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Ernst van Alphen
Photography appeals to vision, one of our senses. Vision is often considered the primary one because it is collective; what one person can see, someone else present can also see. But the word ‘vision’ also refers to something that is almost the opposite. This second meaning of ‘vision’ as what one person creates in her mind, a vision that other people in the same space and time cannot see, is just as important. This second meaning I seek to explore in the following thoughts about the photographic work of Juul Kraijer.
A photograph of 2011 shows a hand having a firm grip on two bronze legs, which stick out underneath the bent fingers, against a dark background. The sight of this fist is riveting. Although the image shows what it is, a hand holding two bronze legs, it releases a vision of a something not present in the image, namely of a giant’s hand crushing a human being. Not seen by the eye only, this vision is not just visual; by means of a visual sensation other senses are activated. By means of synaesthesia, the integration of different senses, it is especially the sense of touch that participates in this vision. As viewers we feel the hand, which crushes the human figure.
Another example is from 2006, one of the first photographic works Juul Kraijer made. It shows the head of a Chinese-looking woman with something that looks like a glass eyeball in her mouth. Again, this is a staged posture, this time against a light background, and it is what it is. But the vision in which this perception results is again an example of synaesthesia: the eye in the woman’s mouth seems to replace her tongue. It is with her tongue that she is able to see; it is with her eye that she tastes. Her third eye turns her into a kind of Cyclops; however, she has not one, but three eyes. The woman is a metamorphosis of woman and Cyclops at the same time. She reminds me, for instance, of the one-eyed Cyclops painted by Odilon Redon in 1914.
These photographs are exemplary for Kraijer’s use of photography. Objects or figures are frontally staged before the camera. These staged situations release visions that are both visual and something else. They are not only surreal but slightly sinister or threatening. They challenge our common experience of the perceptual domain.
Each of the photographic images of Kraijer catches the eye in different ways. First they do so as images, second as photographs. I begin with the latter. How can her photographic practice be understood in terms of what is considered to be specific to the medium of photography? From what I will conclude in that respect, I will continue by addressing the issue of her images as image. What is the nature of Kraijer’s images, how do they come about? Or more precisely, which faculty enables these images? Trying to answer the latter question I will not limit myself to her photographic images, but also discuss her ‘visions’ in the media of drawing and video.
Kraijer’s Photographs Against the Photographic
This approach implies a further reflection on the specificity of media. The specificity of a medium is not just determined by technical and formal features. It is also determined by practices of working with a medium that become prevalent at a certain moment in history, and thus define the possibilities and limits of a medium.
Although these practices are dominant during a period of time, they can change and develop over time. Siegfried Kracauer understood those dominant practices using the medium of photography as ‘the photographic approach’. This phrase, ‘the photographic approach’, integrates the specific properties of a medium with the practices that bring those properties to life. The phrase immediately makes clear that photography is not only determined by technical features, but also by an approach to it. In this case, it refers to a specific practice dealing with those technical possibilities and limitations. For Kracauer this approach consists of the effort to utilize the inherent abilities of the camera. This effort is responsible for the particular nature of photographs. Although he described this dominant approach to photography in the 1930s, it is amazing how it is still valid in its account of how most people, professionals or not, understand and use the medium of photography.
The first property he assigns to the photographic approach is that photography has an outspoken affinity with un-staged reality. He describes this in the following words: ‘Pictures which impress us as intrinsically photographic seem intended to capture nature in the raw, nature un-manipulated and as it exists independently of us.’ Photographic portraits are perhaps an exception to this, but, as Kracauer remarks: ‘A portraitist who provides an adequate setting or asks his model to lower the head a bit, may well be helping nature to manifest itself forcibly’. It is clear that Kraijer’s photos never present an un-staged reality. On the contrary, the images they present are utterly staged. At first sight the staged nature of her photos can be seen as surreal. However, surrealist photography usually presents staged situations as if found in reality. Kraijer’s photos never pretend to be found; they are always explicitly staged.
In close relation to the first one, the second property of the photographic approach Kracauer distinguishes is the tendency to stress the fortuitous. ‘Random events are the very meat of snapshots.’ Photos are plucked in passing and they still quiver with crude existence. This explains why photographic images are seen as the equivalent of the instantaneous. This is even true for portraits; their likeness to the sitter is caught accidentally. Kraijer’s photos, instead, never evoke the fortuitous. Their relation to time is almost the opposite. The temporal dimension seems to be suspended. A staged situation is presented in such a way that awareness of time is cancelled.
