The Artist as Exposer

by Hans Staartjes

Celebrating my 40th birthday alone at the blue hotel room by Lydia Schouten at the Houston Center for Photography, Gallery X, in association with Julie Saul Gallery, N.Y., and the Consulate General of the Netherlands, and Mondriaan Foundation, April 15-May 29, 1994

“Loneliness, great loneliness.
Need for contact, but the feeling
is never satisfied.
I hate myself because I feel so lonely and long so much to touch someone, because it is humiliating.
I hate everyone else in the world because they are all potential lovers but they don’t love me.”
Lydia Schouten, Perspektief #40

Lydia Schouten’s installation “Celebrating my 40th birthday alone at the blue hotel room” was an ambiguous project. It claimed unextraordinarily to be about a single woman’s feelings of fear and loneliness living in New York City, when in fact it was a display of multiple levels of voyeurism. I was fortunate to meet Schouten and exchange a few ideas with her during her stay. Many of our observations seemed similar, perhaps because we share the same nationality (Dutch) and experiences of living in this country. As European nationals we have a pernicious habit of condescension towards the United States, deploring the exaggeration that seems to cover every facet of life in this country. Life here is visually and physically more tumultuous (as is the landscape); car crashes more spectacular and the accompanying sirens and flashing lights of the police cars more loud. Murders are always more callous and frequent, and the television viewer’s appetite for lugubriousness is unfettered; the television preens and manufactures heroes (O.J. Simpson) out of athletically gifted but not intellectually atrophied individuals and then gloats without compunction (helicopter videos of a white truck driving down a freeway) at their demise, while laughing all the way to the bank. The public appearance of someone in the nude brings out loud protests of “pornography” while protocol seems hardly necessary for sexual activity behind closed doors. Life in Europe just doesn’t seem as dramatic!

Her installation came to Houston via the Julie Saul Gallery in New York, where it had been previously shown. In addition to being a photographer, Schouten is a sculpture graduate of the Rotterdamse Academie; with a performance arts background; she is also well versed in the production of her own films. Her installation combined sculpture, drawing and photography. It was also proof of the blurring of lines between artistic media presently taking place. Her drawings, which were displayed on the large front windows of HCP, gave little intimation of the thought-provoking work within. The show was a reflection of life as a woman today under a constant threat of violence, and the ensuing feeling of personal isolation this woman was dramatically symbolized through a bodiless female form lying in a bed in the middle of a blue-green bedroom. Long locks of hair from her sleeping head flowed over the bedclothes. The bed was actually a bulbous, transparent mattress filled with air. It was covered with a translucent yellow, frilled bedspread. The glowing effect originated from a strong light source underneath. It created what seemed like a tongue-in-cheek, art-historical reference to a Dormition of the Virgin.

On the surrounding walls were the blurry and ominous television-appropriated images of captured murderers; male faces that appeared to be spectators at a wake. They hid behind lines of text from sexually-charged personal ads. Superimposed over the twisted face of a disheveled man with a black beard text read: “SWM, 40, depressed but somewhat glib and has nice manners. I need a kind woman to rehabilitate me.” Another, over a fierce, unkempt face read: “GWM, 26, healthy with great appearance and is HIV + likes Levis jeans. Interested in similar F who likes long weekends and fun times.” Around the room there were five, small round tables covered in translucent white cloth. On the surface of these backlit tables were transparencies of female faces, the victims of violent crime. The sculptural execution of this family of elements was quite extraordinary. The metal framework holding up the tables and bed clearly took some careful design and thoughtful use of lighting to create these glowing volumes. The use of these sculptural devices aided in the objectification of the victims and the assailants alike. Moreover, it was impossible not to notice the glaring irony of the missing bodies. The suggested subtexts were of a body under assault, a body denied, and a body “celebrating” its fortieth year of inexorable decline. The clearly sexual content of the text and the persistent reminders of violation, refer to a body who, though visually absent, is strongly present in the mind of the viewer.

