In a photograph printed on cheap newsprint a sizeable man, presumably Cuban, in a yellow T-shirt, balances a small Constructivist-looking sculpture made of multiplex on top of a balcony railing. The balcony offers a view over a square, almost empty, with a big tree. The photograph ruthlessly captures the man holding the sculpture in full focus, showing each imperfection and random detail of the concentrated but awkward attempt to uphold the sculpture. The aperture of the lens floods the photo with light and produces a peculiar, extremely sharp image. It affects the play of shadows in the photograph: the abundant light creates hard boundary shadows, cast by all material things that stop the flow of light. At the same time, the light cancels out atmospheric shadows. These shadows ordinarily give a sense of the space between solid bodies. Without them, all objects are drawn to the surface, as though in a collage of bodies glued on top of each other with nothing in-between.
The title of the paper of which this image is part is Everything for You, Havana and it is one of a series of ‘Memorial Papers’ that all have a similar title: Everything For You, followed by the name of a city – Kiev, Havana, Carrara, Waterloo, Calais. The photographs show the sculptures of Jan De Cock set up in diverse locations within cities, often outdoors and in combination with what appear to be the local citizens of the place, or in the case of Waterloo, visitors to a painted panorama of the Battle of Waterloo. The sculptures are temporary compositions more than firm, timeless constructions, made out of material that is prefabricated, as MDF or multiplex, combined with ready-made objects. The Constructivist shape is a returning feature. Next to the sculptures of De Cock, the other common element in the images is the particular lighting that radically reduces atmospheric shadows.
The photographs are not the complete work, but one part of a larger project called ‘Sculpturecommunism’ – a strange neologism introduced in each paper by a manifest written by the artist. In it we learn that the photographs of these temporary sculptures are ‘given’ back to the ‘customer’, who is no longer ‘king’, by the ‘avant-garde artist’ and ‘traditionalist’ Jan De Cock, who people ‘know’. The works are described both as “a gift to capitalism”, while simultaneously trying to preserve artworks from capitalism. “I want to give; to permeate today’s cultural industry and take the public seriously again by fabricating gifts as Trojan horses, to create a slippage, an opening in time,” he writes. “Everything For You is always a universal place with local roots, an oeuvre in construction, here-and-now, independent. To go beyond the daily reality, free from the pressures of the art market, freed from conceptions of good taste.” The ‘Sculpturecommunist’ photographs are “beautiful non-valuables – ex situ works on paper – [which] should be hung at all possible places, at no costs, for all, and without the permission of the recipient.”
But who is this nameless You to which everything is given? Who are the recipients of these ‘gifts’? In several photographs from Havana an athletic black man appears, wearing bright, blue shorts and pronounced pink-framed glasses; is he a you? Or is he ‘given’ to me? I’m afraid the impression I get is the latter. Struggling with prejudice and stereotype, I cannot help but see in the black man a somewhat hesitant assistant to the white, male, bourgeois artist De Cock with whom I, as equally white, male and privileged – a Dutchman of more or less the same generation – identify so easily. The black man even radiates an awareness of the uncomfortable situation in which he finds himself – folded, as it were, into a problematic colonial theatre.
In many photos the sculptures are integrated into a desolate landscape of old sheds, urban chaos, or indeterminate piles of rubble. What possible beauty could these photographs and sculptures offer the people populating the images? Just as the manifest states, no ‘common’ man would want such images or sculptures in front of his house, or the photographs above his bed. These works, both the sculptures and the photographs, are only legible for those who know the paradoxical tradition of the avant-garde. It requires someone like me, a trained art historian, to know how to look at images like these, to know how to unpack this gift. But there are very few people like me in the photographs. Browsing through the Memorial Papers I am consistently looking at people who appear to be far away from the bourgeois, scholarly custom of appreciating modern or contemporary art. I feel that I am forced into the uneasy position of ‘looking at’, while not ‘participating in’. The photographs seem to reinforce my primogeniture of white, European, wealthy privilege. The tension that mounts while looking through these images is uncomfortable to say the least. I would like to close these papers and shake off the whole enterprise of Jan De Cock. But then, I can’t stop looking.