Third, photographs look selective, even cropped; they tend to suggest an infinity beyond the frame. This means that they usually represent fragments rather than wholes. This is because the frame marks a provisional limit and the represented space continues outside the frame. Kraijer’s use of photography never demonstrates this property. The photo always presents an image with a centre; against a black background an object, a face, a body is presented. The black background against which these objects are shown limits the three-dimensionality of the image. This blackness functions as another, second frame within the frame of the photograph. It definitely cancels the suggestion that the space extends beyond the frame. What exists is only the central focus within the photographic image.
Finally, photographs do not only tend to isolate a spatial fragment from a larger space that extends beyond the frame, they also isolate a temporal moment from a temporal continuity. This is especially the case in snapshots. When people are photographed the camera isolates a momentary pose. The function of this pose within the total structure of a personality remains a guess. ‘The pose relates to a context which itself is not given’. This explains why photographs can be alienating or depersonalizing. This effect is supposed to be countered by the professional photographer or the artist-photographer. S/he selects or isolates precisely that moment that is emblematic for a personality, thanks to which alienation does not take place.
This property of the photographic approach cannot be recognized in Kraijer’s images either. As already argued, her photos seem to suspend time. We never have the feeling that a moment, specific or arbitrary, has been caught. Temporality plays no role in her photographs. This is remarkable because in most theoretical accounts of the medium of photography its specific relation to time is of central importance. Looking at a photograph usually hits the viewer with the awareness of time past. In the words of Roland Barthes: this-has-been. But long before Barthes wrote this, Kracauer already pointed out how photography is a function of passing time. When a photograph ages, its likeness with an original evaporates. Aging photographs become like ruins or deposits of past time.
The suspension of time in Kraijer’s photos is largely the result of the models she works with. Her models have classical or archetypical faces, which withdraw from the historicity of passing fashions. As they are usually not wearing any clothes, nor have a hairstyle that defines a specific period of time, the passing of time has no hold on her images. Also the objects she uses as props for her images, like a plaster hand, a plastic jar, or animals like snakes, scorpions or ladybugs do not evoke historical time. They seem to be timeless.
When we try to understand Kraijer’s photos in terms of the medium specificity of photography, then, they systematically escape any prevalent notion of it. Although a photo camera has been used to make these images, her approach is not ‘photographic’ in Kracauer’s terms. This makes it difficult to understand what kind of artistic practice Kraijer is involved in. This is so because, since modernism, medium specificity has been one of the dominant paradigms for producing images. Artists explore the characteristics of a medium, its potential but also its limits, which makes that medium different from other media. There are, of course, alternatives, older and more conventional than the modernist one.
First of all, there is the idea that images reflect or mirror perceptions. This is clearly not the case in Kraijer’s work either, photographic or not. The ‘surreal’ nature of her images cannot be the reflection of what we perceive with our eyes in the real world. A second alternative to the modernist one is the expressive one. Images are then the expression of the maker of these images. For example, in his late paintings Rembrandt’s personality can be recognized in his handling of paint, in the impasto that builds the skin of his paintings. This paradigm is also powerless for an understanding of Kraijer’s work. Finally, the alternative of conceptualism is not relevant either. In conceptual art, an idea is translated into an image, or explored for its visual implications. Kraijer, however, does not translate anything and her starting point is never an idea or concept.
Instead of considering them in relation to their medium, then, Kraijer’s images are best understood as visionary. The visionary involves another paradigm that exists not only in the visual arts but also in literature. Although major artists like Grünewald, William Blake, Francisco Goya, William Turner, Odilon Redon, Antonin Artaud, and in literature writers like Gustave Flaubert, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Franz Kafka and James Joyce belong to it, this paradigm has never been well established or dominant. It is only once in a while that it manifests itself though the work of idiosyncratic artists or writers who do not really fit in the conventional artistic paradigms of their time. As not only the author of Madame Bovary (1857), but also of The Temptations of Saint Antony (1874), Gustave Flaubert called the visionary approach to art ‘artistic hallucination’. By calling it artistic he distinguishes it from hallucinations resulting from drugs or from certain psychological conditions. In a letter to the literary scholar Hippolyte Taine he describes the phenomenon of artistic hallucination as follows:
‘In artistic hallucination the tableau is not clearly delimited, however precise it may be. Thus, I can perfectly see a piece of furniture, a figure, a bit of a landscape. But it wavers, it is suspended, it can be anywhere. It exists alone, without relation to the remainder, while in reality, when I look at an armchair or a tree, I see at the same time the other pieces of furniture in my room, the other trees in the garden, or at least I am vaguely aware they exist. Artistic hallucination cannot bear on large spaces, move in a very large frame. Then one falls into a dreamy state and becomes calm again. It even always ends like that.
