Posts Tagged ‘Art’

Herman Hesse – Fantasies (1918)

Friday, November 20th, 2015

hesse beach friends

I dreamed that the ideal man would be constituted something like this: he would be a ‘normal’ person who ordinarily has no need to raise repressions into the spiritual realm, who lives safely and happily in himself. But this man, undriven by need of virtue or inner compulsion to compensate for weakness through works of art, must be able voluntarily to arouse this need in himself.

Now and again he would develop, as a game of luxury, special talents, special needs, perhaps only in the way one occasionally combs one’s hair in a different fashion for a change. And he would come to know the bliss of dreaming, the torment of creation, the fear and ecstasy of giving birth, without knowing their curse; for he could come home from each such game satisfied, and by a simple act of the will would lay aside, as if on a shelf, the striving within himself, so that a new and different equilibrium resulted.

The ideal person would sometimes write poetry, sometimes compose music, he would on occasion bring out from within himself his memory of the apes, at other times his intuition of future change and hope, and he would allow these to play as a trained athlete makes isolated groups of his muscles play, enjoying and testing them. All this would occur in him not compulsively or out of need, but rather as it would  in every healthy, good natured child. And, best of all, this ideal person would not resist so bitterly and bloodily as we poor fellows do a change in himself when some new demand of the ideal required it of him, but would be in absolute harmony with himself, with the ideal, with fate; he would change easily, he would die easily.

And here I was on uncomfortable ground again. I myself did not change willingly, I myself would not die easily. I knew, knew well and certainly, that every death is also a birth, but I did not know it completely, with my whole being; a mass of fibres within me rebelled against it, a part of me believed in death, a part was weakness and fear. And that was something I did not like to be reminded of. And so I was glad when the mailman rang the doorbell, and I immediately hurried to meet him.

excerpt from
Herman Hesse, Fantasies (1918)

Giorgio Agamben – The Man Without Content (excerpts)

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015

#The absolute split of Pure Culture


We believe, then, that we have finally secured for art its most authentic reality, but when we try to grasp it, it draws back and leaves us empty-handed.
P. 22

The original unity of the work of art has broken, leaving on the one side the aesthetic judgment and on the other artistic subjectivity without content, the pure creative principle.
P. 24

“Judgments on poetry are worth more than poetry.”
We do not yet think seriously enough about the meaning of aesthetic judgment: how could we take Lautréamont’s sentence seriously? And we will not be able to reflect upon this sentence in its proper dimension so long as we see in it simply a play of reversal, performed in the name of an incomprehensible mockery, and until we ask ourselves instead whether its truth may not perhaps be sculpted into the very structure of modern sensibility.

Hegel felt all the importance of the living identity between the artist and his material and understood that the destiny of Western art could be explained only starting from a scission whose consequences we are now able to measure for the first time. So long as the artist is bound up with the specific character of such a worldview and religion, in immediate identity with it and with firm faith in it, so long is he genuinely in earnest with this material and its representation; i.e. this material remains for him the infinite and true element in his own consciousness–a material with which he lives in an original unity as part of his inmost self, while the form in which he exhibits it is for him as artist the final, necessary, and supreme manner of bringing before our contemplation the Absolute and the soul of objects in general.

In that case the material, and therefore the form belonging to it, the artist carries immediately in himself as the proper essence of his existence which he does not imagine for himself but which he is.

In our day, in the case of almost all peoples, criticism, the cultivation of reflection, and, in our German case, freedom of thought have mastered the artists too, and have made them, so to say, a tabula rasa in respect of the material and the form of their productions, after the necessary particular stages of the romantic art-form have been traversed. Bondage to a particular subject-matter and a mode of portrayal suitable for this material alone are for artists today something past, and art therefore has become a free instrument which the artist can wield in proportion to his subjective skill in relation to any material of whatever kind. The artist thus stands above specific consecrated forms and configurations and moves freely on his own account, independent of the subject-matter and mode of conception in which the holy and eternal was previously made visible to human apprehension. No content, no form, is any longer immediately identical with the inwardness, the nature, the unconscious substantial essence of the artist, every material may be indifferent to him if only it does not contradict the formal law of being simply beautiful and capable of artistic treatment.

This scission marks too decisive an event in the destiny of Western art for us to fancy that we can have a total view over the horizon that it unveils; however, we can already recognize, among its first consequences, the manifestation of that fracture between taste and genius that we saw emerging in the figure of the man of taste and attaining its most problematic formulation in the character of Rameau’s nephew. So long as the artist lives in intimate unity with his material, the spectator sees in the work of art only his own faith and the highest truth of his being brought to art in the most necessary manner, and a problem of art as such cannot arise since art is precisely the shared space in which all men, artists and non-artists, come together in living unity. But once the creative subjectivity of the artist begins to place itself above his material and his production, like a playwright who freely puts his characters on the scene, this shared concrete space of the work of art dissolves, and what the spectator sees in it is no longer something that he can immediately find again in his consciousness as his highest truth. Everything that the spectator can still find in the work of art is, now, mediated by aesthetic representation, which is itself, independently of any content, the supreme value and the most intimate truth that unfolds its power in the artwork itself and starting from the artwork itself.

