Causa Sui: On Bill Thomas' Works entitled Suicide
by Fernando Castro
Editor’s Note: Bill Thomas was a 1993-1994 Houston Center for Photography Fellowship recipient.
Not since Dostoyevsky's character, Kirilov, killed himself to prove that God did notexist, has the representation of suicide served nobler purposes than in Bill Thomas' Suicide series. But, alas, Kirilov's argument is a non-sequitur and Thomas' images are not of actual suicide attempts, but rather about a series of idiosyncratic performances representing self-annihilation simulacra. What the artist presents us with are acts that could lead to suicide but in fact lead to photographic artworks.
In all of Thomas' portraits, death seems to follow as the result of intricate, carefully designed apparatus whose causal mechanisms have already been or are about to be set in motion. Except for Chain and Train, 1992 and Swimming Pool and Concrete Walls, 1992, he is definitely a willing captive of the lethal machinery in the other thirteen pieces of the series. These works give us evidence to believe that the photographer has or had at some point the freedom to choose whether to proceed with self-destruction or not. Secondly, although in some cases impending death will occur in spite of a last-minute hesitation, in other cases the agent has control up to the last second. Compare the circumstances of Old Water Joke and Bazooka, 1993 where death will follow as soon as somebody fortuitously opens the door at an unexpected time; and Tub and Toaster, 1991 where the exact time of death is known because it has been intentionally set.
Thomas has been quite explicit in tracing the motivation for his Suicide series to his growing up at the peak of the Cold War. He explains, "To put this into a little bit of perspective, this was at the height of the Cold War— 1959—so on at least a weekly basis we'd all go into the hallway and do the old duck-and-cover maneuver in case we got bombed—and were, I think, all led to believe that any day the Bomb was going to come." The demented logic of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)—which turned irrationality into common sense and rationality into a potentially lethal game—ruled the lives of millions of people for nearly forty years or the better part of Thomas' life. The nuclear threat that loomed over Thomas' life nearly meant the end of human life.
But as if this nightmarish backdrop was not enough, Thomas lived through real catastrophe. "On Tuesday. September 15, 1959, a man carrying a suitcase loaded with dynamite entered my elementary school," he recalled. "Moments later he detonated the bomb on the school playground, committing suicide, killing five others and wounding seventeen more. In the chaos that followed, we were evacuated from the building and inadvertently ushered past the bodies, stepping to avoid scraps of unidentifiable flesh. I was half-numb, half-terrorized." When the bomb went off the twelve-year -old Thomas was under the impression that it was the atom bomb for which the school children had been rehearsing.
It is very tempting to say that henceforward the conjunction of MAD, emergency preparedness, and suicide were imprinted on Thomas' psyche. Our beliefs, however, are not causally determined by our experiences. After his childhood trauma Thomas could have chosen to avoid the subject of suicide altogether. Even if he had never lived through that trauma, be may have still done this work after a reading of Dostoyevsky, Mishima or Camus. The tension between determinism and free will may very well be one of the important themes behind Thomas’ intricate machines and willful performances. Certainly, there are no traces of carnage in his works and the beauty of his tableaux indicate that his works are about something more logical than happenstance.
According to a sequence that Thomas himself has spelled out, the traumatic but repressed memory of the bombing at drove him first to psychology, then to the literature of existentialism, and finally to photography. By exposing repressed memories the individual may achieve a catharsis liberating him front his demons tormenting. Thomas' way is to expose himself in self-depiction as suicidal. His pursuit would be a dismal one were it not for one redeeming element in his work: humor. It is a dark humor, indeed, that inspires a hilarious work such asSeesaw and Ice Cube, 1991 despite the imminent possibility of self-hanging. In this photograph, the lethal seesaw is triggered by the diminishing weight of the ice as it melts. Like many of the other apparatus of self-destruction laboriously fabricated by Thomas, it unavoidably elicits laughter. Together with Dog and Shotgun,1991 and Knife and Iron, 1992 these are more the kinds of machines concocted by Wyle E. Coyote than by a self-destructive depressive. So, does Thomas intend to rob suicide of its seriousness, to make light of it? Not at alb humor, as proven by more than one surrealist, is nm necessarily superficial; on the contrary, it can be, as in this case, quite revealing.
