I sing the body electric, baby
In Lana del Rey’s “Body Electric” from her 2012 Paradise album, she calls Walt Whitman daddy and takes the title of his 1855 poem “I Sing the Body Electric” as her sultry refrain. Against a downtempo melody, she croons, “Whitman is my daddy, Monica’s my mother, Diamonds are my bestest friend,” before returning to the chorus like an incantation. Like the best Lana songs, “Body Electric” is at once hyper-emotional and aloof. She oozes poppish nostalgia, while couching Whitman’s words in a style and sound that is entirely her own—and stakes a claim to them as well. In her Electric Mountain series, Anna Vogel also wears (art historical) lineage on her sleeve, filtering this inheritance—think calling Gursky daddy and Martin mother—through an approach that pushes the boundaries of photography as a medium. As such, “Body Electric” and the Electric Mountains dovetail in understanding what has come before as malleable and ripe for their animating (electrifying!) intervention.
Vogel approaches photography as material, rather than method, having largely given up taking her own photographs since her studies at the Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf. In this vein, her Electric Mountain series, which has been ongoing for nearly two years, has grown increasingly abstract overtime. She finds mostly aerial photos of mountainous landscapes on the internet, manipulating the images digitally, before printing and working over the photograph with varnish. Finally, she scratches the pigment print in rows of fine, horizontal lines. This technique, a form of erasure she has been refining for more than a decade, creates a vibrating, almost undulating, effect. In her collaged works, a selection of which are also on view at Sperling, parts of the photographs remain visible, juxtaposed with scratched sections: in Wait, 2020 a slice of ocean shimmering against a slanted horizon seems to float above encroaching, thin grooves; in fly fly blue, 2020 an equilateral triangle scratched onto the paper connects three planes flying over a rural landscape.
Many of the digital images Vogel works with depict mechanical or industrial incursions into the landscape—described evocatively in German as Störfaktoren—like skilifts, highways and construction sites. Vogel is attentive to this friction between nature and the infrastructure that facilitates human access to that “untouched” landscape, a dynamic to which she became more attuned since moving
to the Tyrol region two years ago. In her Electric Mountains, the original image is obstructed entirely, transmuting this tension into an abstracted vibration that conjures the movement of waves or wind, but also of electrical currents. In Electric Mountains XXV, 2021, blurred swathes of pink begin to resemble a woven pattern before diffusing into gray haze. Vogel’s Electric Mountains, and practice more broadly, can be located in terms of the photographers she studied under, say Andreas Gursky’s horizontality or Thomas Ruff’s seriality, or with regard to a generation of contemporary photographers messing with the medium, like Hadi Fallahpisheh’s dark room drawings or Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili’s multilayered interventions. More intriguing, however, might be to consider her works with respect to abstract painting, as her scratches mimic Agnes Martin’s steady line—its slightly wobbly, buzzing feeling; its inevitable imperfection—and create a disorienting, almost dizzying effect that recalls Bridget Riley’s oscillating illusions. Both Martin and Riley’s work, albeit wildly different, springs (in part) from a systematized perception of the natural world. The artists share a relationship to nature that is at once intimate and characterized by a measured distance: Martin insisted, “I paint with my back to the world” and Riley, “For me nature is not landscape, but the dynamism of visual forces.”
Vogel’s abstraction emerges from a similarly ambivalent relationship to nature, which is ostensibly her subject, but is really more of a point of departure to the spatiotemporal questions that undergird her practice: most basically, how people relate to the world around them. So, it’s no wonder that Vogel scratches the print’s surface and in this way resists photography’s primary tenet of freezing a moment in time. She opts instead to make time legible, palpable even, by participating in a history of mark-making that transgresses (electrifies!) the dictates of her own medium.
— Camila McHugh