If the spectator recognizes in this absolute principle the highest truth of his being in the world, he must coherently think his reality starting from the eclipse of all content and of all moral and religious determination; like Rameau’s nephew, he condemns himself to seeking his substance in what is most alien to him. Thus the birth of taste coincides with the absolute split of “pure Culture”: the spectator sees himself as other in the work of art, his being-forhimself as being-outside-himself; and in the pure creative subjectivity at work in the work of art, he does not in any way recover a determinate content and a concrete measure of his existence, but recovers simply his own self in the form of absolute alienation, and he can possess himself only inside this split. The original unity of the work of art has broken, leaving on the one side the aesthetic judgment and on the other artistic subjectivity without content, the pure creative principle


Despite this original fault, and however contradictory we might find this, in the meantime aesthetic judgment has become the essential organ of our sensibility before the work of art. It has become that to such an extent that out of the ashes of Rhetoric it has allowed a science to be born for which, in its present structure, there is no equivalent in any other time. Moreover, it has created a figure, that of the modern critic, whose only reason for being and exclusive task is the exercise of aesthetic judgment.
This figure bears within its activity the obscure contradictoriness of its origin. Wherever the critic encounters art, he brings it back to its opposite, dissolving it in non-art; wherever he exercises his reflection, he brings with him nonbeing and shadow, as though he had no other means to worship art than the celebration of a kind of black mass in honor of the deus inversus, the inverted god, of non-art.


Gone is the time when the artist was bound, in immediate identity, to faith and to the conceptions of his world; no longer is the work of art founded in the unity of the artist’s subjectivity with the work’s content in such a way that the spectator may immediately find in it the highest truth of his consciousness, that is, the divine. As we saw in the previous chapter, the supreme truth of the work of art is now the pure creative-formal principle that fulfills its potentiality in it, independently of any content. This means that what is essential for the spectator in the work of art is precisely what is alien to him and deprived of essence, while what he sees of himself in the work, that is, the content he perceives, appears to him no longer as a truth that finds its necessary expression in the work, but rather as something of which he is already perfectly aware as a thinking subject, and which therefore he can legitimately believe himself capable of expressing.

Inalienable and yet perpetually foreign to itself, art still wants and seeks its law, but because its link with the real world has grown weak, everywhere and on every occasion it wants the real precisely as Nothingness: art is the annihilating entity that traverses all its contents without ever being able to attain a positive work, because it cannot identify with any content. And since art has become the pure potentiality of negation, nihilism reigns in its essence.

If the death of art is its inability to attain the concrete dimension of the work, the crisis of art in our time is, in reality, a crisis of poetry.

The essential character of poiesis was not its aspect as a practical and voluntary process but its being a mode of truth understood as unveiling, ἀ-λήθεια . And it was precisely because of this essential proximity to truth that Aristotle, who repeatedly theorizes this distinction within man’s “doing,” tended to assign a higher position to poiesis than to praxis.

In our time, the philosophy of man’s “doing” continues to be a philosophy of life.

All attempts to transcend aesthetics and to give a new status to artistic pro-duction have started from the blurring of the distinction between poiesis and praxis, that is, from the interpretation of art as a mode of praxis and of praxis as the expression of a will and a creative force. Novalis’s definition of poetry as a “willful, active, and productive use of our organs,” Nietzsche’s identification of art with the will to power in the idea of the universe “as a work of art that gives birth to itself,” Artaud’s aspiration to a theatrical liberation of the will, and the situationist project of an overcoming of art based on a practical actualization of the cre ative impulses that are expressed in art in an alienated fashion, are all tributary to a determination of the essence of human activity as will and vital impulse, and are therefore founded in the forgetting of the original pro-ductive status of the work of art as foundation of the space of truth.

And yet what the Greeks meant with the distinction between poiesis and praxis was precisely that the essence of poiesis has nothing to do with the expression of a will (with respect to which art is in no way necessary): this essence is found instead in the production of truth and in the subsequent opening of a world for man’s existence and action.

But how could we reproach or praise the universe?
Let us beware of attributing to it heartlessness and unreason or their opposites: it is neither perfect nor beautiful, nor noble, nor does it wish to become any of these things; it does not by any means strive to imitate man.
None of our aesthetic and moral judgments apply to it. Nor does it have any instinct for self-preservation or any other instinct; and it does not observe any laws either.

Let us beware of saying that there are laws in nature. There are only necessities: there is nobody who commands, nobody who obeys, nobody who trespasses. Once you know that there are no purposes, you also know that there is no accident; for it is only beside a world of purposes that the word “accident” has meaning. Let us beware of saying that death is opposed to life.
The living is merely a type of what is dead, and a very rare type.

