K ulturwissenschaftliches Institut für Europaforschung
(Lüneburg, Mai 2004)
BROTHER WHERE ART THOU
CONSTRUCTING AND MIRROWING US BY PHOTOGRAPHY ART
In our presentation we would like to reflect on identity by briefly analysing photography art.
For this purpose we have chosen three contemporary photographers - Peter Laurits, Andreas Gursky and Thomas Ruff and a definition of identity which we would like to apply on the different works of the artist.
Identity refers to an individual's location in the social world. It involves ideas who we are and how we relate to the others. There is a distinction between the individual and the collective identity concerning the placement of border between me and other or us and them. Identity is a dynamic notion, because it is continually constructed through interaction.
Encyclopedia of Nationalism. Leaders, Movements and Concepts. Ed. Alexander J. Motyl. Academic Press 2001
Peeter Laurits, estonian photographer, is born in 1962. He has studied photography in New York. His works have gained international recognition. Currently Laurits lives in Kütioru ( a place in the forests of Southern Estonia), where he manages the Kütioru Open Atelier, where artists, writers and holders of other creative professions gather to work in isolation, peace and inspiring environment which the forests od South Estonia are with their mytological-poetic meaning.
Issues Laurits has dealt with in his previous art photographs are relations of macro- and microcosm, christian mytology and human values. His last work "Dining with worms" consists of staged photos, video animation and music. The scenes have been staged by Ain Mäeots (stage producer) and the exhibition itself has been called "freezed and sliced theatre" since the photos cans be observed as photos, as theatre or as theatre photos.
"Dining with worms" was staged and photographed in the summer 2003 in the forests of Southern Estonia. They represent post-apocalyptic scenes of natures uprising wiping out the whole of mankind - sending them to dine with worms (or, according to an old Esonian figure of speech- "feed on soil").
The environmental context where the photos are staged is mytological since Estonians' traditional religion animated the nature, receiving the trees and other plants and animals as living creatures that influenced the humans. People used to go to a tree to ask for help, surveillance or thank etc. As models Laurtis has used well-known Estonians or just young and beautiful models. In general, one could say that the models are from the highest level of social hierarchy. For example on the photo "The Contract" one can see the investement banker Rain Lõhmus (or his body) covered with sand in the caves of sand in Piusa. Piusa is a well-known place to all Estonians. The caves of Piusa are mystic for one can get lost in their labyrinths if not guided by a "knower" or if not knowing the place and its' nature.
The model Rain Lõhmus is mytological in Estonan context - in the beginning of 1990s he was one of the founders of Hansapank and became wealthy "overnight", at he current moment he is considered as an icon of young and richest estonians. Considering these connotations the photos' name "Contract" possedes a meaning full of Estonian geographic- and history-specific connotations.
Another photo in the series is called "The Last Supper". As nominating the objects one can see in the photo we say that there is a bunch of 12 persons sitting in the table somewhere in an abandonned stall. The person sitting in the middle is looking in the upper right diagonal and above his head on the right there is a window from which heavy light is entering the hall. All the other perosns besides him are dead, the fact that the table is covered with food packets and emptly plastic bottles leads us to the assumtion that they have eat to death. The composition is very similar to Jesus and his disciples. Considering also the name of the image we can find the intertextual links to the Bible in this photo. Another photo called "Oicumenic airlines" represents a stuardess fallen from the heavens on the top of an orthodox church lying in the forests of South-East Estonia. In this photo once again the christian tradition is mixed with the old roots of natures, animation by ancient Estonians- the revenge of the forests/nature is equated to the revenge of the God. The hypertextual links to christian traditions are therfore present in several photos.
The punctum of the series is a photo called "The End of the World" where, in opposition to other photos, no trace of human being is seen. In this photo one can see a silent scene with a lake and forest. The message of the photo could be (in context of the whole series) that the end of the world is not an exposion where all the nature would be destroyed but only the end of the human existence.
But still the post-apocalyptic photos represent a kind of explosion - the humas have died suddenly and violently. But the murderes have not been bombs but the suled of birds and the blood is replaced by leaves of flowers. The exlosion in the sence of Juri Lotman is seen as the mecanism of developement and innovation in the culture. And in the photos of Laurtis the developement is seen through the opposition of nature to culture. In this opposition the latter has lost in the evolution. This is why the etics of "Dining with worms" has been seen as non-human.
The social hierarchies have been destroyed by the equality in death. The border situation appaires to take place just a moment after the "explosion", attack or the war of humankind and nature. The horror or shock-effect produced by the first glance on the photos creates the overcoming of mental borders by the observer. The photos shock only because of some mental fixes rules of "how the order of things in the world should be and is". "Dining with worms" represents a vision of future/ a fiction scene-series that shifts these fixed mental patterns and by this action makes them explicit and the observer aware of them.
The reading ( int the sence of Roland Barthes) of photos of "Dining with worms" in the context of current political situation and media discourse is agains shifting the point of view. The terrorism is commonly understood as the battle of "bad" humans against the "good" humans. Here, in the photos of Laurits, the discourse of the terrorism is shifted - the "us" is the whole human kind and the "other" is something excluded from it (nature, environement). This opposition also reflects back on the human, excluding the human from the nature. Let me point out that in one of the photos dead solders are represented on a yard of a farm (propably killed by an attack of ozone), the only living creature on the yard is a dog looking up towards the camera placed above the scene (caméra- plongé).
