Thomas Hauser, or the poetics of impenetrability

Young photography seldom provides examples of a coherence between form and purpose quite as convincing as the work by Thomas Hauser, although it is fair to say that these are still early days to decide if this promise will be held.  

The purpose is remembrance, and capturing the passage of time which taints the remembrance with undefinable emotions, as it may be experienced through the lives and memories of the artist’s relatives.

The gallery at Paris Photo, Un-Spaced, made the right choice in presenting a small number of carefully selected pieces, including one group of eight photographs which you could term a “polyptych”, for want of a better word, so well-tuned is the balance of the whole and the interaction between the adjacent pieces. A larger portrait of a young boy, who seems to be sitting in the sand while holding one of his ankles, lost in his thoughts or perhaps intently watching some hermit crab or seashell, we cannot tell, is definitely a worthy achievement. Perhaps nearly as impressive is a photograph of modest size showing a partly-drawn curtain or cloth opening to its right on some indistinguishable horizontal line which may be the top of a wall, or perhaps the rim of a basin, but belongs to a different reality in a blurred space which contrasts with the neatness of the curtain.

Less convincing, I should say, is the group of smaller “photo-sculptures” where small photographs are inserted in or affixed to fragments of stone or cement, as if some ex voto, with faint or torn images conveying the idea of time long passed, while rubble conveys that of destruction or the effacement of memory through the ruin that is, in miniature, any fragment.

Materiality plays an important role in the work of Thomas Hauser, just as it does for many photographers since the 1980s. He uses an artificial means to replicate a natural process, that of time “injuring” objects and life in an unpredictable manner, bus also any memory of people and events. Indeed, the initial photograph is photocopied, cropped, and re-printed though a defective photocopying machine which leaves traces, unrevealed spots, lighter or darker than expected areas, with no predictable pattern. Some works involve silk screen prints where the paper is coated with glue rather than ink, with the toner then spread over the paper.  Chance is thus a co-author of the work, although we suspect that which chance is ultimately selected is not entirely left to chance.

Technique is summoned to replicate the passage of time, in the manner of fakers who age wood through the use of chemicals in order to better imitate antique furniture or archeologic artefacts. In the manner, but with the intent: time can only by tricked by faking, as we cannot modify the speed of its passing in any perceivable way. Literature may act on the psychological perception of time; images can only trick it by some form of “as if”: this is how things might look if a long period of time had passed.

We can detect a form of paradox in such a process, since machines are purpose-built around the imperatives of rationality and predictability rather than the generation of random errors. One may similarly scratch a vinyl to produce the desired sound. Thus the artist is shaping, even manufacturing, time as the result of an error, a damage, an injury. 

Reinforcing this effect is the choice of using sepia tones, a synecdoche of old times, of fading memories, of nostalgic moments. A deliberately used cliché, if we may say, which becomes an instrument at the service of this meditation around the passage of time. But for sure we are not proposed these images to merely feel that time is passing, nor to flip through some old family album.

Contrary to painting or sculpture, photography ages. It ages physically of course, but more importantly it ages because it soon comes to reflect a world that is no more, while when made it captured a world that was alive; despite every attempt to forget it, we feel it; and the concept of vintage would have no meaning otherwise. Painting is different as it immediately transcends time despite changes in style and subject matter: we are not expecting to watch any recording of life when applying our judgement to painting, and we are instinctively expecting to witness eternity in a sculpture. By applying these various processes to photography, the artists are seeking to defuse the dating impact of time, the waning of the image. Some measure of eternity, some measure of timelessness, is infused by embedding so to speak the injuries of time into the image from the very start.

This is perhaps underscored by the presence of the Roman head which does not quite embody the Past of our collective memory, but rather conveys ambiguously the twin meanings of harmony and eternity when the statue is considered in itself, and when broken or otherwise damaged by time, those of decay and vanity. The photographic treatment of the sculpture included in this polyptych leaves no doubt as to which branch of the alternative makes more sense: the face is blinded, the mouth open as if in despair, the head as if sliced in two parts… here is the failure of transfiguration.

The two human figures in the group of eight photographs are also blinded, in some sense, as one young man is hiding his eyes with his left hand, while the eyes of the other – the same perhaps – are in the shade, not visible. Between these two boys, the eye of a statue; just the outline of an eye, neither the iris nor the pupil visible. It is striking to observe how so many human figures in the work of Thomas Hauser are hiding their eyes in one way or another, as if to warn the viewer that reality is beyond the reach of our sight perhaps, or that what matters is not what your eyes perceive, in a very Renaissance-like philosophical rebus.

It has been said that the purpose of photography is to unveil reality behind or beyond appearances; in truth, it all depends what is meant by reality. What is clear is that photography is meant to show what ordinary vision fails to reveal, otherwise it would boil down to a mere technique of registration and documentation. And what ordinary vision fails to reveal is either a deeper reality – such as the cause of a particular situation or the motivations of a particular person – which we might want to call “truth”, or a “higher” order of reality which consists in the realm of archetypes, those archetypes which transfigure the subject into the bearer of a universal meaning. An escape route out of Plato’s cave. Or if not a route, at least a signpost which points to such a route.