I can’t stop looking at the man beholding his clumsy Constructivist tower. How he holds up – temporarily and perhaps without knowledge of the nearly infinite art historical references of his action – this construction; a construction that he seems neither to oppose nor enjoy. What is he really seeing? Can he see, in some mysterious way, what I’m seeing? Or is the professional world of art, of which I’m a member, willingly or not, located in a social space so far from ‘everyday life’ that the ideas I project upon these images are a total artifice unavailable to non-disciplined experience? I’m highly aware that the language in which I write is not accessible to all – trapped in cultivated elegance. But then again I can’t help but hope that when torn from its wrapping, what my language points to are simple, visual, or human facts: shadows, colours, emotions. There must be a road from me to him – the man in the photograph – from my perspective to the perspective of another.
The event in the photograph seems almost conscious of my misgivings. It documents the sober, staged and uncertain encounter between a ‘normal’ human being and abstract shapes, which is reminiscent of the work of avant-garde artists like the Russian Constructivist El Lissitzky (who is mentioned in the manifesto). Again I know, because I was in a privileged position to have learned, that the geometric, architectonic constructions appearing in De Cock’s work are late echoes of the work of artists from almost a century ago, born out of a time of revolutionary transformation. These artists didn’t feel my discomfort. They acted out of the firm belief that their abstract compositions did not reflect some esoteric or hermetic specialized development of artistic form to be consumed by an elite public of art connoisseurs. Instead, they thought their works to be the visual manifestation, after the revolution, of a new and bright chapter in the history of the human species. Photography itself, based on the mechanical ‘eye’ of the lens, was considered one of the heralds of this world: the blissful utopia called ‘communism’, or something else.
The German-Jewish prolific writer Walter Benjamin offered perhaps the most precise, and certainly the most famous, description of this transformation in his endlessly cited essay The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility (1936-39). Taking his key from Marx, Benjamin tried to understand how the superstructure – the elite community proficient in discourse and art – would implode as a result of its own development, just as the capitalist economy would naturally create the conditions for its own destruction. In photography and film, Benjamin found the strongest indicators for the nearing end of the bourgeois capitalist world and the coming dawn of a communistic future. The main symptom of this end was the withering ‘aura’ that could be observed in images produced through these technologies.
Aura in Benjamin’s essay knows a double definition and is described both as “the here and now” of the work, its belonging to a certain place and a certain moment in a historical trajectory, and as the cryptic “apparition of a distance, however near it may be.” Together these two definitions introduce aura as a phenomenon that combines the world of things with a distinct form of experience. The ‘here and now’ refers to things situated in homogeneous space-time, in which they exist as unique events trapped in an endless chain of cause and effect. The ‘apparition of a distance’ describes the manner in which the human subject can become aware of this endless chain. In distanced, contemplative observation the subject is able to withdraw, temporarily, from the chain of events and grasp them as they unfold before her.
According to Benjamin, modern mass society, made possible by its sophisticated technologies of reproduction, shattered both elements of the aura. The masses, unable to understand through separation and distanced contemplation, cannot order things in endless chains. There is no longer a clear division between those who read and think and those who work. The division between superstructure and base structure has disappeared. The masses are able to formulate and formalize themselves differently, producing a messy continuum in which reflecting and making constantly permeate one another. At the end of the essay Benjamin illustrates this new situation through the example of architecture, which can be appreciated ‘optically’, as the tourist does when she enjoys the beautiful image of a façade of a famous church, but also ‘tactically’, through its simple ‘use’.
The modern masses develop a ‘tactile’, distracted form of learning through cinematographic images, which are affective and produce an immediate response in the viewing public. In movie theatres they laugh and cry for the characters in the film collectively and instantaneously. The masses no longer communicate through disembodied concepts, but through affects. “My thoughts have been replaced by moving images,” is the bitter conclusion of a conservative critic of cinema cited in the essay. Yet within this lamentation Benjamin identifies the positive effect of cinema. When thought and action are no longer divided by class distinctions, and reflections organically flow through the affective tissue of mass society, the communist paradise of radical equality is dawning.
