A pieta (from the Italian word ‘pieta’, meaning ‘compassion’) is an image of Mary grieving the deceased Jesus Christ. A desperate mother cradling her murdered son. The image remains recurrant in art today. We made a selection of images that we found particularly striking:
The Cuckoo Clock
Nearly everyone knows them: cuckoo clocks. That miniature house fastened to the wall, heavily decorated with leaves, birds, or other animals. Two iron weights, usually in the shape of pineapples, dangle beneath, and its wooden pendulum is most often covered in a leaf.
Children were – and are – especially fond of them. Time and time again, the little bird peeks out from behind the door to announce the time of day with its call, all the while opening and closing his beak, rocking to and fro, and sometimes even flapping his wings.
Although at one time the clocks were extremely fashionable, they gradually waned in popularity. They were generally considered increasingly kitsch and owning one became ‘not done’. The pinnacles of chic were the clocks from the Dutch areas of Friesland and the Zaan region, or otherwise the comptoises from France. In many cases, the cuckoo clock was exiled to the corridor, often ending up in the attic, and from there on, not seldom, into the rubbish bin!
But why kitsch? Even I have to admit that there are some very ugly specimens out there. The woodcarvings have become gradually less refined and the garish use of colours has become increasingly common. To my sentiment, the word ‘ugly’ is highly applicable in these cases. But to refer to them as kitsch? No.
When I think of kitsch, I think of all the so-called ‘old Dutch’ style Frisian and Zaanse clocks that have been widespread since the fifties and now ‘decorate’ the walls of elderly care homes in great numbers. These clocks can be classified as kitsch because they’re made up of parts from all over: with their multiplex or particleboard housing, their mechanics straight from the Black Forest, and their cast copper decorative elements emblazoned with the text: ‘Nu elck sijn sin’.
There is such a thing as an authentic Zaanse clock, but these are more than half a meter tall, its heavy pear shaped weight must be lifted twice a day, and it will set you back around ten thousand Euros. But then you’ll be the owner of a sample built in the 18th century!
Nowadays, most ‘experts’ assume that the cuckoo clock was ‘invented’ around 1730 by Franz Anton Ketterer in Schönwald in the Black Forest. Occasionally, the existing types of clocks of the period were fitted with two ‘organ pipes’ that held two small built-in bellows. Every half hour, a mechanism lifted these bellows in turn and since they differed in pitch the ‘cuckoo clock’ was born.
The famous house shaped cuckoo clock was not conceived until much later in around 1860. These clocks were modelled after the signal houses that had become a recent fixture along the railways crossing through the Black Forest, hence their nickname ‘Bahnhäusle’ among the inner circles. Although these early examples already were covered in woodcarvings, they were still relatively sober in execution. Increasing prosperity around the 1880s meant a boom in the variety in design and size. Some clocks were even provided with a second bird:the quail. He pops out every fifteen minutes and each hour he’ll chirp the time in the number displayed by the hour hands. Quite a few of the clocks are equipped with chimes. After the cuckoo’s call, a melody will play, like ‘Edelweiss’ or ‘Der fröhliche Wanderer’ or a snippet from Mozart’s ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik’ to name a few examples.
Since the beginning of its inception, the cuckoo clock has kept up with each style of furniture: ‘Biedermeier cuckoo clocks’, extraordinary Jugendstil examples, clocks in Art Deco style, but also ‘modern’ sixties and seventies versions.
Nowadays, the clocks are often fitted with battery-operated mechanics, ‘decorative’ weights and ditto pendulum. The realistic sound of a chirping cuckoo is programmed onto a chip and played through a speaker in the clock. With this clock in mind, I can sympathise with those referring to the cuckoo clock as kitsch. But the cuckoo’s call has yet to be relinquished and, still, some half a million clocks are manufactured in their ‘place of birth’: the Schwarzwald in the south of Germany. And not, like many believe, in Switzerland or Austria!