In the experience of the work of art, man stands in the truth, that is, in the origin that has revealed itself to him in the poietic act. In this engagement, in this being-hurled-out into the ἐποχη of rhythm, artists and spectators recover their essential solidarity and their common ground. When the work of art is instead offered for aesthetic enjoyment and its formal aspect is appreciated and analyzed, this still remains far from attaining the essential structure of the work, that is, the origin that gives itself in the work of art and remains reserved in it. Aesthetics, then, is unable to think of art according to its proper statute, and so long as man is prisoner of an aesthetic perspective, the essence of art remains closed to him.

This original structure of the work of art is now obscured. At the extreme point of its metaphysical destiny, art, now a nihilistic power, a “self-annihilating nothing,” wanders in the desert of terra aesthetica and eternally circles the split that cuts through it. Its alienation is the fundamental alienation, since it points to the alienation of nothing less than man’s original historical space. In the work of art man risks losing not simply a piece of cultural wealth, however precious, and not even the privileged expression of his creative energy: it is the very space of his world, in which and only in which he can find himself as man and as being capable of action and knowledge.
If this is true, when man has lost his poetic status he cannot simply reconstruct his measure elsewhere: “it may be that any other salvation than that which comes from where the danger is, is still within non-safety [Unheil].” Whether and when art will again have the task of taking the original measure of man on earth is not, therefore, a subject on which one can make predictions; neither can we say whether poiesis will recover its proper status beyond the interminable twilight that covers the terra aesthetica. The only thing we can say is that art will not simply be able to leap beyond its shadow to climb over its destiny.


Giorgio Agamben – The Man Without Content (Stanford University Press, 1999)

The Long Nineties

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

Frieze Magazine | Archive | The Long Nineties.

Revisiting art’s social turn and the 1990s – the decade that has yet to end


Art Club 2000 Untitled (Conran’s I), 1992–3, c-type print

Mocked and ridiculed, the 1980s met a pitiful end at the hands of a generation of artists who considered a market-friendly, object-based art their ideological nemesis, and punished it summarily for its false richness.

This is an exaggeration, of course, but ask around in my (Northern European) corner of the world, and I would guess that many of those who were working back then will confirm this picture of a generational showdown. By contrast, faded and forgotten as they may be, ‘the long nineties’ remain unsubverted.1 The symbolic revival of Félix Gonzáles-Torres at the 2011 Istanbul Biennial, for instance, echoed his status as a guiding star of curating and art theory of that decade.

However, during the last five years, as the historicization of the ’90s gains momentum, the jury has gradually reconvened. The case being weighed is that of art’s relationship to the social. In 2007, Ina Blom published On the Style Site: Art, Sociality and Media Culture, examining the practices of many of the prominent artists of the ’90s and after; a 2010 symposium at Tate Britain was entitled ‘Art and the Social: Exhibitions of Contemporary Art in the 1990s’; and Claire Bishop’s Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship will be published by Verso in 2012. The art-historical claim of the latter is that the ‘social turn’ should be ‘positioned more accurately as a return to the social, part of an ongoing history of attempts to rethink art collectively’.2 I will proceed more sceptically – or counter-socially – by revisiting the ’90s through the social as a problematic not only for art, but also in relation to the ‘governmentality’ of our time – Michel Foucault’s term for the economics and relations of power that shape a society as a field of possible action.

Unlike the slippery ’90s, which haven’t yet found their closure, there is some certainty to be found in the ’80s. The art of that decade took distinct forms – such as appropriation or neo-expressionism – whereas ’90s positions were summed up in a single term: ‘contemporary art’. Not a new term, exactly, but indicative of a new state of connectivity and synchronicity, in which contemporary art experienced a major upgrade (or was it a paradigm shift?). Art’s markets and modes of circulation changed, as did professional and political attitudes towards it. Art became animated by biennials, magazines and art fairs; by artists who strayed from the studio and integrated their mobility into their work; and by curators who shed the historical baggage of the museum’s archive. The general activity that surrounded art – its media, infrastructure and social activity – became as prominent and energetic as art itself.

Around the same time, art’s social turn occurred. This gave visual art a new lease of life at a point when it had otherwise been declared dead (along with the avant-garde, the novel, the human being, the author, etc.). The idea of the social contradicted the demonization of reality and presence of much of the work of the ’80s. No longer something remote, academic and monumental, art became a situation or a process. A work was now a club, a bar, a meal, a cinema, a hang-out, a dance floor, a game of football or a piece of furniture: think of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s soup kitchens, Angela Bulloch’s bean-bags or Apolonija Šušteršicˇ’s public structures. The sole author and the contemplative beholder were atomized in works that called for togetherness, and were often created by collectives or self-organized entities. The art institution started to reflect on itself as a critical space, and exhibition formats opened up in turn. Art took place anywhere – in front of a video camera, on an answering machine, in the urban space. Everyday life became meaningful again, even a refuge from late capitalism.