This optimistic if not utopian understanding of the possibilities of photography and cinema (at a time when the most skilled craftsmen of the camera were the National Socialists) was, however, not unique to Benjamin himself. It draws from a very distinct understanding of the photographic and cinematographic image, which he developed through an original reading of the work of the Viennese art historian Alois Riegl, to whom he refers (directly and indirectly) at several points in the essay. It is from Riegl that Benjamin learned how images function in processes of understanding. For instance, terms like ‘optical’ and ‘tactile’ are derived from Riegl’s famous Late Roman Art Industry. However, even if not mentioned in the essay, one text especially resonates in Benjamin’s understanding of the mechanically produced image: Riegl’s study of the Dutch group portrait. In it, Riegl seeks to demonstrate how these large paintings embody the material-spiritual expression of the particular proto-democratic culture of the Dutch Republic, which has egalitarian traits not dissimilar to communism. Rembrandt, according to Riegl, arrived at the most coherent expression of this democratic culture. He illustrates this assertion through a detailed and original analysis of (among others) The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1631) – an analysis that is interesting to recall here in its central observations.
In this painting, a group of doctors is depicted attentively following a demonstration given by the famous Amsterdam doctor Nicolaes Tulp. The composition places the captive audience of doctors in a triangular shape next to Dr. Tulp. In a beautiful and casual manner, Rembrandt gives each of them very different postures: one is looking, another listening, one is even thinking. The end result almost seems to offer an inventory of the various ways in which human beings absorb knowledge, presented here as a spiritual-material event in which body and mind participate equally. This exchange between mind and matter, however, is not only visible in how the doctors are positioned, but determines the entire pictorial space of the painting. This is done through the artist’s distinct use of ‘light-shadow’, which Riegl considers Rembrandt’s most profound innovation. The painter’s subdued colour pallet, along with his particular application of atmospheric shadows, blurs any hard boundary between a body and the surrounding. In this manner, Rembrandt creates a pictorial space in which the doctors do not stand out against the background as solid objects in empty space. Instead, the bodies of the doctors diffuse at the edges and become, as it were, moments of contraction in a charged universe in which subject and object, spirit and matter, are always equally present. The entire painting becomes a type of affective plane that materially and spiritually communicates with the viewer standing in front of it. This is something that in Rembrandt’s later painting would be increasingly played out pictorially, by reaching out of the canvas to ‘touch’ the subject standing in front.
Benjamin’s reading of the photographic image in many ways shows traces of Riegl’s analysis of Rembrandt. Benjamin is acutely aware of a similar blurring of subject and object in photography that results from the indiscriminate sensibility of light-sensitive film, which cannot distinguish between space and object. At one point he actually makes a metaphorical argument in which he presents the painter as a magician and the camera as a surgeon (at which point one would almost expect to find a footnote to Riegl). The magician must invoke distance through his authority, whereas the surgeon must reduce distance by moving with his hands literally through the patient, an extreme moment of immediate, embodied knowledge materialized in the delicate gestures of the doctor. In the world of the magician everything is put deliberately in its precise place; in the world of the doctor the separation between subjects must be radically overcome (as must the division between mind and hand for the surgeon to do her work).
It is now clear why I am so captivated but also confused by De Cock’s photographs. They are equally explicit in their application of atmospheric shadows, but rather than embraced, they are eliminated. His approach to colour, as well, is almost in exact opposition to Rembrandt. Instead of a subdued pallet, De Cock welcomes every hue and in certain images he even paints elements of sculpture bright pink or red, as though to enthusiastically produce the widest range of colours possible. De Cock’s photographs, therefore, appear to do everything possible to avoid the production of an image that would allow subject and object to flow into one another. They evade, at great lengths, the potential materialization of intermediate space through atmospheric shadows. If we would follow Benjamin, these photographs are more anti-communist than communist. What is happening here? Why make a sculpturecommunist work, which intelligently inverses all the existing formal tools to make a communist image?
De Cock appears to engage in a form of constructive criticism of Benjamin’s position. Benjamin, following Riegl, suggests that the photographic image produces a fluent exchange between mind and matter. A photograph, however, is profoundly different from a painting, and even if Benjamin is well aware of this, the complex visual manner in which these distinctions influence photography appears to elude him. Benjamin may see in the radical indifference of the lens towards its subject a similar egalitarian impetus as Riegl saw in Rembrandt’s use of atmospheric shadow, but one thing is quite different in photography than in painting – the manner in which space is represented or constructed in the image. The photographic image follows the mathematical logic of linear perspective. Linear perspective, however, is anything but natural to the human eye. As Erwin Panofsky, a contemporary of Benjamin, would reflect upon in his influential text Perspective as Symbolic Form, linear perspective departs from an artificial, mental construction of space imposed upon the representation of space. Natural eyesight follows the concave shape of the eye and therefore does not comprehend the rigorous linearity of the linear perspective image. The reason why one would favour this unnatural perspective is that the notion of a homogenous empty container in which objects are placed is more coherent with our mental understanding of space. But the homogenous emptiness – the pure vacuum – that it projects upon the in-between space, in reality, exists nowhere, not even in outer space. This literal emptiness imagined between objects represented in the form of linear perspective is therefore the visual form of spiritual, mental order.
