Hans Scholten / Edwin Zwakman
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12 July - 31 August 1997
This exhibition shows the work of two artists who, despite certain similarities, work with photography in different ways. Landscape and its precise meaning is a central concern in both their work. Landscapes containing a conscious or subconscious narrative element demonstrate that photography is representation; the photograph is a ‘print’ of something that exists - now, in the past, in reality or fiction.
The black and white photographs of Hans Scholten in this show are large. Though most are landscapes, they also contain buildings, industrial objects or remains thereof. The line of the horizon is often visible and the sky occupies much of the pictorial space. The compositional interpretation - in which emptiness seems to become a motif and the sparseness makes it possible to photograph space - forces the viewer to look across the entire image in a way similar to reading a page in a book. There is no central focal point that draws the eye in; you have to ‘read’ the photograph from left to right. The landscapes evoke their own atmosphere, they seem ‘to have been betrayed’, they are empty and their existence is coincidental. Scholten sees them as ruins of our time.
Scholten consciously searches for the situations he photographs. He returns to the same place to look at it more and to formulate his ideas about the place as a metaphor. In the United States in particular, over the last few years, he has found what he is looking for in landscapes that have an accidental, almost aimless character and which have not yet fallen prey to the call for renewed ordering by town and country planners. By presenting the photographs in series, they acquire an extra time dimension. Scholten says of this: ‘I like to work in series because the photographs reinforce each other, making the final proposition clearer’.
The use of series forces the viewer to look more carefully, to observe the slight differences in the empty sky with its floating clouds, in the position of the camera, in the countryside or the location of an industrial vehicle. Each small thing, every detail becomes important. It is precisely this sort of information and the questions it raises for the viewer that make these photographs interesting: what can you see, why has this particular photograph been taken, what is the role of the photographer, how did he choose his subject? Despite their realism, Scholten’s images provoke questions and ideas that go far beyond what is depicted in the image.
Looking at the photographs you can assume you are standing on the same spot where the photographer and camera stood. The photographer saw exactly what the camera shows, but you can’t see that. The photograph always remains an excerpt that is far smaller than what the eye sees and an unforeseen product of handling, selection and technique. Despite the neutral quality of the mechanism and the assumption that the medium is objective - the maker of the photograph can always influence the subject with the camera by making it, for instance, more aesthetic - the images that are created do so differ from reality that they could almost be considered imaginary. Scholten is very aware of all this and strives for as little technical interference as possible in the photographing of an image and its printing. All his attention is directed towards how the situation was at the moment it was photographed and what is on the negative. This determines the size of the of the final image. The experience and the content of the work are of utmost importance. The decision to work in black and white is a consequence of the need for directness. On the one hand, black and white achieves a greater distance while on the other, it makes the attitude of the artist clearly visible. Through this, the dialogue with the viewer becomes more open without being anecdotal. For Scholten, black and white is a way to express his translations of reality as clearly and directly as possible using photographic means. Colour photography, because it appears to be more realistic and to have more effect, would distract attention from what he wants to say. In colour, the relation to reality would be so great that you would overlook the person who took the photograph.
Scholten prints his photos on fiber based paper. This material allows a rich variation of grey tones, making the photograph more of an object. For the artist, the two-dimensional becomes less fleeting, gains more materiality, while at the same time achieving a certain freedom. Without suffering from too much orderliness and design, the ‘reality’ of all human actions reveals itself in the photograph of the landscape. These works are concerned with making the contemporary landscapes visible. Imagination and the relation between nature and culture is primarily a romantic idea. But these works are concerned with the landscapes of today in which nature, in a strange way, has once again been given space. Scholten’s form of romanticism is not directed towards the glorification of nature but the experience of space, light, peace and the new freedom that the betrayed landscape has acquired in our time.
JCB diggers on the building site of an unfinished residential estate, a seaside scene with a solitary walker on the pier. Arbitrary snapshots of an arbitrary place in the Netherlands. The artist, Edwin Zwakman, makes landscape photographs. At least this what the large photographs appear to be at first glance. In fact they are maquettes that Zwakman constructs and records with the camera. The illusory nature of the images largely determines the power of attraction his work has on the viewer.
Zwakman works on his maquettes in the studio. Like a theatre director he composes the set. One at a time, the elements are set up carefully for the camera, like the elements in a stage set. A tower of audio-cassettes serves as a block of flats, a Dinky Toy as a JCB digger, a packet of cotton wool as a cloud bank. With his camera, he circles the set, searching for the right angle. What one does not suspect from the snapshot quality of the photographs is the long process of many months that precedes the final image. ‘It is almost impossible to make a constructed situation appear unconstructed’, says Zwakman. The use of the medium of photography partially eliminates the hand of the artist: the apparent objectivity of the medium gives the image the illusion of reality, making the maquettes appear real rather than fictitious. Zwakman’s aim is not primarily to present a realistic picture of a Dutch landscape. It is the width of the fine line between fiction and reality that determines the field of tension in which his work is situated. It is a game that the artist plays with the viewer’s ability to recognize and interpret. Even though we know they are maquettes - the surrounding studio almost forces itself upon the viewer in some of the photographs - the image is often still unable to completely convince the viewer of this fact.
The way painting, photographs and the media have recorded the Dutch landscape forms a reservoir of images from which Zwakman draws his inspiration. Every observation we make, every image we form is determined by this visual baggage. Zwakman is thoroughly aware of the subjective, determining nature of his gaze. The search for possibilities to eliminate subjectivity as far as possible plays an important role in this too. Only when you are aware of this influence are you in a position to go beyond this connotations and create an image that not only contains references but which always gains a new intention. For Zwakman, the reconstruction of these images is at the same time a reconstruction of looking.
The coming into existence of the maquettes is actually a reconstructing of images. Not only in terms of the images produced throughout the history of art, but also in relation to the impressions we acquire today from the landscape around us. The moment we reflect upon the landscape and want to reconstruct it, these unconscious impressions become conscious and looking becomes seeing. For Zwakman, searching for essential images of the Dutch landscape is a process of becoming conscious, and in this process unconscious impressions and memories acquire meaning.
The fact that the Netherlands are completely constructed and over- organized makes them an interesting and reliable metaphor for the way we deal with the world.
For the architect and planner, maquettes are a means to bring under control the area that is to be designed. For Zwakman, maquettes are a metaphor for this controlled approach to landscape and our need to bring structure to chaos of the world around us.
Translated by Annabel Howland