Andreas Gursky was born in 1955 in Leipzig. From 1978 until 1981 he studied photography at the Folkwangschule, an international recognized academy of arts in Essen.
Afterwards he continued studying photography at the art academy of Düsseldorf in the class of Bernd Becher, who is one of the international estimated and distinguished german contemporary photographers. Andreas Gursky is as well one of the German conceptual photographers, who are very successful at the international market.
As we can see, in all images Gursky observes the objects from a far distance. By doing that he leaves more space or freedom for association to the recipient. His focus of interest is directed to the connection of man and the surroundings or even on the clash of culture and nature. His main topic is the modern human being, the mass-civilization, their environment and the interaction between those elements. Although the human being is a central element in his compositions it is as individual of minor importance.
Man is lost in sphere, which surrounds him. Gursky's images are about anonymity, people finding themselves in. Furthermore human beings are not shown at intimate but at public places.
Gursky does not believe in the authenticity of photographs, that is why he allows himself or rather his photographies digital modification. Besides he takes the view, that it is impossible to show the inner truth of somebody or something; it is just possible to show the surface. The only truth can be seen in the fact, that something has taken place at the time the photo has been made.
By using the reality or real existing things Gursky has the possibility to materialize a concepted construction. He does not aim a real incident - at least not primary - but he wants to present a structure, that is brought out by human masses or mass society. Within those rough or big pattern there is to find a very small structure too - there exist a macro- and microstructure.
Gursky criticize and pokes irony on certain status. Gursky plays with the image of the tiny human being who wants to defeat nature, which seems to be an absurdity.
Technical progress on one hand (high-tech) and backward movement (anonymity) on the other hand.
Thomas Ruff was born in 1958 in Zell. From 1977 until 1985 he was student at the Art-Academiy in Düsseldorf and was influenced by Bernd Becher who was his lector. Between 1985 and 1993 he got several grants and art-awards for young artists, like the "Förderpreis der Jürgen-Ponto-Stiftung" and "the Förderpreis des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen". Since 2000 he has a professorship at the Art-Academiy in Düsseldorf.
For this presentation I have chosen two works of Ruff. On the one hand a serie which is called "Blaue Augen" (blue eyes). It consists of four photographies from 1991. And on the other hand the single photography called "Portrait" from 1999.
In these photographies Thomas Ruff isolates the presented people from their environment. The location and the time remain anonymous, like in passport-photographies. The only thing that we can see is the person infront of a white or grey background. The recepient is not able to contextualise the person. The question about time and place of the origin of the portraits can not be answered. There is no context, only the surface of the appearence.
Ruff does not believe in the ability to represent the true human nature through photography. The only thing that one can show in a picture is the look of the people, so that one can identify them. We can say that the man in this photograph has blue eyes and blond hair, that he has a beard and so on. But we can not tell anything about his personality, about his character. These is exactly the aim of a passport-photography. Through this asthetic of pass-photography the presented people loose any inner individuality, they are reduced to their appearance. But in their appearence, they are individual.
Another characteristica of Ruff's work is the serie. The portrait serie from 1991- "blue eyes" - even underlines this neutral aesthetic. Four portraits which are all composed in the same way. Four pass-photos which show four different people, all of them equal. Through the method if serie he equalifies the people. There is no hierarchy. They are all presented in the same way, infront of the same background, all starring out of the picture but not looking at the recepient. They are not looking at us. That fact once again underlines the obectivity of the presented people. All of them have blue eyes.
But who are those people? We do not know it.
Ruff has somehow a paradoxic approach in his work. His concept is the impossibility of the representation of the true human nature. But he deals with this idea by presenting people. He achieves it through an exeggerated sober asthetic, through an exeggerated neutrality, he tries to avoid any subjective moments in his photographs.
I would like to make a link to one aspect of Margaret Mead's prefigurative culturetype definition, which tells that identities are temporary phänomenas and that a person constructs identities in different social contexts. So, an identity of a person is allways linked to a certain context. In Ruff's portraits we can only identify the people through their appearance, but can not tell anything about their inner identity because of the missing context. There is no context around them, they are all equaly placed infront of a white background. But individual identity is allways linked to diversity, to the opposition of me and the other.
Laurits is explicitly theatrical. By staging the photos and not hiding it, he uses the irony as a method to deconsturct the medium of photography. As he has commetned by himself: ""Dining with Worms" is decadent and ambivalent and leaves room for a pretty wide range of interpreations. I like the combined effect of various sides. Sometimes it gets a bit strange, when after all of this tweaking and stylizising, the irony and mannerist aesthetism, somebody visiting the exhibition walks u ans asks "Where did you find al of those awful corpses?" There's actually nothing amazing about it. A photo is the truth." (Peeter Laurits Kunst.ee 1/2004)
Gursky is a distanced observer. He doesn't build a scene, but constructs an image in his head and then looks for the scene in the reality. The environement in his phoots is present, but observed from a distance, as if "objecitvely". Gursly therfore hides the medium, trying to (although ironically) represent the reality as unmediated.
In the photos of Ruff the spacio-temporal context is absent. The neglection of the environement is a inversed act as the "Black sqare" of Malevich.
Brother where art thou?
Searching for the identity by comparison of different cultural phenomenas as art photography in the case. As identity is a process in interaction we would not go any further here in making conclusuions about the cognition of space, time and environment in general by Estionans and Germans. We would like to open the issue for discussion to search the Brother and the Other.