"En art, il n'y a pas d'étrangers."
In January 1955 the Museum of Modern Art in New York opened its doors to one of the most ambitious international photography exhibitions ever staged. The Family of Man famously comprised '503 pictures from 68 countries' - works from two hundred and seventy-three photographers were chosen from over two million submissions and proposals from individuals, collections, and organizations. The selection was made by Edward Steichen (the exhibition's lead curator and head of the photography department), Wayne Miller, and others from the museum staff. Each work was displayed thematically, in groups that focused on subjects such as birth, love, work, play, and death, offering a visual and world-wide account of the human condition. Following MoMA, the exhibition began an international tour, shown in thirty-seven countries over the next eight years. It aimed, ten years after the end of the Second World War, at healing wounds, promoting humanist values, and heightening awareness of commonalities, shared experiences, and concerns of people across the world. Universalizing and broadly socialist, as opposed to communist, in outlook, it was an American vision of the Free World's appreciation of family values and social justice, circulating under MoMA's newly established 'International Program'. It was "a camera testament" to quote Carl Sandburg, who wrote the prologue to the exhibition catalogue: proof and evidence, as well as artistic treatment, of some of the things we have in common. It was also, curatorially speaking, an international exhibition on an international tour; a travelling show that was itself about travels; a display about different people in different places that was then shown to different people in different places, combining a local and international dynamic. This coalition of subject matter and reach was central to its compelling power and appeal, as Sandburg stated: "You travel and see what the camera saw. The wonder of the human mind, heart, wit and instinct, is here. You might catch yourself saying 'I am not a stranger here'."
In 2010, MoMA celebrated the 55th anniversary of The Family of Man with a retrospective exhibition. It is not difficult to see why this early and ambitious understanding of the extraordinary power of photography to communicate, contextualize, frame, fix and then circulate an image of a person and a place would be so commemorated. Moreover, its MoMA context reminds us both of the early championing of photography as a medium by its founding director Alfred Barr and his colleagues, and of the elevated status of photography today, over half a century later. Jan De Cock, who enjoyed his first solo exhibition at the MoMA in 2008, just two years before this retrospective exhibition, is a contemporary artist for whom the role of photography and its capacity to travel across national borders and cultures are second nature. It is no surprise his art work was on display there within the same exhibition schedule. His work, both at MoMA and since, is willingly insinuated into this developing modernistic story, aiming to contribute to it whilst drawing from it. What, however, makes his exploration of the power of photography as an artistic medium so intriguing is that he does so as a sculptor, and it is this that interests me here.
Though formally and structurally different, De Cock's Everything For You has much in common with his earlier and highly ambitious Denkmal project and the single-minded, sculptural imagination at work can be clearly seen to inhabit and charge both. Both expansive bodies of work strive, in different ways, for a combination of freestanding autonomy and site-specificity, or at least a site-sympathetic or site-associative chiming. They are also driven by and structured around notions of generation and reproducibility, self-sustainment and independence, connectivity and mobility, as one sculpture or architectonic structure - whether as a single object, a plinth or/and as an entire room - moves from one place to another, both 'taking the weather with it' and haunted, explicitly or implicitly, by the photographic ghosts and ideas of previous incarnations. Studios are found both indoors and outdoors, where the work is made and displayed. Across both we see that photography at once ties sculpture further to place and, at the same time, highlights its ultimate mobility and ability to be transported elsewhere. We find sculptures simultaneously making and taking both space and place. Both projects learn as they go along, accumulating content, though starting from a specific concept and position, and gradually being made manifest in visually different ways.
'Manifesto for Sculpturecommunism' is the declaratory beginning of the 'Everything For You' concept - the provocative yet discursive starter pistol of this project - and the epistolary genre chosen by the artist. Addressing his viewer as 'Dear Customer' serves to give his words a familial urgency and passion as well as a critical, even accusatory directedness. "Please forgive me for saying that you are no longer king" he taunts us. The manifesto is also the outspoken 'me' bit of a project that from now on will be all about, and for, 'you': as the post-manifesto subsequence of the project will see the artist's work (as opposed to the artist) in a more explicit and visual extensive relation to the rest of the world. Throughout his manifesto De Cock assumes the position of the sculptor-maverick (indeed being a 'sculptor' seems to be part of this position) - "a dissident and an accomplice, a radical artist and a traditionalist" - and the ensuing works for Everything For You are presented as sharing in this ambiguous and seemingly contradictory life. These sculptures, De Cock states, are gifts "to capitalism" and gifts "to spare artworks from capitalism". So we might read them as 'freebies', 'giveaways', 'lost leaders', as much as anything else more personal or emotionally loaded, reminding us that, whatever his intentions, how these sculptures and photographs will be received is ultimately out of his hands and into ours. De Cock also states that he is "fabricating gifts as Trojan horses". It is a very sculptor-like statement and in addition to seeing sculpture as a classical subterfuge and siege weapon against the system, we might allow the English saying 'Don't look a gift horse in the mouth' to come to mind here, suggesting it is wise not to look too hard for faults in what is being given to you as a gift - as a bequest not on request, free of charge and unsolicited, as opposed to bought and commissioned. Exactly, of course, what the Trojans fell for at the hands of the Greeks.
