Written by Gabriela A. Covblic

Introductory text by Chiara Valci Mazzara

Text will be published in the upcoming issue of Doc! photomagazine.


A moment in time. A suspended time lapse. Photography is -by nature- led by some sense of urgency to isolate frame in time.

The 'interior landscapes' by Mia Gourvitch and Urs Lüthi are developing this urgency into a further step. The depiction of the moment is enhanced by the choice to isolate, a volume suspended in time as well, a space between and contained by walls: a living room, a bedroom, a bar.

Through the use of the black and white technique and the choice of perspective, the artists succeed on constructing an atmosphere by representing the whole through the particular: picturing the complexity of the surroundings through a detail, giving relevance to the atmosphere through the intimacy of a chosen room.

Both authors choose spaces, which are at the same time public - since visited and lived, experienced by different people: hotel rooms, bar, living rooms of friends and acquaintances - and private - since perceived at the same time by the different guests as their own cause of a juncture, an occasion belonging to a moment. Back then, right at those very moment, they experienced something, they left a trace -an obvious one as the objects belonging to a person in the space of a living room (as for Urs Lüthi), or hidden as the blankets un-arranged when the guest left the hotel room (as for Mia Gourvitch).

The pictures are materialising the system of those sequential relations that any event has to any other, as past, present, or future; the indefinite and continuous duration is regarded as that in which events succeed one another.

People staying and passing by in the hotel rooms, bars and living rooms create traces as footprints of their journey. The landscapes are mirroring a choice of perspective as well as a system of references valid in the past but relevant for the future.

The photographers are isolating a time lapse: the objects and the subjects are 'populating' the stage through the use of light and the depiction of the volumes.

In Gourvitch's works the objects, acquiring a relevance given by the absence of human subjects (in Gourvitch's works the passage of the guest is only represented by the position of the blankets, the door left open, the pillow piled up or not re-arranged properly) are evoking the consciousness of a liminal space held by a sense of variability.

The human presence, in the images by Lüthi, is held by the self portrait of the artist himself, by looking at the camera, giving the back to the other people in the picture, who are located in the foreground as parts of a human scenography. Lüthi appears as protagonist, he occupies the main stage, almost coming out of the photograph - he's looking directly at the camera - giving the idea to be about to commence a dialogue with the viewer, but still depicting himself inside the frame, engaging with the viewer as the main referent of a surreal landscape.

As a result, the time is folded, underlined and only apparently reduced to one photographic space.

The individuals present in the pictures and the intimacy given by them occupying a room, as in Lüthi the bars areas and as in Gourvitch picture Prologue, construct an ephemeral moment, an alternate time lapse.They are - depicted in the background by Urs Lüthi or from above by Mia Gourvitch -  at the same time, protagonist and non-protagonist. They are populating the scene, commuting to represent the atmosphere.

The instant is steady in time: at the bar people are sitting or waiters are looking beyond the counter appearing almost detached, as being there but not engaging with the camera shutter. The gathering in Prologue is represented from above as from an alternate perspective, looking down at them, being free not to be immersed in the moment but to taste it from above, isolating the flavour of the end of a day, of the encounter. The artist is there but not there, steals a moment while re-framing it, bending the time and isolating the 'transitory'.

Sometimes, the works by Gourvitch and Lüthi, are then organised through a narrative layout -consisting in different shots organised together in a unique frame- on the attempt to deliver a deeper understanding of the whole of the space and a wider perception of the ambiance enclosed between the walls, with this light, at that moment.

The artists are both accompanying us on a journey…

Capturers of glances, photographers Urs Lüthi and Mia Gourvitch hunt down moments in time sizing images from life. Yet, in spite of the liberty of the eye, the perception of the observer is also confined to the objective position of the camera. Nonetheless, both artists tend to escape the state of passive viewers to that of active creators, constantly passing the border of the photographic lens, from art to life and back.

As in much of the oeuvre of Urs Lüthi, the terms of Life and Art in Un’insola nell aria (1975) are blurred, mainly by the presence of the artist in quality of the protagonist, but also as the creator. Urs Lüthi’s main motif, that of himself, is present from his very first photographic series in 1969 where he is posing in front of Piazza del Duomo in Milan, changing such identities as a passerby, an onlooker, an outsider. Describing this early series, Max Wechsel asserts that “Lüthi still shows himself as an unworldly creature, mingling with the human beings: a surprised observer of their seemingly aimless activity.” (1) Unsurprisingly, in Un’insola nell aria Lüthi applies the same attitude, he is present in every shot, physically or through the means of his artworks. The series was in fact created to portray a period from his life, mixing intimate and public moments. On one photograph we see the artist/character in a tender embrace with his lover, in another, he is sitting alone in a bar, in a third, he is photographing the viewers of his own exhibition, his self-portraits naturally hanging on the wall. But his excessive presence leads to an opposite effect. Lüthi, in a very direct way, is superimposing the artist and the motif, to a degree that they become indistinguishable. The artist’s body, mind and intention is so immediate that it becomes therefore an intrinsic part of the artwork itself, and thus, not identified as a presence holding a separate meaning. Simultaneously, the concept of the artist as an observer and creator is also eradicated, consequently, once more, re-appropriating the concept of the creation to life.