Postcards from Surinam
Born in Suriname and raised in The Netherlands, Haarnack maintains his collection on the sixth floor of a sleek apartment block in the eastern part of the city, overlooking the area that was once the docklands of this city.
It was here that Nahuel Blaton, my fellow Anthropologist in Art, and I were first exposed to the musty scent of thousands of rare books, common publications and mass-produced postcards; a silent lapidarium of all topics Surinamese.
However, when Nahuel Blaton and I first visited Haarnack’s bibliophile’s wet dream, it was the fantastic collection of postcards that caught our eye and inspired the direction of our common exhibition. We flipped through a broad spectrum of photographed subjects; plantation mansions, infrastructure, buildings in Paramaribo, cityscapes, Paramaribo’s harbour, churches, seemingly casual street-scenes as well as exotic fruits and agricultural products. The subjects that particularly made an impression on us however were those of people. More often than not, neatly categorised into ethnic and social groups; one came across various tribes of Amerindians (‘Indianen’ in Dutch), Bushland Creoles (then known as ‘Bosne(e)gers’), City Creoles (‘Stadscre(o)olen’), Indians (known as ‘Britsche Indiërs’, ‘Hindo(e)stanen’ or the rather more politically incorrect term of ‘Koelies’), Javanese and Chinese.
Many of the postcards are attributed to and undersigned by one Eugen Klein. Born in Mannheim in 1869, Klein moved to Suriname in the 1890’s to set up a professional photography studio in Paramaribo. For some 30 years, up until his death in 1927 in Paramaribo, he was the most prolific photographer of all things Surinamese with perhaps his most productive period between 1900 and 1905. After 1927, his widow Louisa Schrader and her children continued running the photographic studio on the Domineestraat C35, at the corner of Vaillants square in Paramaribo, up until the Second World War.
Some of his photographs were commissioned by the primary Evangelical Missionary Society in Suriname; the so-called Hernhutter Mission, named after its first colony, Herrnhut (“unter des Herrn Hut – under the protection of the Lord), located in Saxony, Germany. The Hernhutters had a paradoxical role in the development of Surinamese society. On the one hand, they carried out a doubtlessly benevolent plan of socio-economic advance in the impenetrable interior of Suriname by providing a programme championing education and literacy.
On the other, they were also instrumental in the behavioural ‘pacification’ of Suriname’s ‘heathen’ population. This, in the typically religious vein of the period, was coupled with an emphasis on the fight against ‘immoral’ co-habitation, an emphasis on work ethic and a sedentary way of life. Their main business, of course, was that of religious conversion within the various groups of Bushland Creoles and Amerindians. It seems likely that the Hernhutter Mission in Suriname commissioned Klein as part of a political agenda to convince the colonial authorities, as well as benefactors back in Europe, of the success and necessity of their presence.
Sifting through literally hundreds of these single or group portraits we realised that what we were looking at was the fragmented imagery of a people before they were to become the nation they are today.
With the introduction of the photographic film in 1871, taking pictures became a relatively easy praxis, even in the tropical climate of this Dutch colonial possession. Coupled with the intensification of economic and political interests that led to an ever-higher frequency of Europeans visiting, working and living in the colony, this would ultimately lead to a veritable boom in the postcard industry. Family and friends back in Europe could now receive visual documents of the exotic far-away where their senders resided and worked. Mass-produced and –circulated, these cardboard-mounted images were intended for consumption by a white, urban bourgeoisie back in the Motherland.
No subject was more popular than that of the exoticised and eroticised peoples that inhabited the distant crown dominions. These, incidentally, are at the same time the most ethically problematic of subjects. For in the practice of photographing these people, one inevitably stumbles across a kind of subjugation, exemplified by both the poses of the subjects, as well as the redundancy of the captions that inscribe them.