This is how artists escaped the melancholy slipstream of Modernist painting and sculpture, and no doubt a reason why the young art scene at the time greeted the reintroduction of art’s social dimension enthusiastically. Importantly, however, the affirmation of the social indicates an ambiguity with which social space, and history itself, had become imbued. On the one hand, the artist was no longer Postmodernism’s agent, hovering above the delta of history, selecting and copying styles from all times. The artist was now down in it. On the other hand, history had ended – a claim put forward by conservative thinkers vis-à-vis the end of the Cold War, but which was also argued from a different perspective by critical minds such as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, who saw no outside to the present order.

The ‘no outside’ predicament was an attempt at reality-checking the effects of ideological conflict cancelled by Tony Blair’s and Gerhard Schröder’s ‘Third Way’ paradigm. Left and right merged, state and economy were integrated in increasingly informal ways, and politics lost its fixed points. Foucault described neo-liberalism as sociological government: in this model, the realms of the social and cultural – rather than the economy – are mobilized for competition and commerce.³ During the 1990s, a new economy began brimming with imperatives to socialize through email, mobile phones and, later, social media, and as social and economic processes were pulled closer together, both art and power became ‘sociological’. The reification of the social form became almost indistinguishable from social content. In other words, the social can also be a simulacrum: an instrumentalization of models and tastes that are already received and working in the culture at large.

Management theory expanded into art, as Richard Florida’s notion of the ‘creative class’ (2002) and James H. Gilmore and B. Joseph Pine’s The Experience Economy (1999) submitted aesthetic concepts to socialization. In some cases – such as the UK’s New Labour government, who came to power in 1997 – cultural policies organized art around the economic centre of society in much the same terms. It wasn’t just a case of management theory colonizing aesthetic concepts, though: the art system was itself involved in rationalizing the idea of the artist as manager.

These factors contributed to art being pulled up from the underground, down from the ivory tower and in from the margins, making it part of governed reality in new ways. From the point of view of a ‘creative’ economy, aesthetic concept and artistic behaviour became models for productivity. This doesn’t turn the art that artists created into a passive symptom; but it was a development that placed high stakes on the cultural analysis inherent in the art work, if the work were to avoid melding with the manifest social needs and ends of the state, society or any other milieu.

Simon Grennan and Christopher Sperandio We got it!, 1993, billboard design for 40 locations in Chicago as part of ‘Culture in Action’, 1992–3

In September 2011, the exhibition ‘Spectersof the Nineties’ opened at Marres Centre for Contemporary Culture in Maastricht. Curated by Lisette Smits, in collaboration with Matthieu Laurette, the project proposed a reading of critical artistic practices of the ’90s, but via a materialist analysis that took the technological revolution as the cause of the change not only of society but of artistic practice itself. The organizers presented these as cases to contest both the forgetting of artistic practices of the decade and the way some of these have been dismissed as ‘affirmative of the system’ and of neo-liberalism.4 Even if one shares this materialist analysis, it looks like Smits and Laurette don’t agree with my position that the ’90s are unsubverted. But I could counter that significant artistic positions of the decade have rarely been associated directly with power the way that the works of Jeff Koons, for instance, were read as unambiguous symptoms of Reaganism.

However, I do agree that a historical look at the ’90s is relevant in light of artistic practices that dealt (or deal) with social space through meta-strategies of semiotic playfulness or forms of structural critique, such as those of Renée Green, Jens Haaning, Pierre Huyghe and Aleksandra Mir. In 1996, Haaning relocated the entire production line of a Turkish-owned textile factory in Vlissingen in the Netherlands – including immigrant workers, goods and machinery – into De Vleeshall, a Kunsthalle in neighbouring Middelburg. Self-referentially titled Middelburg Summer 1996, the work showed art and the social to be ever-changing placeholders for each other that would never coincide: it was part of the social world where it was created, and at the same time its aesthetic content set it apart from what already existed.

One could also speculate that, without Postmodernism’s keen sense of historical repetition, the ’90s was also the long decade that forgot it was part of the 20th century. Let me quote works by some of the big names: Olafur Eliasson’s Green River (1998–2001) was, apart from its locations, identical to Nicolás García Uriburu’s Coloration du Grand Canal (Dyeing the Grand Canal, 1968) in Venice; Maurizio Cattelan’s sub-letting of his allotted space at the 1993 Venice Biennale to an advertising agency in principle repeated Poul Gernes’s 1970 collaboration with Citroën and Bang & Olufsen for the Louisiana Museum’s ‘Tabernakel’ exhibition; and Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006) echoes the film Fussball wie noch nie (Football as Never Before, 1970) by Hellmuth Costard, which followed George Best through an entire football match. When comparing these works, should one look for copies or coincidences? Were these artists in their own way creating a reception of postwar art that art historians had failed to write? Or did a global culture industry make it possible to reproduce the 1960s neo-avant-garde because art was now legitimated through powerful spheres of circulation (institutional, commercial and mediatic) that didn’t exist then?

