The bi-annual Dutch/Flemish Prize for Young Art Criticism (Prijs voor de Jonge Kunstkritiek) for art critics under 35, was awarded in December 2018 in Rotterdam to the Dutch art critic Sarah van Binsbergen. AICA Netherlands actively supports the Prize by translating the article into English, and having it published on the AICA International website. With this publication we expect the winning text will receive a wider audience on an international stage.
Hélène Amouzou, Self Portrait, 2009
Erik van Lieshout, Die Insel, in commission of Emscherkunst 2016, courtesy of the artist and Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam, 2019
A Chicken Wire Ghillie Suit
Why artists sometimes become (in)visible in their work
By: Sarah van Binsbergen
Scuzzy wallpaper peeling off the walls, a stool half visible bottom left, a rough wooden floor. Someone’s standing in this dim setting, or are they? On the floor boards only their feet are clearly visible, above them the hint of a body, ephemeral as a wisp of smoke. In this black-and-white self portrait photographer Hélène Amouzou achieved something quite impressive: she’s appearing and disappearing at the same time.
When I saw the work a few months ago at the exhibition ‘Some Things Hidden’ in the Amsterdam exhibition space Framer Framed, I couldn’t help thinking about another recent artwork in which an artist tries to delete himself. Although the two works couldn’t be more different in style and form, on seeing Amouzou’s self-portraits the closing images of Die Insel, a 2016 film by artist Erik van Lieshout, who was recently awarded the Dr. A.H. Heineken Prize for Art, kept going through my mind. In its final scene the artist uproots plants with boisterous gestures and uses them to clad a piece of chicken wire. He adds branches, leaves, weeds, until the wire is entirely covered. He then places it over the one bench the island boasts. Gone. The remaining wire he uses to make a hollow construction of his own size, which he crawls into. There he is, completely immersed in his surroundings. The camera, wrapped in a plastic bag, captures the image from across the water.
It’s one of the most paradoxical themes in visual art: the artist’s self-disappearance. Referring to a quote by the Dutch author Cees Nooteboom, Joost Zwagerman says in De Stilte van het Licht (The Silence of Light), his final collection of essays, that every artist disappears in their work over time. In recent art history a few artists have tried to highlight this process and have made their total or partial disappearance the subject of their work; Lee Lozano, for instance, who disappeared from the art world with her Dropout Piece, or Chris Burden, who played with the freedom and anonymity wearing a mask allowed him in his work You’ll Never See My Face in Kansas City. And then there’s the artist who took the art of disappearing to the ultimate limit: Bas Jan Ader. Self-disappearance poses the artist with an interesting challenge. If it succeeds, there’s nothing to be seen anymore.
In the past few years, the theme seems to be making a comeback. A striking number of artworks and exhibitions have been made and mounted recently about the processes of becoming visible and invisible. The emphasis is often on the social and political dimensions of (in)visibility. That’s not very surprising; in times of on- and offline surveillance, oversharing and debates on representation and identity politics the question of what it means to be visible or invisible is extremely relevant. I therefore usually follow these developments with great interest and enthusiasm. But does visual art have any new insides to offer?
Ever since the mid noughties a growing group of - mainly young - artists has focused on what it means to be visible in a world populated by CCTV cameras, drones and other modern surveillance technologies. In a poetic manner they draw attention to the imperative visibility the modern world demands from us by making themselves invisible, or by encouraging the onlooker to do so. A striking example of this is the performance The Clandestine Way. The Path of Least Surveillance (2005), in which Belgian artist Francis Alÿs walked through London avoiding as many CCTV cameras as he could. Recently poet, performance artist and fellow Belgian Maarten Inghels made a new version of the work. In his The Invisible Route (2017) he took a similar walk through Antwerp. Just like Alÿs he made a map showing all CCTV cameras in the city. The Anti Drone Tent (2013) by Dutch artist Sarah van Sonsbeeck also draws attention to the downside of visibility: the tent is made of material which absorbs body heat, so drones using thermal imaging cameras cannot detect the occupant of the tent.