The sets of the Suicide tableaux are as intricate as they are ingenious and by the artist's own admission constitute "the most pleasurable part in the process of making a photograph." The final product of these endeavors is not suicide, nor the ephemeral act of role-playing by the artist, but a photograph. Thus, Thomas' artwork is not a public performance that photography simply illustrates, bur rather a mostly private performance that contributes to realize the photograph. The final product is delivered with the fastidiousness of the f/64 modern aesthetic, but also with a deeply-seeded skepticism about photography's veracity implicit in staging. It could be said that the works are created from the pleasure-seeking drive of the id, to the rational guidance of the ego, to confronting the taboo about suicide imposed by the superego.
Thomas' quote of Hippolyte Bayard’s Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man, 1840 in Old Water Joke and Bazooka,1993 patently shows not only the tradition of staged photography that the art has chosen m connect with but also makes a historicist allusion to the envy and iniquity of modern technological societies. The historical fact in question is that Bayard's photograph was motivated by the official denial of his claims of being one of the inventors of the photographic process. Thomas' reminder of this image of Bayard as photography’s first purported staged suicide victim expands the range of implications of his own work.
Ponder how very different Thomas' work would be if it claimed to document actual suicides; like Weegee'sgruesome police photography of murder victims. In that case il would not be a reflection on the issue of technology and life/death but a commentary on the phenomenon of suicide. Moreover, the saprophytic motivations of the photographer would be rendered morally suspicious. But in Thomas' work, the only vestige of factuality, of unintervened reality, are the sets for the photographs that Thomas calls "readymades." Tractor and Plow Disc, 1993, for example, ismaximally readymade because little was added by the author. Thomas' sets, as O. Winston Link's, combine varying ratios of "already-there" to "added" objects. For this and other parallels, theSuicide series is more closely related to Link's elaborate photographs of locomotives than to any reportorial work.
The works of Link are a late Romantic's celebration of a modem machine, Thomas' is an oblique reflection on the age of machinery that flourished in the nineteenth century and included photography in its flowering. The influence of modem technology on death/life matters has been a matter of particular concern for artists since the aftermath of War World I. The reason is that modem machinery nut only changed product ion of goods, but also altered the ways of massively inflicting death in wars and diminishing the worthiness of life in the labor environment. Dadaists denounced this situation with photomontages that often incorporated commercial and propaganda photographic images. His well-ordered sets give that illusion of harmony present in 1950s commercial photography advertising electrical appliances. The toaster of Tub and Toaster, 1991 isfrom that decade in which middle-class life was finally conquered by convenient appliances.
Our enduring fetish for machines such as cameras, locomotives, and toasters has left an indelible mark on our own times in spite of the dark side of modem technology more easily discernible in guns and bombs. Notwithstanding Thomas' almost devotional celebration of machinery, his works do show some ambivalency about modem machines that at times borders on cynicism. Chain and Train, 1992 in fact, seems hurled directly at Link, while the machine in Sleeping Pills and Tanning Bed, 1993 reveals the "double edged" nature of technology that while producing a healthy look inflicts illness. Modernity's promises of a better life are thus rendered, at minimum, suspect. It is this critical side that places these works within a postmodern weltanschaung: the abandonment of the unquestioning trust in modern technology.
One must be careful, however, not to give excessive weight to a post-modem posture by Thomas, for it is evident that he takes an ironic stance regarding almost everything that comes into his pictures—his own death as author of his works included. Contrary to the radical view of interpretation that discuss with the author, Thomas inoculates his works against such abuse by placing himself, the author, into their very core. Although extrinsic to the works, the fact that they are self-portraits remains a crucial clue-in their interpretation. To ignore the author would he to interpret these works as if they were not self-portraits. On the other hand, it is impossible to ignore Thomas" nuclear trauma in interpreting these works, but without that bit of biographical information the work would probably become more capricious, more idiosyncratic, and more subjective than the evidence suggests. In many of the works, the author overtly displays the act of releasing the shutter himself; this fact is germane to the interpretation that dissolves if someone other than the author released the shutter. Consequently, talk about Thomas' death, whether actual or pretended, imposes itself into even the most farfetched interpretations.
In sum, insofar as it is both modem and postmodern, historical and current, paradoxical and resolute,Thomas' Suicide series is above all an extremely intelligent body of works. Though some have unreflectively compared Thomas’ art-producing machinery to Dr. Kevorkian's euthanasic devices, the former is definitely—as the latter is arguably—part of the process of producing life-affirming works. That they confront death self-caused docs not diminish the fact that in them life emerges victorious. As in E.E. Cummings’ poetry, enduring life's wondrous intricacies, not death, is really their end. As Cummings put it, "for life is not a paragraph / And death I think is no parenthesis." After all, nobody in these images is touched by "death's wandering guess," not Bayard, nor Thomas, not the author.
Fernando Castro is a writer and photographer living in Houston.