Unfortunately it took a little longer to share this than we hoped, as it has been some weeks ago that we sat down with British artist John Stezaker when he visited Antwerp for his duo exhibition that closed today at Gallery Sofie Van de Velde, which juxtaposed his collages with the work of Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers. Meeting Stezaker, gave us a highly enlightening conversation, but due to our busy schedule in the following weeks, it took time to prepare the text for sharing. What’s particularly striking: the (shameful) fact that we publish the conversation on the very last day of his exhibition in Antwerp, pretty much feels like the perfect metaphor for the complete career of the artist, who started in the 70’s, but had to change art for lecturing, as nobody seemed to understand his surreal vision in times of (British) conceptual domination.
At the beginning of this century, Jake Miller of the London-based Approach Gallery changed all this by introducing his work to the world. Stezaker debuted a solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2011 and was granted the Deutsche Börse photography prize in 2012, becoming one of the first non-photographing artists to be granted the prize. His work re-examines the various relationships to the photographic image: as documentation of truth, purveyor of memory, and symbol of modern culture. In his collages, Stezaker appropriates images found in books, magazines, and postcards and uses them as ‘readymades’. Through his elegant juxtapositions, Stezaker adopts the content and contexts of the original images to convey his own witty and poignant meanings.
This exhibition might be over, Stezaker’s wise words on his surreal imagery will remain relevant long after today, having stimulated many new thoughts in our minds about contemporary visual culture..
Looking at some of the major recent (political) developments, it feels as if ‘truth’ has lost a lot of its former power as an elemental societal value. I wondered, as your artistic practice is creating new meaning out of existing imagery, what your thoughts about truth are in contemporary society?
That’s a weird question to me, as my work is based on images which create some kind of fantasy world. Perhaps there is an element of seeking something of a truth within those fictions… I’m trying to remember a quote from the Bible. I think it’s Ecclesiastes, and goes something like: “the simulacrum reveals the truth, but there is none.” Perhaps the message is that there is no truth.
What about the way people deal with imagery today, particularly in the digital realm, with certain basic values of the traditional visual culture slowly disappearing. To give you an example: what I find interesting is that you have said before that it’s essential that the actors in the film stills you use are anonymous figures, because otherwise there will be some kind of meaning instilled in them, which interferes with the new meaning you create.
One of the things I observe on the internet, particularly in the way how younger people are dealing with imagery, is that there are different platforms being used which unleash tremendous amounts of images, more than ever, but two elements which traditionally always were part of the visual culture are slowly fading: the original context and crediting the auteur of an image. Very few people still credit who created a certain image, therewith anonymity has become a much more dominant phenomenon in visual culture.
In photography the indexical truth is obviously hugely eroded by digital culture, through image manipulation and so on. As you said, image circulation is now on such a vast scale, that the idea of attributing an images to a particular person has become more and more difficult. In my work I’ve chosen the other end of the photographic image: most of the film stills and portraits of film stars that I use in my work are completely anonymous. Both the actors and the photographers are for the most part unknown, the images are almost like industrial products. If that wasn’t the case, I wouldn’t been able to use them. I like the standardized image, which has an anonymity to it. I’m not quite sure why, but I recognize that this has become an important feature in image culture.
My work are simulacra, they are pretend worlds. The media world has become dominated by fake pretend worlds too, which you can find predominantly online.
My work are simulacra, they are pretend worlds. The media world has become dominated by fake pretend worlds too, which you can find predominantly online. I think that there is a general acceptance that photography is not longer a truthful medium. Another order of truth has become important, similar to that earlier quotation from the bible. The simulacra reveal another kind of truth. A truth that, perhaps for many people, is a lot more horrific: maybe there is no truth.
I think there are two different kinds of truths we could talk about. When you look at an image, a photograph of a person or a scene that has happened: you can say there is allegeable meaning to that, a certain truth in the documentary sense. But then there’s another element: what is an image itself? What kind of truth does an image reveal? Perhaps when its emptied of meaning, it reveals a different order of truth and it becomes a shell of meaning. That’s why I like old images, because they have lost their context that granted them a meaning. The actors don’t have faces that people recognize. They have become like shells.
What I personally see happening now in the lives of younger people, dealing with images published on the different dominant platforms: a similar effect happens, because its being used online as an image without any credits or context, which creates a certain kind of atmosphere that doesn’t instinctively stimulate to see what’s behind the aesthetics of the image.
I have a young son, who basically lives on the internet and what I find with him is that he has no distance from the images. He basically lives in the world of images completely. He’s constantly on Facebook, looking at images, but he uses it mainly for contact with his girlfriend. He lives with his girlfriend through this. This is a kind of fundamental notion: there is no distance to the images at all, he is completely immersed in it.