Another example of this anti-surveillance art is Facial Weaponization Suite (2011-2014) by American artist Zach Blas, a series of performances using ‘collective masks’ constructed from the facial features of different individuals with common identity markers such as gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. With this work the artist responds to the ways facial recognition is linked with particular profiles and thus employed as an exclusion mechanism or, alternatively, for marketing purposes. The work Fag Face Mask (2012), for example, centres around a mask constructed from the facial features of various gay men; it’s a response to experiments which try to determine a person’s sexual orientation through biometric facial recognition. And more importantly: a response to the alarming fact that this apparently is possible.
The impressive thing about Van Sonsbeeck’s tent is the pairing of beauty and social criticism: the shiny golden material the tent is made of gives this shelter a majestic and fairy tale-like quality, but at the same time the artist wants us to think about the harsh reality of our vulnerability to present-day surveillance techniques and drone technology. Blas’s shiny deformed masks are intriguing to look at as well. Yet to me many of these anti-surveillance artworks lack a deeper layer of meaning: although they evoke interesting social questions about visibility as a form of submission and invisibility as a form of resistance, many of these works stay too close to the political developments they respond to in order to really captivate. The broader significance of visibility isn’t questioned, nor is the role of the artists who make (themselves) visible or invisible. As in many other forms of sociocritical art it ‘wants’ rather than ‘evokes.’
Erik van Lieshout’s Die Insel is a completely different story. Unlike the examples I mentioned above, this work doesn’t refer directly to notions of surveillance or representation, and yet it does feel like a comment on the limiting, oppressive influence that too much invisibility produces. The film was commissioned by a German art foundation which invited Van Lieshout to make an artwork in a nature reserve in Dortmund. The artist, who had just finished an exhausting and extremely social project and would have preferred to turn his back on society for a while as a modern Henry David Thoreau, immediately knew where he wanted to make his work: on a small desert island in the middle of the reserve. There is a wooden bench on it for passing sailors, but no one is allowed to stay for more than a short rest.
Van Lieshout manages to gain permission to work on the island for four months. Not that there’s much he can do there, everything has to remain as it is. And apart from plants, the aforementioned bench and some wooden poles, there’s basically nothing there. He doesn’t succeed in disappearing, which is what he had planned to do, either, for the paradox is that on that tiny island in the middle of the lake, he is incredibly visible. He’s being watched from all sides. At some point he buys a photograph of three armed Arabic men in the desert which he saw in someone’s window in Dortmund. He places the photograph on a pile of rocks on the island’s jetty, with the caption ‘Vorsicht: KUNST’ (Careful: ART). Soon the art foundation receives complaints from residents of the neighbouring villas: they interpret it as a monument glorifying violence.
In his book The Transparency Society philosopher Byung-Chul Han writes: a world in which everything is transparent, where all of your most private information can be made public in all sorts of ways and we enthusiastically participate in that, is a world in which eventually everything is blunted. In such a world art has no place, for imagination only exists by virtue of friction and contradiction. A desperate Erik van Lieshout on that puny little island, searching for a way to turn nothing into art, is a fine illustration of what happens to the artist’s freedom in a world in which everything is instantly visible and nothing can be hidden. In order to create his work in freedom he has to camouflage himself; hence all the fuss with the branches and the chicken wire. Van Lieshout’s disappearance also spells the film’s ending, however.
Erik van Lieshout is praised for his radical, uncompromising style and the sophisticated engagement that characterizes his work. He explores the fringes of society and makes multi-layered, challenging work in which he engages in conversation with people who are usually shunned: residents of disadvantaged neighbourhoods, addicts, homeless people and right or left wing extremists. His approach in his casually filmed videos is radically personal, however. He, Erik, always plays the lead as a (pretending to be) naive artist investigating a group or subculture and comments like a vlogger, with a great feeling for the tragicomical. And it’s always, or mainly, also about him; about his own struggle with his engagement and his identity as an artist. In that sense Die Insel illustrates the impossibility for the artist to disappear. ‘Without me you’re nothing, without me there is no film,’ he says in the film’s opening monologue. And he is right: by exploring his own ambitions as a gutmensch, his own neuroses and struggles, he also exposes his own - often ambivalent – stance towards his subjects.
