Alternative Opening Speech – Exposition Venus 1658 @VanAbbemuseum

Yesterday I attended the opening of an exposition in a museum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands: people, speeches, and ‘art’. As speeches can be the most difficult things to endure, especially when they seem to promote or discuss something irrelevant, here is my alternative opening speech.

Venus Expositie Van Abbemuseum 2014

Dear friends, family, photographers, teachers, and everyone else,

Welcome to Venus 1658, presenting six young graduated photographers in the Van Abbemuseum. A museum that is dear to me for various reasons – perhaps due to their semi-permanent collection of Lissitzky, the intriguing architecture of the building that keeps surprising me after all these years, or the manner in which they continue to place themselves into the heart of public life. And now, they are hosting the work of six newly graduated photographers who finished an intensive program at the Fotoacademie.

Presenting one’s work in a museum takes courage. All of a sudden one’s work is exposed to the public. The safety of the academy, one’s peers and the protection of calling oneself a student is left behind. There is only this: grey walls and strangers walking along, instantly judging what they see, what they experience. Perhaps they will laugh, perhaps they will feel moved. Perhaps they won’t even see your work, temporarily distracted by something else, a phone call. But, perhaps, they will spend an hour or more perusing every inch, every second of what can be seen here. Who knows?

Exposing one’s work takes extra courage when the work is the outcome of years of study. To explain that, allow me to say a few words on the difference between studium and punctum as was developed by Roland Barthes, a French philosopher, who saw the rise of photography and was concerned of what it would do to our understanding of art. Nowadays photographers are faced with the huge amount of people taking photographs continuously and sharing them instantly – how can they distinguish themselves from merely taking a shot? Barthes was concerned about another issue, an issue which is still relevant, even more relevant today for photographers. How and when is the photograph more than a technical reproduction of reality? Can a photograph be considered art?

It is not my place to judge the work that is exposed here in the Van Abbemuseum as to whether it can be considered art or not. It is everyone’s duty to consider this for herself. Yet I can share Barthes’ insights, which might give a language to an intuition that every human being has when confronted with a piece of art. And this concerns the difference between ‘studium’ and ‘punctum’, two aspects of experiencing a photograph.

Studium doesn’t refer just to ‘study’, it refers to a kind of fascination that is based on habit, on customs regarding what is deemed beautiful. It is a kind of beauty that can be calculated, thought about. And many photographs have this quality of studium. The subjects are posed in a certain manner which is aesthetically valuable and confers a harmony. Although Barthes does acknowledge this kind of photograph is valuable, I would call this type ‘boring’. It does not catch one’s attention longer than a few seconds. As Barthes says: “Many photographs are, alas, inert under my gaze. But even among those which have some existence in my eyes, most provoke only a general and, so to speak, polite interest: they have no punctum in them: they please or displease me without pricking me: they are invested with no more than studium.” (Camera Lucida, 27)

Punctum on the other hand is what cannot be premeditated. It is an arrow that strikes, that pricks you without any specific reason. The artwork – be it photographs, sculptures, moving images, paintings – it ‘speaks’ of something beyond the subject being depicted. Punctum involves a certain disturbance of tradition, of what is expected. This is what makes art art. Which makes that the true artist can never use the same style, the same approach twice, as she is always searching for a breaking away from what has already been done.

Punctum cannot be forced. It is a surprise for the artist. Art is not like baking a cake, adding all the right ingredients and adding some punctum in the end, for flavour.

This exposition presented to you comprises of a varied mix of works of art. I am very happy that we will all have the opportunity to investigate what is exposed here, to approach each work in its unique nature, and decide for ourselves where we can find studium and perhaps, if we are lucky, and if we allow ourselves to be touched, we will be able to experience the punctum of some other works.

Venus 1658 - Six Photographers

After Barthes

Pavel Filonov – Flowers of the Universal Flowering, Мировой расцвет

Yesterday I visited the exposition on ‘The Big Change’, on Russian Art 1895-1917. As you might know by now, I’m obsessed by the idea of ‘change’ (well, it’s the topic of my PhD, so I’m rightfully obsessed by it) and as I am very fond of everything Russian ever since the great documentary-travel-televisionseries by Jelle Brand Corstius, I was curious what this had to offer.

What I liked about this exposition, was that it used all sorts of art, although it was still conventional enough for old people to visit it (they bring in the money, of course) in that it showed mostly paintings. But the little alcoves with music composed in that time and the rooms with moving images made it into a great experience.

But after having read Barthes’ Camera Lucida just the day before, and having some great discussions about it with some friends from the European Graduate School, the paintings gave me a very morbid impression. What Barthes is describing about himself as an observer, is something that is easily recognized: being enchanted by something, as if there if something in the artwork (or, photograph as Barthes is focusing on that specifically) that like an arrow pierces you, hits you, yes even wounds you. It is not something that can be searched for in the artwork, it is not something that is rationally approachable. No, it is not what Barthes calls the studium, something that I see in the artwork that I can relate to, and which therefore interests me. Instead, what is moving me, what makes art great, is the punctum.

I realized at this exposition, that although the topic interested me, and the technique and the movement of that time and place is interesting and concerns something that I am thinking about a lot, this didn’t make me experience something unique, which is what ‘true’ art is able to do, in my opinion. It was this punctum that was missing, that lightening that I was waiting for.

Until I got the last room, in which one artist really made me boil inside. Pavel Filonov, ‘Entry into World Flowering’ 1914-1915. Amazing. I stood before it, for quite some time, not analyzing it, not trying to find out what this experience was. No meta-level. Just enjoying the amazing-ness. It was indescribable.

But something was still missing, that photography is a much more willing character for. Paintings are created, one brushstroke at the time. Photographs capture something fleeting that is now made to be there forever. The more the photographer is trying to bend reality in order for his picture to show what he has thought about, the more interesting the picture might become (in the studium sense of the word ‘interesting’), but the less force of capturing the observer it will have. Barthes describes this beautifully: “The Photographer’s ‘second sight’ does not consist in ‘seeing’ but in being there.” (Barthes, Camera Lucida, 1982, p. 47)

Then, to end this discussion, I’d like to share a quote which was written on one of the walls of the museum. It shows how artists have a feeling for the bigger picture, and try to put it in words in perhaps a beautiful way, but it also shows how naive this can be…

We ourselves are creating our own hypotheses anew and only upon them, as in our inventions, can we build our new life and new world view. Revolution in art has always predicted the breaking of the old public consciousness and the appearance of a new order in life. (Ljubov Pupova 1921)