that. It’s a loss of your own subjectivity, like being outside your own physical self.”
Similarly, a 19 minute film of a woman writhing naked on a bed in auto-erotic continual motion suggests she is completely absorbed in another space. The model, Sophia Wang an academic and dancer whom Teichmann met in California, moves both rhythmically, slowly and seductively.
The characters in Teichmann’s narratives are always female, are often erotically charged and are invariably facing away from the camera and into their own inner world. Her models have wonderful hair, sometimes huge tresses, Rapunzel-like, once again referencing the fairy tale landscape of her childhood. The photos slip between the surreal, the feral and the human. Behind them are often backdrops of mystical clouds painted by the artist or ancient rock formations full of shells and fossils.
Seaweed has been a recurring feature in Teichmann’s oeuvre for a few years now and crops up several times in this exhibition. She’s collected it from places as far afield as Cornwall and Australia, even storing it in her bath and bathing in it to find out what it feels like.
“It’s a water plant that feels alive in water, so you get that feeling like an octopus or water snake, something that has a very sensual relationship to it. It feels very much like leather or skin. It has a very skin-like texture.”
Teichmann, with a keen sense of photographic history, is also referencing the 19th century botanist and photographer, Anne Atkins, who is said to have been the first person to publish a book using photographic images.
A notable feature of the models she uses for her pictures is that they tend to face away from the camera, often with their heads lowered. This exudes a sense of melancholy which, for Esther Teichmann, is an inherent part of the photographic process. “I’m interested in the space between loss and desire. The photographic always occupies a melancholic space for me of loss in relationship to time and something which exists no longer.”
That space between loss and desire involves the psychoanalytic and philosophical idea of working through loss, and trying to find from where the impulse comes in creating a work of art. “It’s that moment of having created something that was imagined and then becomes tangible but then maybe disappears again. So I’m interested in loss in relationship to the production of a work of art in a way as well as in relationship to the bodies around us that we are drawn to. And I guess as to why we are drawn to who we are in relationship to looking for that original basic home.”
By blending memory, desire, reality and fantasy, through various and sometimes combined media, Esther Teichmann’s works say something about the artist personally but also something about us all.
On Sleeping and Drowning is showing at Flowers Gallery, 82 Kingsland Road, London E2 8DP until 22 June 2019.
All images are ©Esther Teichmann and courtesy of Flowers Gallery.