Do you sense this is a completely different attitude as opposed to the time when you started creating images?
Absolutely. People are prepared now to live through images. To have contact through images was completely inconceivable in my generation. But let me go back to truth one more time. Do you know Daguerre’s photograph taken on Boulevard de Temple in 1838; what is considered to be the first photograph of a human being? At that time he was taking photographs that had a very, very long exposure time. So even though the street was very busy that morning, horses and carriages going up and down the street, nothing is visible apart from one little figure in the corner, who’s having his shoes shined. That was the first time a human being was recorded in photography, an important historical moment.
Daguerre’s intention was to take a landscape. At that point in photography the only thing you could photograph were still things: landscapes, still lives. Human beings at this point hadn’t come into photography. They were outside its scope, people didn’t think it was possible at that point. Yet, at this moment it’s the first time a human being, a little shadowy figure with one leg up having his shoes polished, with even the shoe polisher having disappeared, who actually appears in a photograph. This reveals two kinds of truths in my eyes: first is the indexical truth that Daguerre was trying to record by representing what Boulevard de Temple looked like, quite objectively through a machine without any subjective interface, exactly truthful as it is. But the second truth in that picture was beyond his intentions, something that happened incidentally. Produced by a different order of truth.
For me photography has that capacity always: to reveal the unintentional. Presenting another order of truth. So you might try to do something in one way, but it’s always open to another order of truth. It’s that other order of truth that I find particularly interesting.
For me photography has that capacity always: to reveal the unintentional. Presenting another order of truth. So you might try to do something in one way, but it’s always open to another order of truth. It’s that other order of truth that I find particularly interesting. For example: some of the images I use are film stills, which originally were created to illustrate a sequence of a film. They were called ‘foyer images’, placed either on the inside or the outside of a cinema, showing the narrative of a film without giving away the ending. They had an instrumental function: telling a story. Inviting you to go inside the cinema. It suggests that they are moments from that film, which is not really true, because they were taken independently. It pretends. That’s how these images functioned. Nobody could possibly envision that I would be appropriating the images, doing what I do, decades later. What I’m trying to do in my images has to do with the periphery of the image. A bit like that little figure in the Boulevard de Temple photograph. That’s kind of the same order of truth.
I just don’t use the word ‘truth’, but I think about the idea of material and matter. Gaston Baslar says: “matter is the unconscious, it’s what you don’t see.” The unconscious is what I’m trying to get to. That’s another kind of truth. The material of an image, what an image is: that’s the ultimate mystery, created within photography. I like the very earliest responses to photography: as a kind of magical religious object. That’s the feeling I’m trying to revive with my art.
I like the very earliest responses to photography: as a kind of magical religious object. That’s the feeling I’m trying to revive with my art.
You create your images by hand. That is also a slowly fading craft. People mostly just use (digital) devices now. Just the fact that your imagery is being produced by hand represents an undeniable truth in my eyes. Every single image on display in for instance this exhibition was manipulated by your hands.
In my eyes, everywhere in the Western world there is a growing attitude of distrust towards experts, as ambassadors of truth. The whole democratization of information and therewith also truth, which partly summarizes the influence of the internet, seems to happen far from your world as an artist, which only has been recognized only quite recently, deep into the digital age, with your first solo exhibition in 2011. That presents a very strange correlation between a development in the visual culture and its context and how your work was rediscovered.
That has always puzzled me. Literally every series I have produced has its beginning in the mid 70’s. At that time people didn’t understand it at all. After the 80’s I just gave up on the idea of having a career in the arts, as nobody seemed to get what I was doing. So I went into teaching and perhaps I could have had a career some time after that, but it just happened only at the end of the 90’s when a man called Matthew Hicks, who now lives in New York City, came and kind of rediscovered my work. When he went to America still nothing happened. Eventually Jake Miller and The Approach Gallery showed interest in 2004 and suddenly people started to see what I was doing. It must have some kind of connection to the digital age, but I haven’t found out what that connection is.
Personally I have a phobia for computers, I do buy things online, but essentially I will not sit at a computer. I have an assistant to deal with it. I’m just phobic with anything that has to do with computers, I can’t even use my digital alarm clock. I don’t have a smartphone, but I am surrounded by people who do use these devices, of course. You can’t escape it in some ways.
My son can’t grasp the idea of the absence behind an image. The image he knows is so immediate. His girlfriend on the other end of his screen: she is there. He is speaking to her. There isn’t any relationship he can have about the strangeness, the disconnection this represents. In my eyes it leads to neurosis. If you are permanently in contact with another person through an image: that’s very frustrating. All sort of emotions pull over in a strange sort of way. I think it’s a disastrous culture, really. Literally disastrous.