You ask me if it interlocks for me with the surrounding reality? No. – The surrounding reality has vanished. I don’t know anymore what is around me. I belong exclusively to that apparition.
In contrast, in pure and simple hallucination it is quite possible to see a false image with one eye and the real objects with the other. That is precisely the torture.’
For Flaubert these artistic hallucinations were the basis for the writing of The Temptations of Saint Antony. These visionary scenes prefigured his writing. Or, with his writing he records what he has hallucinated first. The spatial dimension of artistic hallucination that Flaubert mentions is also literally at stake in Kraijer’s images, in her photographs as well as drawings: they never bear on large spaces, they never move in a very large spatial frame. The staged scenes do not seem to have any surrounding reality.
In his essay The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley describes the visions he had after experimenting with the drug mescaline. Although these visionary perceptions are not artistic in Flaubert’s sense, they have the same spatial and temporal characteristics:
‘The really important facts were that spatial relationships had ceased to matter very much and that my mind was perceiving the world in terms of other than spatial categories. At ordinary times the eye concerns itself with such problems as Where? – How far? How situated in relation to what? In the mescaline experience the implied questions to which the eye responds are of another order. Place and distance cease to be of much interest. The mind does its Perceiving in terms of intensity of existence, profundity of significance, relationships with a pattern. […] Space was still there; but it had lost its predominance. The mind was primarily concerned, not with measures and locations, but with being and meaning.’
Huxley’s indifference to space went along with an even more complete indifference to time. There was plenty of it, but: ‘exactly how much was entirely irrelevant’. ‘My actual experience had been, was still, of an indefinite duration or alternatively of a perpetual present made up of one continually changing apocalypse.’ His visual impressions are intensified although interest in space is diminished and interest in time almost disappears. A bit further he writes: ‘the eye recovers some of the perceptual innocence of childhood, when the sensum was not immediately and automatically subordinated to the concept’.
Earlier I described Kraijer’s photographic images in negative terms, in qualities they do not or barely embody. I phrased the reasons why her works do not correspond with Kracauer’s conception of the photographic in terms that closely resemble Huxley’s and Flaubert’s descriptions of their visions. Her images suspend time and the spatial dimension is reduced to an absolute minimum. The light or dark backgrounds reduce our orientation in space to that of a near vacuum. The visions of the two writers, but also Kraijer’s, are certainly not perceptual although utterly visual. They were perceived by what is usually called ‘the inner eye’. These visionary experiences present themselves as if they are perceptual. But they are not; or better said, they are perceptions without an object.
Although the expression of the ‘inner eye’ refers to the visual sense, to sight, these visions of the inner eye cannot be reduced to the visual. Kraijer’s photographic works with snakes, scorpions or lizards are good examples. Although it is at first the extraordinary sight of a human face covered by a frightening reptile that strikes the eye, other senses partake in this uncanny experience. In a horizontal photograph of 2014 we see a big lizard on top of the face of a woman. His tongue sticks out of his muzzle. Whereas the movements of reptiles’ tongues are extremely fast, so fast that the human eye almost cannot register them, the lizard’s tongue is caught by the camera without showing any movement. It is sharp and in focus. The visual image of this tongue foregrounds the other activated senses; we feel the weight of the lizard’s belly on the woman’s face and we taste and smell its skin.
In 2007 Kraijer made a video with the significant title Inner Eye. Whereas her photographs and drawings never have titles, her video works do. It is a 24-minute loop. It shows close-ups of an eye that looks inward. That eye clearly sees without an object in front of it. The vision is inner or, in other words, visionary. The video has no sound, which enhances the impression that this vision is inner. The inner eye is not only cut off from the perceptual but also from the aural and other sensorial experiences of the outer world. The video can be seen as a mise-en-abyme, a mirror image, of the rest of her work in drawing, photography and sculpture: all her works are the result of what was first seen by the inner eye. The close-up of the eye alternates with clips of a swarm of insects, a shoal of little fish, a flock of birds, the pattern of dots on the wings of a butterfly, the reflection of the branches of a tree in water, the little holes in a leaf made by an insect, trees in a forest, and so on; all multitudes.
Together with the inner eye the viewer is immersed in visions of nature that have all one thing in common: the elements of which the natural scenery consists are more than just a collection of independent or self-sufficient elements. They are always part of a pattern they form together. Whereas the visual sense of the eye is usually considered as the locus of our individuality, the inner eye seems to give access to visions that make the notion of individuality utterly powerless or banal. Everything is absorbed into patterns that transcend the individual items into a coherence with which they resonate.
