At the invitation of Expodium Utrecht I participated in a six-month project together with four other artists to look at the city’s Hoog Catharijne shopping and transport centre which at the time was about to undergo a large renovation. The project ended with the exhibition ‘JUST WHAT IS IT THAT MAKES THAT THING SO DIFFERENT, SO APPEALING?’ in the shopping centre. My work for the project consisted of three parts. Firstly a performance where I ask thirty students of photography to use the shopping as their subject for one particular Saturday afternoon, the shopping centre being a location in which photography is usually forbidden. Secondly during the exhibition I showed two still life images I’d taken of cakes and ice-cream in the shopping centre’s rotating advertising displays. And thirdly for the accompanying publication the images taken by the students during the performance formed my contribution.
Starting to work in response to Hoog Catharijne my initial reaction was to begin to investigate, through a process of photographing on location, repeatedly visiting, trying to formulate a standpoint, to extract a point of interest. After the first day photographing, it was apparent that this would lead me nowhere. I think there are two reasons for this. Firstly HC initially seems generic, like so many other non-spaces, devoid of the traces of durational occupation, the kind of traces I love to work with. Certain objects and situations almost beg to be photographed; they exude the possibility of visual pleasure and seem to demand you to photograph them. For me there were none of these in HC however photographing a situation almost always bestows importance up on its subject. My reaction was not to photograph. There was nothing that grabbed my attention and nothing I wanted to highlight. Secondly when I was photographing I did not feel comfortable. The guards questioned me about permissions, it is not allowed to photograph without one, and the passers by seemed irritated by me. When photographing in public space I always seem to cause a spectacle. People stop and stair, both at me, and what I am photographing. They ask questions, some are interested others annoyed.
After my first day photographing I returned home disgruntled, my approach had seemingly achieved nothing. However soon I began to realise that perhaps this opened up a new way of engaging with HC. In every image there is an agency of power through observation and display. Photography is forbidden in HC yet there are photographs displayed everywhere. Why?
HC is clearly a private space that has public responsibilities. Its position between train station and city centre has forced it to execute social functions. This along with the HC’s attempt to mimic the appearance of public space, I think has blurred the line between public and private. An idea began to form around utilizing the spectacle that photographing creates to test these questions.
Hoog Catharijne’s interior of hard surfaces and photographs denies the possibility of a visible history of occupation, while illustrating an illusionary form of inhabitation. The photographs exude visual pleasure. They are seductive. Beautiful people in beautiful clothes lining the walls. But to me the photos seem to cancel each other out in a cacophony of colour and form. But why do they cancel each other out? Are there just too many images or is it something deeper, to do with the hermeticism of the illusion they display? As I pass by these images, I can be attracted by the women they show, or the image of a life I would like to lead, but there never seems to be a way to imagine my way inside the illusion. The life shown is complete and I stand on the outside looking in. The images reiterate a hierarchy of unachievable desire and keep the viewer in an outside position. Ownership and control of the illusion remaining with the image. Can an image be introduced that allows the viewer to take control of the illusion by participating in the creation of narrative, braking with a hierarchical construction of visuality?
Unwilling to photograph on location I began working in my studio, experimenting with creating images of objects. Deliberately choosing objects that were not historical artefacts, where there was little agency or depths in their associations. But choosing objects that were pure display, mostly sweets, ice creams and decorations. I bought these objects and returned to my studio, placing them on my table and experimenting with arranging them in compositions. Taking these objects into my messy studio environment immediately created a contrast between their bright colorful display and my studios stained, messy and plane interior. The images float in between categorization. Part of their agency I believe is through the obviousness of their staging. It is obvious that you are looking at a set up, yet it looks like an accident. The photos demand to be looked at but in so doing expose their fiction as an illusion.
Curated by Bart Witte & Luc Janssens of Expodium, Utrecht
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