The political pictorialism of Carl De Keyzer
by Lieven De Cauter
With Trinity, his seventh book, Carl De Keyzer has taken a new step in his impressive oeuvre. At the risk of exaggerating and at the same time reducing the photographic strategies of this monumental triptych, one could say: war makes him shiver, power he faces with humour, history with irony. History appears as a theatre, war as a sublime and (therefore) terrible landscape, power as (and in) architecture. The triad of history, war, politics is presented here as an Unholy Trinity.
The scene of history
With his series ‘Tableaux d’Histoire’, De Keyzer explicitly refers to history painting which made important moments in national history coagulate into monumental tableaux vivants (or, if one wants, to pathetic staged stills full of exaggerated gestures from the silent film of history). In history painting, history was in the first and last instance theatrical: literally ‘what is worth to be seen’. This reverting to the pictorial language of an ideological, official art from the nineteenth century, strikes us as inappropriate in this time of docudrama, reality TV, in real time-reporting, universal coverage and omnipresent mediatisation.
Contrasting with the claim of the real, the fiction of the one-on-one between reproduction and event, De Keyzer places his estranging, theatrical snapshots of public, often politically coloured, events. This enables him to explore all elements of ‘the historical theatre’, the theatricality and the staging of history. In this series the focus shifts: once on the actors, once on the scene, once on the public and from time to time also on the back stage. The masterly quality of his photography lies in the fact that he directs nothing or nobody but reaches this specific theatrical impact only by the choice of the perspective, the framing, the lighting (such as flash in ‘Tableaux d’Histoire’) and especially of course by capturing a particular, estranging constellation at the right instant.
By exploring history as if it were theatre, De Keyzer can break through the illusion of the real, thereby exposing the ideology. His photographs swarm with Brechtian alienation effects. This theatricalisation of the events he brings into the picture is in itself already an ironical strategy, but at the same time there are always specific elements of the image which disturb the illusion of the theatre.
Thus the irony in one of the photographs is offset by the friction between the ‘abstract art’ of the posters held by the protesters and the ‘concrete’ political context. Even the white envelope which a gentleman pulls out from his pocket becomes a Malevich or a Judd. Through the shortened perspective, the Stealth bomber being gazed at by the visitors in Fort Edwards becomes a pyramid on stalks. One of the most ‘Keyzerian’ history pieces – at the same time pièce montée and objet trouvé – is the passion play with Coca-Cola-red Roman soldiers. In the foreground, strategically in the picture, stand large goblets of the ideologically very loaded soft drink of the same name. The empire is always ready to crucify rebellious fanatics, when their strategic interests are at stake. De Keyzer’s pictures frequently supply hilarious idiosyncratic interpretations.
Less dramatic but equally theatrical are the virginal little white socks and shoes of Russian little girls who, like postures on a socle, are standing watching a procession no doubt. But this innocence is spoiled by a garbage heap of empty plastic bottles. Moscow anno 1996: trash capitalism has conquered Russia. Or take for instance, also in Moscow, the street sweeper occupied with her witches broom on the Red Square, like Cinderella. By means of a scaffolding (of the podium for the election campaign of Yeltsin), the Kremlin has been permanently converted into a film set: welcome to the theme park. The anti-Castro demonstration reminds us how useful the frog perspective is to De Keyzer in order to show a political event as a wagon play.
Without the fan in the forefront, the constricted, zombiesque Thai potentate would overheat and probably explode, as in a cartoon. Only the beauteous, wrinkled face of the Kampuchean woman who, with praying hands, sees history or a historical event passing by and turns her face, looks genuinely real. At the same time, pure visual humour and 100% poetry are the candelabras and the servants with the candlesticks who are reflected in the black, glimmering floor of a hotel transformed into a castle at Eurodisney (on the occasion of a ball for European princesses who didn’t show up). The setting of history cannot become more theatrical (nor more false for that matter).
Perhaps this manner (or even mania) of breaking the illusion of reality by means of alienation effects, and by illuminating mercilessly first the actors then the public, or the setting as fiction, as unreal, is a very justifiable, and moreover very artistic strategy, in this era in which the impenetrable web of lies cooked up by spin doctors and the obsession with reality and ‘authenticity’ of the media have contracted an unholy alliance. One could call it, with a wink to late Baudrillard, the simulation of the fourth power.
The landscape of war
For the first time, De Keyzer uses panoramic photographs in colour. One does not see the war; one sees the landscape of war. They are tableaus, paintings almost, timeless images of war, such as Goya’s Desastres de la guerra. But unlike in Goya’s work, not the horror itself is shown. What is shown is the silence before, and especially after, the storm. The pictures are not only timeless but also placeless. The brief information in the book is useful, and at times even crucial, but does not diminish the universality of what is shown. The pictures are often stronger when you forget the text, they apparently want to detach themselves from time and place, from any journalistic or documentary treatment. They are eternal pictures of the devastating forlornness of humankind in the landscape of war.
In his essay about the narrator, Walter Benjamin wrote the next unforgettable sentence concerning the First World War: ‘A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a landscape in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath them, in a force field of destructive torrents and explosions, the tiny, fragile human body.’ When one replaces the horse-drawn streetcar by the low-tech or no-tech of Africa or Afghanistan, this sentence preserves its strength and moreover applies perfectly to many of De Keyzer’s landscapes. Think of the photograph where one sees the lame, bullet-riddled carcass of a helicopter with, on top of it, a child. It seems like it’s ready to slide down. Think of the soldier who, like a shepherd leaning on a stick, is guarding an inhospitable mountain passage in Afghanistan entirely on his own and who, aware of the camera, is laughing next to crooked pieces of old weaponry.