On a fundamentally opposite path, the work of Mia Gourvitch is leaving a trace of anonymity. Her eye is sensed, yet never seen. Most of her photographs do not show figures, instead they portray remnants of a once passing human presence. The series Layover Dreams (2016), created in what she calls “orphaned hotel rooms” disposes of elements inherited from life, but which are also reconditioned into a surreal decor. The artist photographed hotels which have ceased operations and have been left untouched for over two years. Made and unmade beds, at a first look, evoke a change, a then and now, however the spaces and the objects are not in use, they simply lay there, awaiting. However, and in contrast to Lüthi, the photographs of Gourvitch also offer a liberty to the viewer of understanding and reacting to them in a personal way. The artist leaves space for imagination. Acting as an observer, a collector of human traces, an archeologist of a kind, Gourvitch simply captured the spaces at her disposal, no doubt believing they must exist outside of time, thus, as writer Hemda Rosenbaum wrote about Gourvitch’s eponymous exhibition “The works address the inherent finality of the situation by offering moments that seem suspended in time” (2). Yet Gourvitch is not reporting, she is creating. As much as the premises are left untouched, as an evidence of some kind, Gourvitch actively left her own trace through the editing technique she adopted. The photographs are blacked out, light is contrasted, some of the details she witnessed were erased. Layover Dreams is a series based on an intentional, but invisible mise en scene. The traces of life are swept into giving space to art, where the anonymity of the artist is not but an impression at first glimpse, because her touch has infiltrated every layer of the work. Like in Lüthi’s photographs, the artist, as an observer crosses the limit of the lens and becomes an active character, nevertheless differently still, for what is seen is not a reflection of the artist as a character, but of “echoes of mental subliminal states” (3) that she sensed and shared.

In the two series in question, Un’insola nell aria of Urs Lüthi and Layover Dreams of Mia Gourvitch, the artists seem to point their lenses into similar directions - we can observe interior landscapes, decoration objects, doors, lights, lamps as well as, of course, the signature use of black and white photography  - nonetheless, at a further look, the works are inherently different - Lüthi’s core line is the self portrait, else using foreign humain figures while Gourvitch limits her representation to non human elements. Even though both series are haunted by an absent presence, this is transmitted through divergent intentions. Lüthi’s series, though populated by humans, they are in essence passerby, en passage. On further notes, he portrays his own portraits on the walls, the artist is thus present and absent at the same time. Gourvitch, on the other hand, brings about questions non-existent in Lüthi’s photographs, questions of incognito possessions, of unidentified times and presences, delayed, yet lingering. The objects in these hotel rooms do not belong to anyone, not to the past, not to the new dwellers, they simply exist within their actuality. Even so, one can not help by notice that these works are oscillating around the border of the photographic lens, bringing up a question of ambiguity, a back and forth, as a mirror that lets you pass from one world to the other, from life to art, but also, from objectivity to subjectivity. Things are not what they seem to be, and probably, neither are what they seem not to be. Expectedly, Lüthi declares “Perhaps the most significant and creative aspect of my work is ambivalence as such … Objectivity … is not important to me; all is objective just as all could be subjective.” (4)

The question of the ambiguity is fundamental to Lüthi’s art and Un’insola nell aria is a clear witness to this intention and not only through the substance of androgyny. In an interview with the French newspaper Libération Lüthi once publicly announced that “the androgyny, in itself, has never been (his) subject. The sexual ambiguity is, for (him), the ambivalence which we carry inside of us.” (5) For all that, this ambivalence of wanting to be one and the other, of wanting to be here and there can also been seen through the constant use of the mise en abîme. The term initially associated with heraldry, it literally means to be placed into abyss, and in art is the act of portraying a work of art within the scheme of another. Typical for the swiss artist, he uses and reuses his own works of art to be further placed into new series. (3) In Un’insola nell aria, we can see the self-portraits or the artist being exhibited in exhibitions, or simply hung on walls. Yet again, the artist doesn’t place himself in a particular position, but fluctuates in an ambivalent dance of being the One and the Other simultaneously.

And a similar concept in hidden in Mia Gourvitch’s work Prologue (2015), which contrary to Layover Dreams is actively portraying time through human figure. Part of the series Evolution of a Poem, this work “was born out of an encounter with the poet Tuvya Ruebner, and it is based on one of his poems (Blur your tracks)” tells us Ms. Gourvitch. In essence a digital collage, this photograph assembles and disassembles moments in time captured by the photographer, thus folding a number of moments of time into one. But this photograph is also indirectly portrait. It portrays the life, the space, the surroundings of a poet, who at his turn portrays the surroundings of a culture he represents, a culture which Gourvitch is part of. A portrait of an artist, within the portrait of a poet.

Art for a better life is the title of a retrospective exhibition of Urs Lüthi’s work shown at the Rath Museum in Geneva, in 2002, twenty seven years after the creation of Lüthi’s  series Un’insola nell aria. Even so, these words are already shining through the beginning of Lüthi’s photographic career starting in 1969, bringing up his sense of reality - acquired, adopted, developed and later changed. Taking up different characters, acquiring different versions of the same reality, the artist is trying out ways to find the best of the possible renderings. In a similar way, the photographs of Mia Gourvitch discern a desire for a reinvention of life. The heavy use of post production altering the elements of reality, though leaving them as part of life is not longing for a complete disappearance of the real, rather, for a sort of an upgrade, using art as means to readjust reality. Both artists are sending elements of life across as products of their own creativity, thus blurring the borders in between reality and creation, life and art.

(1) Max Sechs, Urs Lüthi: Life as an ambivalent Art figure between Eccentricity and Normality. In: “Urs Lüthi, ART FOR A BETTER LIFE from Placebos & Surrogates. XLIX BIENNALE DI VENEZIA”, 2001.

(2) Hemda Rosenbaum, Text for the exhibition Layover Dreams, 2016. Part of WAS Biennale, Berlin, Curator: Chiara Valci Mazzara

(3) ibid.

(4) Lea Vergine, Il corpo come linguaggio, (La “Body-Arte e storie simili), Milano, Giampaolo Preardo, 1974.

(5) Quanq-Tri Tran Diep, Urs Lüthi, exposition à coeur ouvert, in Libération 09/07/1994