It is well understood that reality is elusive, not only because it is masked – rather than revealed – by appearances, but also because there are doubts as to its very possibility. Reality is not to be necessarily deducted from the linguistic fact of the verb “to be”, its very possibility is perhaps created by the existence of the verb to be. The cogito ergo sum is a cogito ergo sic. As Einstein said in a conference held in 1931 in Oxford, “Physics describe reality, but we don’t know what reality is. We know it only by the physical description”. In other words, we do not know what things are, we only know what we can describe, the projection of our mind over the world once we ask a question to the world. Why do things fall down ? Why does the sun shine ?  Duchamp asked the question from another perspective: is a bicycle wheel deprived of its function, i.e. fixed on top of a stool and put into a museum, still a bicycle wheel, or a mere object which looks exactly like a bicycle wheel, which is the mimesis of a bicycle wheel ? And when we face the Apollo di Belvedere, we say : ”it is Apollo”, when no one has ever seen the actual Apollo. But we know the cultural signs that differentiate an Apollo from a Hephaistos, say, or a Herakles, and we recognize in the statue the archetypes that our culture has built over time, the archetypes degraded into a form, into the mimesis of an idea.

Photography does not reproduce, or imitate. Magritte told us that long ago. It allows us to see something of the object, person, or event that we would otherwise not have seen. Take a photography of your glasses, of your mother, of the train station: you will have neither captured nor reproduced them, not made visible their totality, which is what you might choose to call their reality: you will never have at the same time in any picture, or even in a million pictures, all the possible angles and expressions of your mother’s face, all her ages, moods, or thoughts. But you will have opened a door leading to one revelation, and through this revelation to an instauration by your own mind of your mother’s being. Photography describes a fragment of the world and makes it a reality, not in the sense of something which actually happened, or was, but of something which has staying power and therefore leaves a door open for our mind to penetrate this object, and build with it a reality. This is possible because photography suspends the passage of time. It lends moments of immortality to what is essentially degrading and mortal.   

Woman with the folded arms, Picasso, 1902

To some extent, the faking of time which we observe with the works of Thomas Hauser would seem to contradict, or obstruct, the mechanism of transfiguration which we described. The artist seems to be accepting a refusal of the quest for any reality, deliberately veiling the threats which all these fragments of stones and statues or these fallen leaves suggest, perhaps organizing an aesthetics of impenetrability. Think of the facial expression of Picasso’s Woman with a helmet of hair (1904), or the Woman with folded arms (1902), all closed in their inner thoughts, inaccessible…  

Death, decay, oblivion, are planted in his images, a noli me tangere of the subject matter detached from the viewer, thus discouraging any attempt to project the meanings that will endow it with a reality. His memories refuse to talk, it would seem that Thomas Hauser artfully produces their silence, staging the vanity of any revelation. Truth translates in Greek as ἀλήθεια (or alètheia) which means without a veil. Thomas Hauser seems to be suggesting the impossibility, or the vanity, of tearing the veil, even of looking behind it, and substituting the veil of appearances by the veil of time. As relativity tells us, time is not an absolute, it is not homogeneous for each one of us, although we cannot as humans perceive the physical difference. What we do perceive however is how differently it passes for each one of us, in each moment. We perceive the texture of time and this is the veil which we are given to look at beyond the torn veil of appearances.  

It is not exaggerated to say that Thomas Hauser’s images do have some hypnotic quality. You want to go back to them. You feel that somehow you need them, although they keep telling you: “I am beyond your reach”, thus creating a sort of craving for the reality which is denied. Perhaps this also speaks of the condition of photography today, where the ever-growing mass of “memories” never to be remembered has injured the means of conveying and nourishing genuine memories, those which are built on emotions, empathy, non-intermediated life.

The method used brings the images very close to the universe of painting, as it adds a texture, a visual rendering which belong to the pursuit of a style, and increases the distance, the remoteness of the image with respect to the actual appearance. The painter builds precisely on this remoteness, freed from the tyranny of the presence. Francis Bacon, for instance, did not like to paint portraits in the presence of his models, but rather from photos. He said that he preferred to exercise in private the infringement by means of which he could more clearly register their reality, a reality reached always through a detour.  

Thomas Hauser is one of many artists who, with the development of digital photography, is revisiting matter, the physical object that becomes a photography through an actual process, know-how, workmanship. Alain Fleisher, with his clever reflections and his scenography of illusions, provides an interesting example of that “new tradition” of working the image and its material support.

Another such example is that of Clare Strand, who did work among other topics on the truth of communication in the digital age (The Discreet Channel with Noise). In Signs of Struggle (2011), an exhibition of post-modern photography, she proposed a series of crime re-enactment scenes; in her Entropy Pendulum (Getting Better and Worse at the Same Time, 2015) a photographic print lies under a swinging pendulum with a sandpaper base, each contact further degrading the image; you could say that decay resulting for general entropy questions the possibility of any firm ground upon which to build  trust in any form of reality, let alone any image.   

The work of Anaïs Boudot, a young French photographer, is also striking in its way of using photography as a material to be mixed with other media, or to be used metaphorically as in her Noche Oscura (2017) where she transposes the Kintsugi method to repair broken porcelain to the silver glass plates. She also questions memory and the passage of time (see Panamnèse, interactive installation, 2013), including in her remarkable landscapes and seascapes which capture barely perceptible changes observed in nature.

Time, waning memories, loss, decay, are not infrequent concerns of today’s photographers who, having abandoned the idea of truth, any attempt of lifting the veil, either find solace in diversion, nonsense, riddle as the lighter side of the absurd, or explore the dead ends, the dark alleys of a human condition left to herself, as if in front of a mirror.  

Fragment (variation), 2016

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