One can only begin to answer these questions by acknowledging that the social signifies something fundamentally different at different historical times. The category of the social evades an understanding of historical continuity because it privileges space over time, presence over form. It is fundamentally contemporary, a concept without speed and virtuality – and this is how it may fail as a chronopolitics. At the same time, apparatuses inherent to the social sphere also synchronize by creating bubbles in time: the marketplace creates simultaneity in consumption, and because the spectacle wants art big and easy, it disregards the archive and its tedious historical perspectives. When synchronizing functions such as these pull things closer together around the existing moment, contemporary art may end up performing an eternal return to the present as a temporal effect of sociological government.

Nicolás García Uriburu Coloration du Grand Canal (Dyeing the Grand Canal), 1968, colourant, Grand Canal, Venice

In Relational Aesthetics (1998), Nicolas Bourriaud fixed the monstrosity and megalomania of the historical avant-gardes by proposing the more flexible artistic ‘micro-Utopia’.5 This was a Utopianism that didn’t resonate with Modernism’s five-year plans and personal sacrifices, but was closer to the manageable time-spaces of Foucauldian micropolitics and Hakim Bey’s idea of temporary autonomous zones. Some 20 years earlier, Roland Barthes questioned the fantasy of privileged political orders, whether micro or macro in his Sade / Fourier / Loyala (1980): ‘Can a Utopia be otherwise than domestic?’ he asked, suggesting a measure of un-freedom in the very concept.

The social sculpture of the ’90s was never really a discussion about freedom. Emancipatory thinking figured as modestly on the agenda as it had in the post-Structuralist theory that informed so much ’80s art. In the preface to his 1983 anthology The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, Hal Foster proposed a ‘Postmodernism of resistance’ informed by the ‘desire to change the object and its social context’, against neo-conservative attempts at severing the cultural from the social. Ironically, however, while it re-established the political on the agenda, Foster’s notion of an ‘oppositional Postmodernism’ can be seen to have helped pave the way for what also became a retro-Modernism (including the return of Utopia). His position prefigured a tendency to conflate the aesthetic with political conservatism, thereby turning aesthetic concepts into epiphenomena. This was the case for big categories of aesthetic collateral such as spirituality and metaphysics, but also staples of form, autonomy and pleasure (for instance, what Barthes had called le plaisir du texte, or ‘the pleasure of the text’), were ditched in the social turn.

At the same time (and somewhat counter-intuitively) former keywords of artistic and social critique – conformism, alienation, negation – were likewise ejected from the vocabulary. It is difficult to escape the feeling that the highs and lows of aesthetic experience were truncated, and art lost some of what Theodor Adorno called its infinite difficulty.6 Polemically speaking, where this was the case the social turn was neither a social critique that addressed misery, exploitation and inequality, nor was it an artistic critique of risks deriving from the dominance of utilitarian thinking.7 This lack was not necessarily indicative of the art as such – after all, a video of the artist dancing can be seductive; a living unit can be a negation – but of a critical vocabulary that revolved around concreteness, a can-do attitude and art on a human scale. Aesthetic experience is compromised when aesthetic problems, and the aesthetic as a problematic, are resolved in social space.

Today, the managerial rhetoric of creativity is fading quickly with yesteryear’s economic optimism. Still, the social is hardly a cold case. The 2012 Berlin Biennial will be curated by the artist Artur Zmijewski, author of the manifesto ‘The Applied Social Arts’ (2007). Here he encourages artists to strive for ‘social impact’, arguing that ‘since the 1990s, art has been growing increasingly institutionalized [and] anodyne’. However, it remains an open question whether one can cure art with the ‘radical forms of expression’ Zmijewski recommends, seeing that the social was a constitutive theme in the decade that, in his own analysis, turned the screw of institutionalization.

As the social persists as a theme in artistic practice and art history, as well as in the ‘social practice’ programmes of art schools, it seems urgent to articulate the limit of art’s integration into society. Perhaps it is time to re-conceptualize the aesthetic as a mode of thinking in order to articulate difference, new outsides and the transcendental, understood as the condition of historical practices and that which lies at the edge of social relations. The present cannot only be changed from its inside. To regain its futurity it must be reconfigured from afar, too.

1 Tom Morton talked about ‘the long 1990s’ in his review of the 8th Lyon Biennial in issue 95 of frieze (November–December 2005)
2 Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells, book manuscript, p.3 (to be published by Verso in 2012)
3 See Michael Senellart (ed.), Michel Foucault: The Birth of Biopolitics. Lectures at the Collège de France 1978–79, 2008, Macmillan, chapter six
4 Email conversation between the author and Lisette Smits, 13 September 2011
5 In addition to Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics and Peter Weibel’s Kontextkunst (Context Art, 1993), Nina Möntmann published Kunst als sozialer Raum (Art as Social Space, 2002), Sarah Lowndes published Social Sculpture: The Rise of the Glasgow Art Scene (2003), Craig Saper talked about ‘sociopoetic art’ (in Networked Art, 2001), and I wrote about ‘social aesthetics’ (in an eponymous essay in issue one of Afterall, 1999)
6 For Adorno, ‘Art is indeed infinitely difficult in that it must transcend its concept in order to fulfil it.’ (Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 1970, p. 103)
7 Eve Chiapello distinguishes between social critique and artistic critique in ‘Die Kritik der Künstler am Management’, in Angewandte Sozialforschung (Applied Social Research), 2006, vol. 24, no. 1–2, pp. 19–24

Lars Bang Larsen

teaches at the Städelschule in Frankfurt, Germany, and at HEAD in Geneva, Switzerland, and works with Maria Lind on the exhibition project The New Model at Tensta Konsthall in Stockholm, Sweden. His book, Art is Norm, will be published by Sternberg Press in 2012.