The appropriated imagery (taken from New York City’s nightly television news) poignantly exacerbates this distance from the body. The (sexual) murderer’s assault of the body, echoes the television’s remote assault of its viewers’ bodies, through the nightly promotion of fear and sensationalism. Even the viewer cannot dissociate himself from this relationship. By salivating on the fates of the victims and their murderers, the television viewer completes a voyeuristic circle. Promoting the viewer’s feelings of guilt is probably partly the artist’s intent, but I doubt this work is simply moralizing. The artist is encouraging introspection and highlighting contradictions. She is highlighting the tyranny of the spectacle, where the spectator becomes the spectacle, where the innocents become guilty. Perhaps unwittingly so, the artist can’t separate herself from this game, in the position of the provider of her own spectacle.

The underlying sadness expressed in this work left some lingering effects on me, and added to a sense of consternation over certain current artistic trends, that I have felt for some time. Not necessarily seeking to categorize this show as such, it is nevertheless clear that the purpose of much Postmodern art, particularly photographic art, is social criticism, which is often centered around issues of identity and gender. Indeed, work without this agenda or political bend if often thought of as not having enough “bite.” The artist posits himself as the “exposer” of ills, and actually places the burden of responsibility in the hands of the viewer. While not denying the importance of deconstruction, the artist can come very close to smugness, as the delivery person of another note of bad news. Can the artist then be contributing to the spreading of a pervasive nihilism? If our technological world has exacerbated feelings of alienation, isolation and bitterness, should the artist restrict himself either to criticizing it, or the other extreme of becoming an apologist for it? Each day we seem to be reminded of the supremacy of logic and mathematical formulae over intuition and emotion. Who, but the artist, can remind us of the “human” in “human beings?”

Making references to current cultural thought, the British writer and professor Madan Sarup explains: “Postmodernity emphasizes diverse forms of individual and social identity. It is now widely held that the autonomous subject has been dispersed into a range of plural polymorphous subject-positions inscribed within language. Instead of a coercive totality and a totalizing politics, Postmodernity stresses a pluralistic and open democracy. Instead of the certainty of progress, associated with “the Enlightenment project” (of which Marxism is a part), there is now an awareness of contingency and ambivalence. The productiveness of industrial technology which Marx so much admired, and which he hoped to tame by means of Communism, has ceded place to universal consumerism. Puritan asceticism has given way to the pleasure principle.”1 The pluralistic tendencies of postmodernity are reflected also in art. There are certain features of Postmodern art, says Sarup: “the deletion of the boundary between art and everyday life; the collapse of the hierarchical distinction between elite and popular culture; a stylistic eclecticism and the mixing of codes. There is a parody, pastiche, irony and playfulness.” Among many examples, Andy Warhol is a very good embodiment of this. The most notable feature is that “Postmodern theory became identified with the critique of universal knowledge and foundationalism.”2
The rejection of the grand idealizing, universalist theories of modernism, is currently felt to be a more realistic position. But it also leaves a vacuum of dreams and sources of hope. The thoughts of the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard seems to carry a more positive note. Sarup notes: “Lyotard… values the intensity of experience and suggests that if we are always thinking of what we are, we cannot ‘let go.’ If we are always theorizing about things, we cannot enjoy them for their own sake. In Lyotard’s view there should be a shift from the dominance of dry, abstract thinking to a greater appreciation of the emotional… Post-structuralists like Lyotard are saying… that there is more to life than politics. If we are totally immersed in the political, we miss what is going on here and now. Marxists are always criticizing the status quo in the name of an ideal. Militants are so inflexible that they have no time to enjoy life as it is now. Ideals cut us off from the present. Instead of having nostalgia for an unalienated community that may have existed in the past we should celebrate aspects of contemporary life – its anonymity, its fragmentations, its consumptionism.”3
Whether you agree with the idea of “celebrating anonymity, fragmentation and consumptionism,” it seems clear that the loneliness we sometimes feel as artists is not one created by circumstances alone, but by our conscious detachments, or willing subjugation to secularism. Perhaps some kind of spirituality and humility or a celebratory faith in Nature can balance this scale that seems to be thrown wildly out of balance by the visual excesses of the “information age.” It may then be that we need not celebrate the age of 40 in our own lonely, little blue hotel rooms.

Hans Staartjes is a photographic artist, of Dutch nationality, living in Houston.

1. Madan Sarup, Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1993) p. 130.
2. ibid, p. 132
3. ibid, p. 100