There is also the little black girl in the white dress on the edge of a forever empty swimming pool from the fifties. Or this one: a massive landscape with a bullet-riddled palace – more on the forefront, in the middle of nowhere, a soldier on a chair: Man has lost his place, he is ‘out of place’ in a distorted world. In these pictures the earth has become uninhabitable.
The air, the clouds, the entire nature have done their best to highlight the gloom of these landscapes and the photographer has really turned them into paintings. The photographs verge towards the sublime not only through their monumental character, but also through their subject, by the traces and the latent threat of violence. Edmund Burke gave the sublime its modern, romantic meaning: ‘Indeed terror is always, openly or latently, the principle of sublime.’ And the reasoning to reach that conclusion, he summarises as follows: ‘The passions which belong to self-preservation, turn on pain and danger; they are simply painful when their causes immediately affect us; they are delightful when we have an idea of pain and danger, without being actually in such circumstances; this delight I have not called pleasure, because it turns on pain, and because it is different enough from any idea of positive pleasure. Whatever excites this delight, I call sublime. The passions belonging to self-preservation are the strongest of all the passions.’ His examples are storm, seas in uproar, mountains, abysses, and gigantic buildings, anything overwhelming. Since Marinetti and Jünger, or more recently and in another register since Apocalypse Now, war has also become sublime. It cannot be denied that the ‘Tableaux de Guerre’ come close to this kind of aesthetics. But here the monumentalisation is reticent and painful. All apologetic rhetoric, all affirmation of heroism, all justification is lacking.
What one at first sight could consider an aesthetisation of horror and violence proves in the end to be an artistic denunciation. The rain of bullet-holes speaks volumes in the photographs of Angola. The aesthetics only make it worse. One could say that De Keyzer makes a synthesis between the aesthetics of the nineteenth century pictorialism in photography and the ethics of late twentieth century committed war journalism. One could call it ‘political pictorialism’ – that is the word which comes to mind when looking at these relentlessly beautiful photographs of the landscapes of horror.
The architecture of power
If De Keyzer treats history via the theatralicality of history painting, and war via the aesthetics of the sublime landscape, then he approaches politics from the point of view of architecture. This is perhaps not by accident. Power is characterised by hierarchy, construction, institutions, façades, lobbies, backrooms, etc. Power is static, power concerns stability, in short, power is architecture and since time immemorial architecture has been the embodiment of power. In the series ‘Tableaux Politiques’, this metaphor which is hardly a metaphor becomes the key to power. One does not need to read Bataille’s short but powerful attack on architecture as the embodiment of power – even literally as the physiognomy of the authorities – to understand the photographs in this series.
The Verfremdung, anti-theatrical, Brechtian alienation strategy from the ‘Tableaux d’Histoire’ has been replaced in the ‘Tableaux Politiques’ by a Hegelian Entfremdung, the alienation, the ‘dispossession’ of people who lose themselves in the complexity and anonymity of the bureaucratic society (from Marx to Lukác, Benjamin and Adorno, but most clearly eternalized in Kafka).
In the first part of the series, ‘Capitol Hill’, which remains close to pure documentary, there are few photographs in which the architecture of power is really paramount; such as the white dustbin on the blank marble staircase, or the Walhalla with the statues of the founding fathers in the ‘Great Rotunda’. In the series concerning the European Parliament however, architecture simply plays the leading role. In the hands of De Keyzer the corporate architecture (neocapitalist style) of the European institutions becomes not only abominable, but also beautiful, not only ridiculous but also oppressing, and people all seem ghosts in a science-fiction film setting.
In ‘The Great Hall’ of Beijing De Keyzer feels at ease: as before in Homo Sovjeticus, East of Eden or in parts of Evropa, he faultlessly exposes the deeply hidden humour of the totalitarian society. The uniform, black figures, standing isolated on the stairs of ‘The Great Hall’, look like reminiscences of the impersonal character with bowler hat who, in a famous painting of Magritte, is apparently multiplied ad infinitum and thus forms a strictly egalitarian anonymous mob that hangs in the air as a curtain of interchangeable raindrops. The identical black cars in a fan-like formation waiting in the rain to drive through the narrow gate of a colossal building seem like beetles on their way to their nest, or toy cars which Big Brother, the Chief or his successor is playing with.
In a recent documentary on the work of De Keyzer, Jan Fabre said it didn’t matter to Carl if what he made was art or not. The opposite is true. It is very clear, also in the documentary itself, that De Keyzer is searching stubbornly and consciously, no doubt even desperately at times, for the synthesis between art and journalism. Precisely this ‘between the chairs’ – the title of the documentary – is at stake; it is the power of his work. In the light of the last three Documentas where the paradigm of the ‘high’, neo/post/trans/meta-avant-garde art that endlessly comments on itself and the museum has been put aside in favour of the poetico-political documentary (particularly video and photography), the work of Carl De Keyzer proves to be more relevant for life and for art than much of the pretentious shallow jokes of established artists. Perhaps this ‘de-artification of art’ is a good thing – and anyway a relief for those who already thought that the visual arts had gone astray for eternity and a day in their own hereafter.
In Trinity we see De Keyzer in the glory of his artistic Trinity. Besides history painter in ‘Tableaux d’Histoire’ and landscape painter in ‘Tableaux de Guerre’, he has turned out to be a photographer of architecture as well in ‘Tableaux Politiques’. This epiphany is perhaps the real – hidden – meaning of the title of this book.