“Four generations of Indian women”, “Chinese man with his Creole wife”, “Coolie in Paramaribo”, “Group of Bush Negroes”, “Creole Beauty”, All individuality is negated in these captioned postcards and all individuals are relegated to remain mere examples of their respective ethnic categories.
The backdrops, often with hints of lush verdant foliage, seem to imply an original environment of virgin purity and, implicitly, the primitivism of the ethnic subjects. The artefacts that they wear and grasp – including calabashes, bows, arrows and feathers – are of such formulaic appeal that one would be surprised indeed if these were not staged by the photographer.
The strength of these postcards may lie in the sense of estrangement that his portraits evoke. A sense of estrangement that lies somewhere in between the distinct past that the images evoke, with the paradoxical realisation, that this distant past is, in fact, uncomfortably near. These visual documents of bewildering clarity and from a not-so-distant past attest to the photographic praxis of production, circulation and consumption that rendered huge segments of the global population into mere objectified ethnographic exhibits.
So, let us be thankful that amongst us, there exist those individuals and institutions that are dedicated to the preservation of material from former colonies, different mores and bygone times. I invite all to subscribe to Buku’s blog on books and other ecclectica. Mr Haarnack’s enthusiasm for all matter Surinamese and published will prove to be as infectious as it is to us, Anthropologists in Art.
The purchase of my first digital camera meant the sudden end of any inhibitions I still had when it comes to taking pictures. It marked the beginning, however, of my transformation into a full-time Japanese tourist, relentlessly clicking at the sight of anything even remotely close to being interesting. It resulted in an endless amount of photos of endearing kitties in the streets, women with big butts walking ahead of you, of yourself in every setting imaginable in this world, of everybody you have talked to for longer than five minutes and of your own legs on the bed of your hotel room. Suddenly I had a picture of everything. Which, of course, seems very nice, but isn’t.
I remember only taking two 24-shot film rolls with me for a month’s vacation. Was the rice served on our plates in the shape of a little bear worth a picture or not? Now I thoughtlessly take twenty in one go, assuming that the ideal picture will surely be among them in due time. The euphoria of taking as many pictures as you like has long faded now, although I shall never again be able to go back to limited photographing with film rolls, it’s simply too late for that. What I had to figure out, then, was a new way of handling my digital camera.
My first priority was to bring some order into my picture archive, which already consisted of thousands of photos. I decided upon a Flickr account. For all of you who have been living underneath a rock: Flickr is a website on which people manage and share their photo collections, making it also the world’s biggest online photo archive. About five thousand new pictures are uploaded every second and the total amount of photos is estimated at around 300.000.000.
Putting my archive online, thereby making it freely accessible to anyone, even my potential future loved one (you never know), made me look at my pictures critically again, eventually uploading only my best photos. A collection appeared that, with regards to selectivity, equaled the one that would have resulted if I had shot on film.
But something else happened as well. Pictures that I had shot out of sheer boredom, such as the photo of my own hairy legs, on a bed with a pink flowered sheets in a sad hotel (in which I stayed all by myself since I had to attend a boring congress in Bergen op Zoom), appeared to have survived the selection process.
It was a picture I would have never shot if it had required any thought, but which I found interesting nevertheless by virtue of the immense sadness that spoke from it.
Nevertheless, something magical happened when I saw all these photos together. All of a sudden I could see the thousands, millions of people before my eyes who spend every night somewhere in an anonymous hotel, alone in the world except for the company of their digital cameras. By seeing all these photos together the sadness was enormously magnified, for in this photo archive the world seems to contain lonely hotel guests solely. At the same time it consoles: all these people are not alone, but convene on this site.
It quickly transpired that I could find groups for almost all my photos. There are groups for pictures of dogs photographed as humans; deserted shopping carts; food items eating themselves; cats with hats; the colour red; people with aids; you name it and there’s a group for it. And the strange thing is that every time I added a photo, the context changed completely. The photo is no longer autonomous, but part of a series. How else to interpret my picture of a shopping cart left behind in a field when seen among more than a thousand pictures of carts in deserts, marshy canals, gorgeous beaches or hanging from trees?
