As a whimsical escapist I used to be obsessed with surrealist visuals. I got quickly cured from this superficial interest when I read Susan Sontag's "On Photography". My interest was sparked when the Amsterdam photography museum Huis Marseille presented surrealism as an antidode for our current one-diminsional visual climate. I decided to test their Surrealist curation against the theory of Susan Sontag.
“What does photography mean today beyond the fact that it is an image-carrying medium?” is the central question raised by Nanda van den Berg, curator of the Amsterdam Photography Museum Huis Marseille (2013). “Armed with digital cameras, smart phones, iPads and Internet, these days anyone can make a photo and immediately distribute it worldwide(...) What can possibly remain of the artistic value of photography in this context?” Her reply is the exhibition ‘The rediscovery of the World’, showcasing work like the photographs of Juul Kraijer, which “appear to exist outside of time and material reality” and “seem to have been created inside the artist’s head, in her own imaginary world, and in contact with everything that ever inspired her” (p. 28). But are these photographs that “appear to have originated in some surreal universe” a valuable antidote to our hyper visible world? (p. 28) Or do they risk to fall into the same trap as surrealist photographers of the 1920’s, whose work “regards as marginal exploits in the history of photography” as photography critic Susan Sontag puts it so lovely (1977 p. 52).
The reason why Nanda van den Berg selected Juul Kraijer as the figurehead of the ‘Rediscovery of the World’ is that in a time when everyone uses photography to make themselves as visible as possible for the outside world, Juul Kraijer turns inwards. Unlike the nonchalant snapshots that flicker across social media pages, Juul Kraijer puts time and dedication in the creation of each image. The amount of time and dedication put in one image, is even more ‘autistic’ in the work of Popel Coumou, who is also selected to be part of ‘The Rediscovery of the World’. “This is because the image is a combination of several photographs, or because Popel has laid additional layers of paper behind the photograph which she then illuminates from behind through cut-outs” as explained by van den Berg (p. 39). As Susan Sontag already predicted in 1977 “The cult of the future (of faster and faster seeing) alternates with the wish to return to a more artisanal, purer past - when images still had a handmade quality, an aura” (p. 126). However what Susan Sontag also says is that “The mainstream of photographic activity has shown that a surrealist manipulation or theatricalization of the real is unnecessary, if not actually redundant. Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise, in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision. The less doctored, the less patently crafted, the more naive - the more authoritative the photograph was likely to be” (p. 52). “The error of the surrealist militants was to imagine the surreal to be something universal, that is, matter of psychology, whereas it turns out to be what is most local, ethnic, class-bound, dated” is what Susan Sontag says (p. 53).
The curated photographer of ‘The Rediscovery of the World’ who succeeded best in showing a different reality in this sense is Viviane Sassen, taking us to the Surinamese village ‘Pikin Slee’. However, it’s not only what Sontag calls “the social distance bridged and imposed by the photograph” that makes Sassen’s work so captivating (p.58). It’s also the fact that she manages to touch upon what Sontag describes as “A corner of material reality that the eye doesn’t see at all or can’t normally isolate” (p. 90). She detaches her subject from its natural environment, without making it too abstract to convey emotion. It’s not only her “use of colours, forms and textures, which enter into a kind of magical, surrealistic interconnection”, but it’s also her new dedication to the surrealist possibilities of the photographic medium which Van den Berg quotes as “I needed to go back to just looking instead of staging things all the time” (p. 35). The fact that we could have been in the exact same place at the exact same time, yet never see what she saw is what makes this new work so admirable. “The surrealists misunderstood what was most brutally moving, irrational, unassimilable, mysterious - time itself” is another thought from Sontag (p. 54).
The magical properties of time express itself in a very unusual way in the work of Eddo Hartman. Twenty-one years after he fled from his violent father, together with his mother and brother, Eddo returns to his parental home. Under layers of mess he found that the house had remained exactly as he left it in 1987. Instinctively Eddo started to document the house, without moving anything, and these photographs are now exhibited in Huis Marseille. Next to an image Eddo took of the living room is an image of the same room he found between the mess, taken in the exact same place during Christmas 1979. Eddo remembers very well he received a pocket knife, that night, under the Christmas tree with which he started to carve in some fire wood. The affected block of wood is still there in the image he took of the living room in 2008. “Nice set design” is a comment Eddo often receives on his work. The surprise that this unearthly place and the melancholic story around it is real, is what’s most striking about the series. This could very well be what Susan Sontag means when she says “As if only by looking at reality in the form of an object - through the fix of the photograph - is it really real, that is, surreal” (p. 80).
In the work of Hellen van Meene, a social difference or difference in time is not particularly evident. What makes her work relevant, however, is her understanding of what Sontag calls one of the perennial successes of photography: “Its strategy of turning living beings into things, things into living beings.” (p. 98). By doing so she questions the objectivity of photographic registration. “What is the true status of the white dress in Hellen van Meene’s photo, a dress which seems to stand up in the corner of a room and look at us. Although the dress is nothing but an object, the image calls to mind the sensation of an ‘apparition’” is what fascinates Van den Berg (p. 19).
Paul Nougé La Naissance de l’Objet 1930
Someone who also questioned the objectivity of photographic registration is Paul Nougé, a surrealist photographer and philosopher who went a step further than just solarizing images. With the Subversion des Images (1930) his function within the exhibition is that of the ‘ancestor’ of the contemporary ‘World Rediscoverers’. In these series he “investigated the photographic reproduction - or non reproduction - of reality by having a group Belgian surrealists depict certain situations in a house” as described by Van den Berg (p.19). The image ‘The birth of an object’ portrays members of the Belgian surrealist group staring intensively at the same point on the wall of a petit-bourgeois sitting-room. We accept the reality that these people were all at some point in this room looking at something and by identifying with their gaze we accept the photograph itself as a material thing. But at the same time, because we can’t see this ‘birth of an object’, Nougé makes us question the material reality of objects. We become aware that “it’s the act of looking that dramatizes the ‘birth of an object’ and makes it real” as described by Jonathan P. Eburne (2005 p.178). Couldn’t this image function as a metaphor for Sontag’s description of photographs stating that “photographs are not evidence of what’s there but of what an individual sees” (p. 122).
Other than what the work of figurehead Juul Kraijer and the image manipulation of Popel Coumou might predict, ‘The Rediscovery of the World’ proves that finding refuge in a what Sontag calls “meagerly stocked dream world” is not necessary in order to distinguish yourself from the cellphone operating masses (p. 51). ‘The Rediscovery of the World’ is not about escaping reality. Instead it’s about uncovering hidden realities and enlarging what’s there to see by carefully selecting it and detaching it from its natural environment. It’s about creating surrealities with as little interference in reality as possible or using mis-en-scene to examine how ‘real’ or ‘unreal’ our perceptions really are. Isn’t this exactly what characterises the artistic idiom of photography?
Words by Juliette Sijnja
Nanda van den Berg, Museum Huis voor Fotografie Marseille, The Rediscovery of the World: large openining exhibition in a double-sized huis Marseille exhibition booklet (2013)
Jonathan P. Eburne, Object Lessons: Surrealist Art, Surrealist Politics, Modernism/modernity 12.1 (2005) 175-181
Susan Sontag, On Photography, (1977)