Through the numerous colour photographs of Everything For You, however, looking harder not just at the sculptures, but also (and more imaginatively) at the kinds of connections that are repeatedly staged and recorded between objects, people, and environments is exactly what we are encouraged to do. These colour photographs also invite us to think back and forth between theory and practice, between word and image, as we look at these photographs with De Cock's earlier manifesto statements in mind. Towards the end of this text he dwells on the kinds of qualities his 'Everything For You' sculpture will have. He writes that it will be "something different from all other objects", sculpture that has "multiplication" and the reproductive impulse at its heart. These are telling words and it comes as little surprise to see plaster (and its family of materials) playing an important role in these sculptures.
Historically speaking, plaster has always enjoyed a special relationship with photography. It is highly photogenic, its whiteness and its capacity for sharp shadows and for casting volumetric form have fitted well with monochrome photography. The photographs of Brancusi, Man Ray, Brassaï, and many other photographers and photography-taking sculptors since the 1920s, are testimonies to this. It was through the published dissemination of monochrome photography that most people initially encountered the plaster sculpture of Picasso, Giacometti, and others. This continued a trend that first emerged with such compelling power and influence in the 1930s, through magazines such as Cahiers d'art and Minotaure. Plaster was regularly the material featured and the studio, often plaster-covered, was the venue for its photographic representation. Through the photography of Brassaï, published in The Sculptures of Pablo Picasso (1949), Picasso's sculptural output was circulated, and it was through the photography of Brassaï, Ernst Scheidegger, and others that an image and idea of Giacometti's sculpture was brought to a wider audience, well beyond Montparnasse. Through its photographic representation plaster became the material of 1950s sculpture par excellence: connotative of the existentialism of the post-war European avant-garde, of the studio and its processes as the site of its germination, and of the disfigured, decomposed, and expressionistic anatomies that characterised the sculptural figuration of that decade.
Alongside this photogenic aesthetic, there is also a fit between them at the level of production, as the casting of plaster and the casting of a black and white photographic image has regularly brought them into close dialogue. Through this, plaster and photography can both be viewed as part of the same reproductive trajectory through which objects and images are replicated and distributed beyond their immediate place of origin, be it the studio or the dark room. The beautiful, balanced and almost hermetically-sealed monochrome world of plaster and photography is one which De Cock's 'Everything For You' colour photographs seem to run with and rupture. The palette of whiteness is both presented and disturbed, as we find plaster used for assemblages in which all kinds of other objects are bandaged together. In a number, including Everything For You, Carrara, we also find sacks of plaster under the tables on which plaster sculptures sit, serving to weigh them down and ground them. In Everything For You, Mexico City, bottles, cups, and other vessels (of the kind that we might expect to find through casting) are also modeled and conjoined with paper flowers, fabric, thread, beads, and other flashes of paint and primary colour. They stand both alongside and apart from the material world that surrounds them - insertions into these worlds and parachuted into the company of those that live there. We might even imagine them as contributions to an outdoor urban sculpture project that was never planned. Were these sculptures in bronze or resin or some more resilient or durable material we might imagine this possibility further, but the use of a material such as plaster, a fragile, friable material and one of indoor as opposed to outdoor display, heightens our awareness of this fascinating incompatibility. Such material vulnerability (as opposed to ephemerality) is found elsewhere in Everything For You, increasing our sense of the fragile and provisional lives of these compositions, constructions, and assemblages. MDF and hardboard models are stacked, house of cards-like, and perched on ledges: there to be photographed, there to be taken. Model-like compilations in various synthetic materials are positioned precariously or are found propping up other vertical structures, such as walls and lamp posts, leaning against them - both for and to support. Some seem highly serious, while others have a tongue in cheek wittiness to them. Others have a bit of both and this ambivalence brings to mind the work of other sculptors who have used photography to repeatedly record their works in different settings. Notably the British-born sculptor Edward Allington (b.1951), whose Decorative Forms over the World series, which began in 1986, saw him travel around the world and place and then photograph a trompe l'oeil cut-out drawing of a plaster architectural feature in various situations. These were sometimes urban, sometimes rural, and they were often placed in the company of other natural and man-made objects for poetic comparison's sake, as Allington tested the inherited forms of classicism against the living and breathing world of which he was a part.
People make places too - and unlike Allington's photographs - De Cock's are populated. People are everywhere: the primary 'you' of the artist's 'me' and, captured alongside the sculptures, they are the joint subjects of these colour photographs. Some stare back at us, others ignore us, getting on with what they are doing, from work to play to simply passing by. And we are reminded again that photography can show commonalities and shared experiences, highlighting surprises and unexpected connections, and perhaps turning strangers into friends.
- "In art, there are no strangers/foreigners." Constantin Brancusi added, "En art, il n'y a pas d'étrangers" to his signature supporting the 'Résolution' drafted at the Closerie des Lilas in defense of the Romanian poet Tristan Tzara at the time of the infamous 'Comité de Congrés de Paris' in February 1922. See Michel Sanouillet, 'Dada à Paris', Centre du XXè Siècle, vol. 2, Paris, Jean-Jacques Pauvert, 1965, 335, footnote 1b.
- The Family of Man, New York, Museum of Modern Art (Maco Magazine Corporation), 1955, 3.
- Ibid., 2.
- Jan de Cock, 'Manifesto for Sculpturecommunism', 2013. All quotes from Jan De Cock to follow also derive from this manifest.