And thus a collection emerges that a sole photographer would have never been able to make, because who manages to find so many shopping carts? A collection that consists only out of pictures that might have been shot without much thought, and yet all of them together create something bigger.
Motifs, Themes, Subjects
That every good artist has a theme, a recurrent motif, I was taught at the academy. Series, concepts, preferably a recognisable style. After the academy it was no different. As people look at your work the inevitable question arises: what is it about?
Try and find a satisfactory answer if recognisability and archetypes aren't quite your cup of tea. I never conceive of something in theory first to then realise it. I have to live what I make. My development is brought about by making work. The work demands. A dialogue between the work and me emerges. Some things are abandoned only to come back later, some things disappear for good, other things stay. If no more questions arise, the work is finished. The work teaches me, not the other way around. The work is a narrative that manifests itself in different ways. The theme is the narrative that you tell in different ways every time. They are already there, just as you are already there. It only has to be discovered.
I allow myself to be led by what catches my eye. By where my love resides, my grief, my wonder, my fears. Without wondering if it fits the theme. As long as you stay true to yourself, everything you touch will be included in the theme. I am the theme. This is my world. One of the things I do is collecting. What I start a collection for, I can never say beforehand. I collect without worrying whether what I collect belongs to my work. That does not come until later. If at all. Either way goes.
This is my collection ‘Dining with Presidents’. Thirty plates from crockery sets that American presidents, their families and guests have eaten from. It began with a photograph of a set table at the White House at the time of the Clintons. Glasses, candles, an extravagant bouquet, and a plate. A plate that quickly turned out not to be just an ordinary plate.
At the founding of the United States on the 4th of July 1776, a leader had to come forward. How much power would be given to this leader? The only thing the Founding Fathers knew for certain was that the polity after the Independence War could not resemble the English aristocracy even in the smallest degree. However, all too libertarian was no possibility either, as the European monarchies would not acknowledge the US as a nation. There was not a single democratic country in the world for the US to emulate. How to proceed?
If guests came, from within the country or from abroad, how was the leader to welcome them, at home? How was he to be addressed? Certainly not like kings, as ‘sire’ or ‘majesty’. After numerous debates, the decision was made that the leader was to be addressed as still happens today: as ‘Mr President’. The title of the president’s wife was also wrangled about. ‘Mrs. Presidentress’ was even considered, before the eventual decision fell on First Lady.
The rest was left to the president and his wife themselves, with an especially big role for the First Lady. In the furnishing of the presidential residence as well as in the design of the presidential tableware, she was the one to express the aspirations of the new country and its ideas on leadership. That has not changed to this day.
When I found out I knew why the plates appealed to me so. I am always on the lookout for tangible, personal stories behind political and historical processes. These plates are exactly that. They are the embodiment of what First Ladies throughout the centuries thought were the political ideals of the US. Plus, you can eat from them.
Widower Thomas Jefferson, third president and Founding Father, kept it simple and personal with the presidential monogram in the centre. Elizabeth Monroe emphasised the pillars of American Society: Strength, the Arts, Commerce, the Sciences and Agriculture.
from 1845 onwards, a more nationalistic period in American History dawns. Mrs. Lucy Hayes chooses crockery that was produced in the US. Therefore, they bear American flora and fauna. Mrs. Caroline Harrison chooses the corn cob and goldenrod as symbols of American’s plenitude and beauty.
Then, in 1893, the desire for grandeur crops up. The royal air of European palace decoration is no longer rejected. Stars emerge, on the basis of the following: "The star is a symbol of the heavens and the divine goal to which man has aspired from time immemorial.” *)1
*)1 From the book "Our Flag" published in 1977 by the House of Representatives; about The Flag Act passed by the Continental Congress since June 14, 1777.