Mitch Epstein

Saturday, December 17th, 2011

Mitch Epstein // American Power from haveanicebook on Vimeo.

Mitch Epstein // Berlin from haveanicebook on Vimeo.

Photographer Mitch Epstein talks about his work from the series Family Business now on view in Extended Family at the Brooklyn Museum.

Interview de Mitch Epstein // Rencontres d’Arles 2011 from Photographie on Vimeo.

American artist Mitch Epstein explores how privacy is acted out in the public spaces of New York. In this video he tells the story of one such time when he disturbed a strangely ‘ordinary’ exhibitionist couple from his rooftop. Works from Mitch Epstein’s ‘The City’ series are on display in Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera at Tate Modern. …


Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

William Eggleston – Stranded in Canton (1973)

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

Richard Billingham

Friday, November 11th, 2011

RICHARD BILLINGHAM: “Reinterpreting Unconventional Family Photographs: Returning to Richard Billingham’s ‘Ray’s a Laugh’; Series” (2007) « ASX | AMERICAN SUBURB X | Photography &

20101025010608 richard billingham untitled11 Custom RICHARD BILLINGHAM: Reinterpreting Unconventional Family Photographs: Returning to Richard Billinghams Rays a Laugh; Series (2007)

Reinterpreting Unconventional Family Photographs: Returning to Richard Billingham’s “Ray’s a Laugh” Series

By Outi Remes,Afterimage May-June, 2007

The British artist Richard Billingham photographed his family–his alcoholic father, large mother, and unruly brother–in their council flat in the West Midlands, England, between 1990 and 1996, producing the photo book Ray’s a Laugh (1996). It departs from the typical images of wedding/new baby/graduation/birthday family photographs, revealing the artist’s rough childhood surroundings and life in a council flat. The photo book was an immediate success.

Widely debated in the 1990s, it produced two types of interpretations. On one hand, it read as a political documentary targeted to the upper middle-class audience and addressed the working-class poverty of 1990s Britain following the years of conservative government. (1) On the other hand, with the 1990s witnessing a rapid expansion of reality-television culture, Billingham’s series was also interpreted as an entertaining reality drama, satisfying a never-ending appetite for confessional revelations. Although neither of these interpretations were intended (nor was political art or reality-drama entertainment of primary concern to the artist), this article, based on an interview with Billingham, revisits these earlier readings and examines how they might reflect the spectator’s interests and position within our culture.


Billingham’s family series is often seen as a representation of poverty, even a “human catastrophe.” When the Labour Party won the 1997 election in the United Kingdom, one of its key goals was to end child poverty in a generation and to create a new welfare settlement that would meet the needs of twenty-first century Britain. The young artist’s photographs of his childhood surroundings, a council flat, seemed to encapsulate the need for the political change. Gilda Williams in Art Monthly suggests that Billingham’s interiors are a metaphor for the politics that aim to unmask the accident of poverty. For Mark Durden in Parachute: “Billingham’s representation of his working-class family’s poverty and violence … [stages] personal degradation and suffering.”

Some critics suggest that Billingham’s series follows the tradition of social and political photo documentary that often contributes to class debate. Billingham’s first group exhibition, “Who’s Looking at the Family,” held at the Barbican Art Gallery in London in 1994, included other photographers such as Martin Parr. In the Guardian, Gordon Burn sees Billingham at the end of the Diane Arbus tradition of “humanistic photojournalism,” together with Parr’s The Last Resort series (1983-85), representing the British working-class families in New Brighton, and Nick Waplington’s Living Room series (1986-91), which portrays working-class adults and teenagers in their Nottingham council flats. (7) Alice Dewey’s interpretation of Billingham’s work is similar to Burn’s: “[Billingham's] work contains an implicit social critique, part of a trend in recent British art [that explores] … otherwise unregarded proletarian subject matter.” (8)

Occasionally, Billingham’s poverty extends to surrealistic features. In Home Sweet Home, Gitte suggests that the family series is uncanny (“unheimlich”) because it belongs to a rhetorical and ritualized system of the family photograph while it simultaneously contradicts the system by its lack of poses. (9) When [empty set]rskou considers Billingham’s series as the uncanny, she also posits the Billingham family as the other, because it is different from her own family. Similarly, Mark Sladen writes in Frieze that Billingham’s work excites him because the artist’s experience of family life differs from his. (10) Without exception, art critics like to discuss “their” rather than “our” poverty. Billingham certainly does not represent an ordinary family album, but does this make his work uncanny?

