Landscape of Change: Janaina Tschäpe’s “100 Little Deaths”

Live Dangerously exhibits all one hundred photographs in Janaina Tschäpe’s 100 Little Deaths together for the first time. Tschäpe began the project in 1996 as an exploration of landscape, transmutation, and death. Each self-portrait depicts the artist sprawled face down in different environments around the world, often with limbs akimbo. Tschäpe’s body decorates a range of landscapes including urban meccas, ancient ruins, manmade interiors, woodlands, and bodies of water.

At face value, the series functions as the artist’s visual travel diary from 1996–2002. Tschäpe felt that each place she visited captured pieces of her, and she wanted to embody that emotion in her photography. Her prostrate form represents the powerful feeling of leaving a part of yourself behind somewhere. “It was the idea of me dying, or living a little history that was very short in every place,” Tschäpe said. Her photos vacillate between comedy and tragedy, making the series both surreal and theatrical.

A woman lies face down in front of the towering Moai statues on Easter Island off the coast of Chile.

Janaina Tschäpe, Moais, from 100 Little Deaths, 2002; Chromogenic color print; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Janaina Tschäpe; Image courtesy of Janaina Tschäpe studio

Changing Landscapes

Tschäpe’s horizontal body becomes a part of the landscape as each location molds and changes her. Each photo is “…related to either new places I was living, or new places I was going to…I was really a landscape,” the artist has said. In Moais (2002), the towering Moai statues dwarf Tschäpe’s body. The neutral tones of her clothing blend into the rock and shadows; only the bright white of her shirt draws the eye to her presence. Tschäpe merges into the scene and loses herself to the massive statues before her in one of the most remote places in the world.

A woman lies face down in a leaf-covered path in the woods. Next to the woman is a cleared space where her body was, too.

Janaina Tschäpe, Frick Park, from 100 Little Deaths, 2000; Chromogenic color print; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Janaina Tschäpe; Image courtesy of Janaina Tschäpe studio

The transformation is reciprocal. Tschäpe constructs and changes the landscapes with her presence, just as these places change her. Frick Park (2000) presents the artist lying in fallen leaves on a wooded path. She has cleared away the fallen leaves next to her in the shape of her body. This outline doubles her presence and emphasizes her effect on the landscape. The leaves will never occupy that exact space again. Tschäpe forever alters the location—if only slightly—by being there.

Ocean Goddess

Many of Tschäpe’s “little deaths” take place in or near water, which may be a way for the artist to pay homage to her name and its connection to water. Tschäpe’s first name, Janaina, is derived from the name of an Afro-Brazilian sea goddess of the Candomblé religion. In Fiji (2002), Tschäpe lays perpendicular to the shoreline of a rocky beach. Her blue pants echo the blue of the water. The still line of her body directs the viewer’s eye to the ocean and the distant mountains that appear on the horizon.

A woman lies face down on a rocky coast with a yellow purse next to her. In the distance, on the sea's horizon, are mountains.

Janaina Tschäpe, Fiji, from 100 Little Deaths, 2002; Chromogenic color print; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Janaina Tschäpe; Image courtesy of Janaina Tschäpe studio

Tschäpe’s “little deaths” represent the transmutation that occurs during her travels. Her prone figure negates her identity. This allows the artist to become a part of the landscape and represents the death of her old identity. The figure is not Tschäpe; it is her old self, left behind. Her new self continues on to her next location and next little death.

—Hannah Southern is the fall 2019 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Opening This Week: Live Dangerously

Live Dangerously reveals the bold and dynamic ways in which female bodies inhabit and activate the natural world. Twelve groundbreaking photographers, including Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Kirsten Justesen, Xaviera Simmons, Janaina Tschäpe, and Rania Matar, use humor, drama, ambiguity, and innovative storytelling to illuminate the landscape as means of self-empowerment and personal expression. On view September 19, 2019–January 20, 2020.

***

Traditionally, representations of female figures in art history have shown women passively linked to the landscape through gendered associations of nature, eroticism, and fertility. In contrast, Live Dangerously presents fierce, dreamy, and witty images of women presiding over the landscape—all through the lens of the female gaze. From the groundbreaking work of Ana Mendieta to the first-ever installation of all 100 large-scale photographs in Janaina Tschäpe’s 100 Little Deaths (1996–2002), the artists illuminate the planet’s surface as a stunning stage for human drama. Learn about a sampling of the works presented in the exhibition:

Xaviera Simmons, One Day and Back Then (Standing), 2007; Chromira c-print, 30 x 40 in.; Collection of Darryl Atwell; © Xaviera Simmons, Courtesy David Castillo Gallery

On Stage

In Live Dangerously, the earth is dynamic stage that challenges us to view ourselves and our environments in new ways. Xaviera Simmons (b. 1974) uses her wide-ranging work to address questions of marginalized bodies in landscapes, particularly regarding womanhood and blackness in the United States. In One Day and Back Then (Standing) (2007), a self-portrait in which she gazes directly out at the viewer, Simmons appears tucked into a thicket of reeds, in a dark trench coat, crowned by a curly Afro and dressed in blackface. The image forces the viewer to confront complicated questions, such as the identity and intentions of the subject, and the meaning of blackface in this context. Simmons further reflects on the current social status of both black and white Americans: “How might our entire history have been different had America fulfilled its emancipatory promises to its freed slaves and their descendants instead of commemorating its defeated Confederate planters?”

In Her Element

Artists in Live Dangerously claim their natural environments. Rather than seeming daunted by these extreme landscapes, figures climb, run, and swim through varied terrain, freely and boldly embracing the sublime elements of nature. In her “Ice Pedestal” series (2000, printed 2015), Danish artist Kirsten Justesen (b. 1943) positions herself atop blocks of ice wearing only rubber boots and gloves, letting the ice blocks melt and then refreezing the puddles. Her photographs record this repetitive process of transition from solid to liquid to solid, capturing the idea of mutability and impermanence of the world.

Rania Matar, Yara, Cairo, Egypt, from the series “SHE,” 2019; Archival pigment print, 44 x 37 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Robert Klein Gallery; © Rania Matar

Mischief-Makers

Female bodies activate the land throughout Live Dangerously. At times, they appear to be in precarious circumstances, and in others, they intentionally rebel and disrupt societal expectations of genteel, compliant women. In her “SHE” series (2016–ongoing), Rania Matar (b. 1964) photographs young women in lush landscapes in the United States and the Middle East to portray their individual beauty through their relationships with their environments. Matar’s model in Yara, Cairo, Egypt (2019) stands partially obscured in the crevices of a banyan tree, her limbs echoing the trunk’s vertical shoots to create an uncanny air of mystery.

The works in Live Dangerously employ humor, performance, ambiguity, and inventive storytelling to reveal the ways in which female bodies inhabit, and animate, their natural surroundings. The photographers in this exhibition shed new light on the Earth’s surfaces and elements as catalysts for self-expression.