The understanding of atmospheric shadows as a visual technique to show the equality and continuity between mind and matter ignores the fact that the overall spatial structure of the photograph – its linear perspective – still privileges the artifice, or spirit, over matter. To create a communist image with a photograph one needs a different strategy, and this is what De Cock develops. Through his particular aperture the in-between space in the photograph almost completely disappears. In the photographs of De Cock all things appears as though they lay on top of one another, with no space in-between them. The empty space, which operates as an icon of this spiritual nature of the photograph, is cancelled out. The result is a material, indexical photograph with a collage-like quality devoid of empty space – a pure image.
This radical move by De Cock, however, risks toppling over into another extreme: proposing a purely material paradise devoid of thought and reflection. In the photograph of the man who balances the sculpture, this takes an almost aggressive form. The right hand and part of the man’s arm are painted blue, as though De Cock wishes to emphasize that the man is only an object. Why take this extreme, materialist stance? While thinking over the question, I am reminded of the fact that I felt so uncomfortable with the colonial undertone of these photos. Everything seems to become an object available to me, the sophisticated observer, asked to write down thoughts to be offered together with the work. And yet, something of the asymmetry here is broken; not only the man is offered, this text as well is a part of the ‘gift’.
It is in this double offer of photograph and text that I find my way out of De Cock’s colonial theatre, or perhaps it is better to say, that I understand how I’m equally folded into it. The colonial quality of the images is cancelled out twice in the work. First, the people captured by the bourgeois photographer De Cock are not placed in empty space to be captured by a colonial intellect that can put everything in its right place. Following Benjamin’s analysis, aura is absent in these photographs. There is no ‘here and now’, but only an endless ‘here’ as there is no space through which to travel from one point to the next. At the same time, the intellectual and colonial discourse that is able to capture this sophisticated strategy in its studied prose – the discourse you are reading now – is simultaneously radically materialized. It lies before you in the form of black letters printed on cheap newsprint: an offer to all, at no costs, and without permission of the recipient. Endlessly multiplied, with love, to be given away with the compliments of the makers.
- Walter Benjamin, Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 1966. Ibid.,15. I develop this particular analysis of Benjamin’s notion of aura in Steven ten Thije, ‘Zwei unterschiedliche Geschichte, Widerstreitende Geschichtsformen in der Performancekunst und im Museum’, in Sigrid Gareis, Georg Schöllhammer and Peter Weibel (eds), Moments, Eine Geschichte der Performance in 10 Akten, Köln, Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2013, 311-318. [exh. cat.], ZKM | Museum für Neue Kunst, Karlsruhe, 8 March to 19 April 2012. Op. cit. (note 1), 39. Reference to Riegl, op. cit. (note 1), 14, 40. A good discussion of the relation between Benjamin and Riegl can be found in the epilogue to Michael Gubser, Time’s Visible Surface, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 2006, epub. Instead of ‘tactile’ Riegl uses the term ‘haptic’. Alois Riegl, Die spätrömische Kunstindustrie nach den Funden in Österreich-Ungarn, Vienna, Verlag der Kaiserlich-Königlichen Hof- und Staatsdruckerei, 1901. Alois Riegl, Das höllandische Gruppenportrait, Vienna, Österreichische Staatsdruckerei, 1931, 187-189. I’ve written about Riegl’s particular analysis of this painting in a more expanded manner in Steven ten Thije, ‘A Space Beyond Dualism – On Alois Riegl’s influence on Alexander Dorner’s “atmosphere rooms”’, in Kai-Uwe Hemken (ed.), Kritische Szenografie, Die Kunstausstellung im 21. Jahrhundert, Bielefeld, transcript, 2015, 411-146. Erwin Panofsky, ‘Die Perspektive als “symbolische Form”’, Aufsätze zu Grundfragen der Kunstwissenschaft, Berlin, Verlag Bruno Hessling, 1974, 99-168.