Upon closer examination, the family becomes more ordinary. The spectator is given access to all occasions and moments in their life: their happiness, their sadness, and even their boredom is recorded on film for a period of six years. Thus, it becomes difficult to maintain a distance from the Billinghams. Like old acquaintances, they appear less strange and more ordinary.

20101025010517 richard billingham untitled10 Custom RICHARD BILLINGHAM: Reinterpreting Unconventional Family Photographs: Returning to Richard Billinghams Rays a Laugh; Series (2007)

Because Billingham is not an interloper but someone who grew up in working-class culture, he differs from the Arbus/Parr/Waplington tradition of photo documentary. However, this does not exclude the possibility that Billingham, from his “privileged” working-class perspective, wanted to draw attention to “the unregarded proletarian subject matter,” as his family pictures can easily be associated with the Labour politics of the 1990s. One wonders whether Billingham’s series is a critique of working-class poverty, the hierarchies of the capitalist society, or, more generally, if it reveals “the unbridgeable gaps in human relationships.”

Billingham does not think so. In fact, he opposes all political and social interpretations, insisting that his intention was to study the human figure in interior space; the photographs were merely his reference material for paintings.

Billingham explains:

After I did the family pictures, I soon realized that people liked
the family pictures for reasons that I never intended …. There are
very few people, I think, that get beyond the subject matter and can
identify the artist’s intention …. They just like to look at my
mum’s tattoos or the stains on the wallpaper or the dirty floor.

If Billingham’s work encourages the spectator to consider one’s relation to class and poverty, the spectator is giving the work deeper meaning than the artist originally intended. Billingham is more interested in themes of boredom and addiction, although he argues that he only realized this after finishing the series. (According to him, “While [he] was taking these photographs, [he] was only focusing on formal qualities.” The theme of addiction materializes in the men of the series. There are days when Ray cannot get out of bed after heavy drinking, and Jason misses his exams after taking drugs or having played video games too intensively.

The addictions explain the other theme: boredom. The addictions are both the result and the cause of boredom. On one hand, boredom encourages the addictions as a means of escaping boredom. On the other hand, the addictions are debilitating and cause boredom. Thus, the themes of addiction and boredom are social issues but are not necessarily class specific. The working-class surroundings of the Billingham family are only a framework. Nevertheless, some find it more comfortable to interpret the series as a representation of the problems particular to a class other than their own.


Another common reading of the family series is to look upon the photographs as an entertaining reality show for our voyeuristic reality-television culture. This reading assumes that Billingham is an opportunist who was aware that photographing his family home would interest the public. [empty set]rskou suggests that the home is “a place where we are happy to open our doors and invite the world inside once the worst dust has been removed from the corners, allowing us again to show an immaculate and shiny picture of our ideal reality.” Billingham breaks the taboo of home as a safe, private, and protected haven. Like voyeuristic reality television, the series is filmed in real-life situations, as opposed to artificial studio surroundings, although the spectator cannot know whether these situations are as authentic as they appear to be. Billingham’s snapshots of everyday life situations and voyeuristic reality-drama appear to be products of the same culture.

As with the political readings that address working-class poverty, the voyeuristic reality-drama readings discuss the Billingham family as symbols of social and class issues. However, as opposed to the political readings, the voyeuristic readings approach Billingham’s work in terms of entertainment requested by and provided for our culture. The spectator consumes the family scene and is seduced by their impoverishment. The Ray’s a Laugh series reveals our shameless curiosity in poverty. On one hand, our culture has little tolerance for emotional “imbalances.” On the other hand, the very same culture encourages “the identification and disclosure of illness in order to fight its debilitating effects and as entertainment.” As the title of the series suggests, Billingham’s father Ray exists to amuse the spectator.

Billingham’s group exhibitions in the late 1990s and the early twenty-first century have encouraged the reading of Billingham’s work in terms of the voyeuristic and the scandalous. It is easy to characterize Billingham’s Turner Prize nomination for his video Ray in Bed (1999) at the Tate in 2001 as similar to Tracey Emin’s nomination in 1999 for her video How It Feels (1996) or Gillian Wearing’s award in 1997 for
%0: Don’t Worry, You Will Be in Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian
(1994). Besides revealing details of his father’s alcoholic life in scenes that appear as confessional as the video works of Emin and Wearing, Billingham challenges the traditional language of portraiture by representing his family in an antiheroic manner.

It is also tempting to associate Billingham with photographers such as Nan Goldin who represented her friends, lovers, and herself, revealing real life in all its variety and feeding the spectator’s voyeuristic curiosity. In return, our reality-drama culture has increased Goldin’s recognition. As Sarah Kent, referring to Goldin’s photographs, remarks: “Viewing them is like being handed a passport to a subculture that guarantees privileged access to private acts.” (22) In Carey Lovelace’s opinion: “Goldin’s true genius lies … in her gift for imperceptibly injecting a sense of low-level, soap-opera drama.”