In such an egotistical approach, something has to give of course, as in any art work or story some things are abandoned or eradicated. In an interview Van Lieshout says that with Die Insel he originally wanted to make a film about the refugee crisis. The island had to take him in and accept him as a metaphor for refugees being taken in and accepted by the German people under Merkel. Yet another meaning of ‘becoming invisible’, another layer. This is probably the reason why he takes a temporary assistant to the island, Ahmad from Syria. Ahmad is never seen, but does have a role in the film: his experiences as a refugee in Germany – amongst which are a number of heart wrenching stories about men and women who tried to help him but then try to talk him into their beds – are depicted by Van Lieshout in a humorous but quite crude way, with the help of the few things available on the island. Ahmad becomes a rosehip on a stick with a hard-on.
As his brother told Van Lieshout during an evening in De Balie: ‘You engage in conversations with people, but we only ever get to see your version of the story.’ An observation Van Lieshout also makes himself: ‘It’s about me, it’s always only about me,’ he laments in Die Insel in his thick Brabant accent.
Photographer Hélène Amouzou’s takes a different angle, but her work in its own way shows the tension between art, visibility and invisibility. In search of a way to dispel loneliness after leaving her homeland Togo, Amouzou took a photography course in her new place of residence, Brussels. The first assignment, a self-portrait, immediately presented an impossible challenge: as a stateless undocumented migrant she wanted no pictures of herself. Didn’t want to make herself visible, but instead to keep herself hidden. In an effort to show something of herself all the same she starts to experiment with various shutter speeds in the attic of her home in Molenbeek. Among suitcases, clothes and other things belonging to her neighbours she makes portraits in which she seems to disappear into the interior.
Although she couldn’t have been aware of it, for she never saw her work, Amouzou’s pictures show a striking resemblance to those of Francesca Woodman, the young photographer who committed suicide in 1981 and who left an impressive body of work. Woodman too made self-portraits in largely empty interiors in which her appearance constantly seems to elude you: in some pictures her body is blurry or transparent as a result of long exposure, sometimes she averts her face, in other pictures furniture, doors or an umbrella hide her from the lens. The pictures reflect a young woman’s longing to make herself visible without falling into cliché or female stereotype.
In his 2015 essay The Invisible and the Visible. Identity Politics and the Economy of Reproduction in Art curator Nav Haq poses that the way in which artists become visible in their work is largely determined by the question of whether or not they belong to a marginalized group. The white, male, heterosexual artist, says Haq, is in fact the only one who can remain invisible in his work because he embodies the standard, the objective, that which isn’t questioned. Haq describes how minority artists tried to fight their way into the art world in the 80s by embracing and emphasizing their minority identity, that which made them deviate from the norm. This worked both ways: they did gain entry into the art world, as long as their work represented a clearly demarcated group: woman, migrant, black, queer or anything else that deviates from the norm. Whilst some artists have managed to break free from this, non-western, female or other deviating artists’ art is still mainly regarded as an extension of their identity. The work is always seen as a self-portrait, whereas art by male artists is appreciated on the basis of a content disconnected from themselves.
This is what makes Amouzou’s photos, and those by Woodman before her, so interesting. The liminal ghostlike state in which they capture themselves in their photographs expresses a hesitation, or perhaps a refusal, to appear completely. Because for a woman in the art world of the 70s and a black, undocumented woman in the art world of 2018 to appear completely means your work will irrevocably be seen as ‘identity art.’ The longing to be completely present, on their own terms, without being reduced to a mere label, a category, is expressed in what they keep hidden.
From completely different angles and using completely different means, but using the theme of self-disappearance both Van Lieshout and Amouzou address what it means to be visible or invisible as an artist. Where ‘anti-surveillance art’ presents a simplistic contrast between visibility as submission and invisibility as freedom and adds nothing new to the meaning of (in)visibility today, Die Insel and Amouzou’s self portraits show the complex relation between seeing and being seen, between making visible and invisible; between representation and visual art.
As Hélène Amouzou’s floral wallpaper reminds us that she can only become visible as an artist in her own right by partly disappearing, Van Lieshout’s chicken wire suit reminds us that his work can only be about more than himself if he doesn’t disappear into it.