That might very well have an disastrous effect in the end, I don’t know, all we can do is measure these new phenomena by the standards that have been tested for a very long period of time; the pre-digital era. I agree that when you communicate through representations, which are disconnected from the body, it inherently has less qualities compared to face to face interaction. That must have some effect. It might cause a less rich experience of life, which would be a shame.
Most of our human communication, historically, had to do with face to face interaction. In the modern communication world, where you don’t necessarily need to have face to face interaction, we still have a man on the TV with a face. We still simulate the face to face contact. We can’t do without it. With my ‘Mask’ series; having a postcard on the faces, I realized afterwards that I was touching on something very ancient. The mask is probably the first painted image. There are masks to be found in Paleolithic paintings, so they probably are the first art form in human history.
A mask is to hide and an act of hiding creates something that’s very uncanny and alien within the familiarity of face to face interaction. I suppose in tribal culture it would represent the Gods and death. To put on a mask is to put on a fixate and therefore it could represent death and contact with the ancestors of some sort. We don’t have that anymore. We don’t have any relationship with a visual image in which the uncanny or the strangeness like that ritual is experienced.
As a result we don’t have a relationship with the Other. We only have a relationship with the familiar. There is no element which inhabits strangeness in our communication. I reckon it used to be provided for within religion. People of all parts of society were part of that gathering in the recognition of the Other, a kind of nothingness we called God. It was really about the absence of death. The problem with contemporary communication is the whole experience of death, the understanding that we are only here for a short period of time, is completely and utterly surpassed.
It always strikes me that cemeteries in The Netherlands are mostly outside the living area. At remote places, hidden. Historically it was always in the middle of the community, next to the church.
The ultimate illusion which all media and art contribute to is: that we are all one. That’s what religion tells us too, but religion tells us equally that we’re not one. That we can never understand each others experiences. We must always respect each other’s privacy, our separateness. I’m thinking of my son again: he can not grasp that his girlfriend is not a different person. He thinks of her as an extension of him. There is no recognition that you can’t experience the life of another.
There lays my deepest fascination: not the familiar or the known, but the unknowable. I feel there is no room for unknowability in our culture or even in art, so that creates a certain friction that drives me.
There is a massive overcompensation through images and text communication, suggesting that we’re all living in the same life. That we are all participants in the same life and death is a terrible accident that interrupts this. Rather then being the fundamental structure, which seals our world as our own. I know I can’t experience the whole world. I can’t experience my son’s world, or anybody’s world but my own. Nobody can really really grasp that. It’s the most difficult thing to grasp. To me great art touches this sentiment. Great art makes your hair stand up. You suddenly realize something like the described. There lays my deepest fascination: not the familiar or the known, but the unknowable. I feel there is no room for unknowability in our culture or even in art, so that creates a certain friction that drives me.
And this has even been strengthened by the digital turn.
People refer to it as the ‘information era’, but it reckon the information must be as biased as its always been. Especially with algorithms getting more influential, offering information based on prior knowledge instead of what’s unknown.
What I’m trying to do in my images, is to reveal the fissures. What happens between the images, which the culture of seamlessness makes impossible to see. It are those fissures, or dark corners that open up something: emptiness, voids. I can understand where a lot of the rightwing sentiments, that resulted in Brexit and Trump, come from: being inspired by the desire to go back to a world that was simpler to understand. It’s inevitable, particularly for my generation who have experienced that world. There is a feeling of having lost something. As if the world in the past was fuller. I know it wasn’t fuller, it was never really fuller. That’s just a myth, created by the culture that we live in.
What I’m trying to do in my images is to reveal the fissures between images. What happens between the images, which the culture of seamlessness makes impossible to see. It are those fissures, or dark corners that open up something: emptiness, voids.
Nostalgia rooted in confusion. Is your work a reaction to this?
My work didn’t come about in that sort of way. I was part of a generation of British conceptual art in the 1970’s on which I reacted. I felt art had become far too much about what is consciously controlled. The unconscious was banished. I felt the unconscious needed to be dealt with, so I followed my own image fascinations and it was the following of my unconscious fascinations that led me to what I created. Today, I’m dealing with what that could mean.
My work is a personal journey.
All images courtesy of Gallery Sofie Van de Velde and the artist.
Potrait John Stezaker by Sebastian Kim.
Special thanks goes out to Gallery Sofie Van de Velde for giving us the opportunity to talk with John Stezaker.
For their next exhibitions see here