Goldin’s representation of the transgressions of urban dwellers pays little attention to “the sacrosanct quality of the print, nor the basic rules of composition and framing.” Goldin uses a snapshot technique. As she puts it: “It’s the form of photography that is most defined by love. People … take them to remember people.” The “Ray’s a Laugh” series is also made of snapshots, which has encouraged some critics to point to a similarity between the two artists. Nevertheless, the key difference between Billingham and Goldin’s work is their subject matter. According to Goldin: “My desire is to preserve the sense of people’s lives, to endow them with the strength and beauty I see in them.” Although Billingham’s spectator also likes to think about the story and the life of the Billingham family, Billingham is a less dedicated storyteller. He emphasizes that he wants to be judged for his artistic skills, not for his subject matter. As noted earlier, Billingham claims that his subjects were referential figures in interior studies, not portraits of his family. Thus, their lives are never the primary purpose of the picture, distinguishing the “Ray’s a Laugh” series from Goldin’s photography. However, the choice of representing the photographs as a series and the lively characters of the family emphasize narrative qualities.

billingham ohnetitel Custom RICHARD BILLINGHAM: Reinterpreting Unconventional Family Photographs: Returning to Richard Billinghams Rays a Laugh; Series (2007)

Even if Billingham and Goldin assign a different level of importance to their subjects, both of their works exhibit an intimacy with their respective subjects. It has been suggested that Billingham and Goldin exploit their families and friends for the purposes of their careers. Jan Estep, in New Art Examiner, argues: “The exploitation of the trust becomes a concern when artists turn their gaze to their inner circle …. This stuff sells; looking at it makes people feel risky, sexy, sophisticated.” However, the relationship between the artist and the subject can be “exploitative, respectful, disempowering, empowering, cruel, loving, ethical [or] aesthetic,” and sometimes it consists of more than one of these aspects. Billingham’s work reflects the complexity of the relationship. For Billingham, seeing his family through a camera lens differs from seeing a family member face-to-face. Billingham is part of the family that he respects and cares for, but he is also aware of their limitations, and maintains a critical distance from his subjects, which allows him to also consider the formal elements within the frame. Therefore, as a member of the family, Billingham clearly benefits from his position, but it does not mean that he is necessarily misusing it. As Michael Tarantino argues, Billingham’s work is both intimate and distanced, but only a family member could get the privileged access that the artist has to his subjects.

Also, Billingham’s photographs reveal something that he is a part of rather than apart from, which distinguishes him from the tradition of documentary photography that is based on the difference between the observer and the subject. He shares a closeness to his subjects with Goldin, who refers to her subjects as “the family of Nan.” In Goldin’s words: “The photographer is by nature a voyeur, the last one invited to the party. But I’m not crashing; this is my party.”

The intimacy Billingham shares with his subjects is both psychological and literal. He often zooms in on his subjects. In the video Tony Smoking Backwards (1998), the literal closeness gives the film an abstract quality–the cigarette smoke and Tony’s mouth become so blurred that it is hard to distinguish between them. According to Billingham: “The closeness in the film is important …. The camcorder I’ve got has a 20x zoom in it.” He explains further: “I wanted to keep the intimacy but do away with the subject matter.” For Billingham, it is important that his subject is someone who is close enough to allow intimacy. However, the identity of the subject, whether he/she is his parent or another close person, is less important.

At a metaphorical level, Billingham’s extremely close-up images and the resulting blur effect suggest the impossibility of closeness. The mental or psychological closeness is unreachable no matter how close one is physically. For instance, in “Ray’s a Laugh” the spectator wonders whether this was the experience of the young Billingham whose father suffered from alcoholism and whose mother had temporarily left home. Closeness, or the lack of it, increases the personal quality of Billingham’s work. Furthermore, the series was photographed over a period of six years, during which time Billingham finished his fine art degree and went from being an amateur photographer to becoming a professional artist. During this period, Billingham reflected on his relationship to his family, explaining: “I could see how I felt towards them. I suppose I could see my social relationships with them in a photographic way as well as the usual way.” (38) Recently, he elaborated on this point: “If I was to look at a photograph that I took that isn’t very good … I would see it as a memory.”

According to Billingham, the “Ray’s a Laugh” series is a process of artistic development. Beyond political or voyeuristic aspirations, by photographing his family, Billingham discovers himself. His series introduces a young artist still insecure about his style as he begins to develop an interest in spatial representation that becomes a focus in his later work.

The dominant readings of Billingham’s series have ignored the artist’s claimed intention. These readings demonstrate that culture, politics, and the spectator’s individual interests affect the interpretations of artwork. But like Socrates (famous for his ugliness), who once asked his students to close their eyes in order to see their own internal beauty, Billingham–famous for his dysfunctional parents and the messy council flat–has asked his spectators to see the formal qualities and beauty of his interior pictures.


Echo (Succession)

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

Echo (Succession), 11 am, 2010

Point of light

Friday, January 21st, 2011

Point of light, London (UK) 2008


Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

Incisa Valdarno (FI), Italy 2008