Another video work of 2008, titled Areca Catechu, consists of a nine-minute loop. It shows the trunks of a species of palm, the ‘Areca Catechu’. We don’t get to see these trunks as individual trees, the foliage is out of the frame, the crowns of the palm trees are missing. What is presented in the image is a structure of spotted trunks. They are presented as part of a pattern into which they are incorporated. Also the light movement in which they are caught forms a pattern, a slow rhythmic pattern of going in one direction and back. The moving images of Kraijer’s videos are never narrative. Through the movement the patterns manifest themselves not only visually but also temporally without producing a sequence of events.
In relation to this feature of her videos, let me consider the photographs again. A recent photograph of 2014 transforms the human body into just such a pattern. The pose of the female model is such that her head and body become almost invisible. What is still visible is incorporated as additional limbs in the knot formed by the legs and arms. This body no longer has a centre; head and body are gone and a pattern of limbs remains.
When Huxley described the kind of universe he had entered after taking mescaline, he did that in terms of a ‘continually changing apocalypse’. It was the indefinite duration of time and the perpetual present that was experienced as an ongoing apocalypse. Flaubert used similar terms for his understanding of artistic hallucination. Whereas pathological hallucinations produce joy, artistic hallucination results in terror, he argued. The terror is the effect of ‘the head that empties itself’, of ‘life that disappears from it’. The joy resulting from other hallucinations is the effect of the opposite of emptiness, namely of absorption and plenitude. The transformations taking place when entering this new universe are not experienced as negative, although terms like 'apocalyptic' and 'terror' at first suggest that. The terror is caused by entering a dimension in which everything is new and unexpected. Like the universe one is supposed to have access to after the apocalypse, it is the unknown with which one is confronted that produces terror, a terror that can be seen as positive because it is open and as yet undefined. It is the kind of terror that also defines experiences of the sublime.
The ‘continually changing apocalypse’ is evoked in Kraijer’s images by means of a motif that is as mythical as the apocalypse, namely metamorphoses. In fact, her images always show figures in a state of metamorphosis. When a photograph shows the face of a woman covered with little insects or embraced by a snake, it is not a narrative like the one of Hitchcock’s film The Birds that is evoked. The event that is alluded to is not an attack by dangerous or frightening animals, although the anxiety raised by such narratives is not completely beside the point. The event concerns transformations or metamorphoses, in other words: becomings. The boundaries between individual and animal, or individual and plant are absorbed into a pattern. This explains also why it is that references to classical mythology are abundant in Kraijer’s work.
Drawing the Line
Kraijer’s photographic works can now be defined as inner visions of metamorphoses. It is precisely because photography raises different expectations that they work so eminently as going against the grain of that medium. Although her drawings show figures in the same kind of transformations, the medium of drawing does not necessarily compel the conclusion that these visions are inner. Because of the fact that the camera work of photography (and of video) is almost automatically understood in terms of perceptions of the outer world, Kraijer’s photographs position themselves as the radical negation of that assumption. This is so because the medium of photography assumes an analogy between what we see in the photographic image and what was present before the camera even if that was staged or the image digitally processed. In the case of Kraijer’s photographs the analogy with the other world is transposed to the world seen by the inner eye. She replaces outer visions by inner visions. But this transposition depends on the photographic principle of analogy. Without this principle the transposition could never be established as convincingly.
This is immediately clear when we confront Kraijer’s photographs with her drawings. These drawings contain the same motif of metamorphoses as her photographs; represent similar kind of objects and female figures against the same kind of empty context-free backgrounds. The respective media she works with, however, enforce a fundamental difference. Drawing does not imply an analogy between the image and the drawn world. A drawing is primarily a world that consist of lines and is not based on the analogy of representation. A drawing can be the result of creative, expressive or conceptual motives and is even not necessarily representational. Usually they are a mixture of representational and other motives. This is why Kraijer’s drawings do not situate themselves necessarily within an outer or inner world. Her photographic works, in contrast, make such an understanding inescapable. Thus, they cast a new light on her drawings. For, instead of drawing a firm line between media, it seems a better option to establish a dialogue between them. That is why we should begin looking at her photographic and video works in order to gain a better understanding of her drawings. It is especially then that we can see her drawings as inner visions of metamorphoses, instead of, for example, possibilities of creation by the drawing hand.
uit de monografie Juul Kraijer Werken 2009-2015
Wbooks/Drents Museum, 2015