Image archaeology and treasure hunting
09 • 08 • 19Bea Istvánkó
German art historian Aby Warburg was one of the most influential figures in iconography, a discipline that studies the content of the images and the history of visual elements. In his most comprehensive project, Mnemosyne Atlas, begun in 1924 and left unfinished at the time of his death, in order to reconstruct how the symbols and pictorial gestures of the Antiquity reappeared and transformed in later epochs, he invented a panel structure juxtaposing a great deal of pictures over large-scale black panels in an association-inducing way. For the composition of these tableaux, Warburg traced down the evolution of the different motifs and meticulously searched for the pathways that had enabled their continuity across the epochs. But due to his death, the Atlas has never been fully completed; and only its photo-documented last stage was left to today’s posterity. The project drew on a collection of around two thousand photographs of which more than one thousand were set on the 63 plates Warburg prepared until 1929. The Mnemosyne Atlas still remains an unrivaled laboratory of images for the history of art thanks to the incredibly extensive historical research that led up to the compilation of the panels. Although Warburg’s magnum opus is more than ninety years old, it has not lost its relevance – the way it coordinates images and treats the recurrences of the same symbols as sequences is still capable of conveying meaningful contributions to the interpretation of visual representations.
Roaming around Erik Kessels’s exhibition, open until 18 August in the Mai Manó House, as if one was walking among the pages of a Mnemosyne-like endeavour, enlarged to fill up the whole space. Dutch contemporary artist Kessels exhibits images from seventeen photo series of his, and just like Warburg’s work, all his projects rely on thorough research and an image database of several thousand items. But let’s start at the beginning. In addition to his artistic activity, 1966-born Erik Kessels works as a curator, a designer and as the leader of the KesselsKramer communications agency. Despite photography being his primary interest, he seldom takes photographs himself, and even if he does, achieving high quality and finesse is outside of his real focus. The material he generally uses in his large-scale installations tailored to the spaces are so-called found photographs, collected from a diversity of sources – flea market finds, eBay bids, rejectamenta of photo services or even pictures from the Internet. Deploying his signature working method, he sorts out and organises the appropriated images, mainly vernacular photography, and then reinterprets them in the form of location-specific installations. In response to the visual overload of our times, Kessels decided to not contribute to the already excessive and ever-expanding flood of photographs and took up the Sisyphean challenge of putting an order in to the chaos of already existent photos, no matter how tiny segment he can manage, compared to the whole.
Kessels is considered a real superstar in the field of found photography; in the past years, he has had shows at the most important exhibition venues and art festivals in Europe and all over the world, where he presented his series and the more than 60 publications he compiled of them. The Many Lives of Erik Kessels exhibition held in the Mai Manó House presents a plethora of items from the series In Almost Every Picture), hence it can be seen as a kind of retrospection, however, it also includes three brand new works by the artist (two of those with connections to Budapest).
Kessels’s affair with photographic archives started in Barcelona in 1999 when he discovered a 400-item photo collection at the local flea market. In these images, in almost every picture, we can see the same Spanish lady being photographed at different holiday destinations. The notes and dates on the pictures reveal that it was her spouse who made the photos during a 12-year period from 1956 to 1968. Even though the name of the protagonist in the pictures is no longer a mystery, thanks to a reply to an advertisement posted in a Spanish newspaper, it still is intriguing to see how the role of the woman was diminishing in the compositions as she was getting older. The swimsuit close-ups made in the 50’s first gradually transformed into dressed up portraits, and then the once central character became a mere staffage figure: a distant face above the water or a silhouette hiding behind the trunk of a tree.
Besides the photos themselves, Kessels often deals with photo albums and their evolution, a phenomenon that characteristically belongs to the twentieth century. Regarding the present exhibition, the theme of albums turns up in two rooms, one of them accommodates an installation of hardcover and leather-bound albums stacked on each other, the other appears like a magnified album itself where the pages stretch from the ground to the ceiling, the wallpaper seems like patterned tissue paper and even the carpet is made of reproductions of family photographs. Kessels likes to focus on recurring topics just as they are represented in these albums. In a typical set of albums documenting a young couple’s life, the first volumes generally show the beginning and the romantic summer holidays spent together. Then there come the volumes dedicated to capturing the wedding, and later the birth and childhood of their firstborn. However, after the arrival of the first new family member, the topics tend to diverge more, bringing family-specific elements to the fore; e.g. in volume #9 of the In almost every picture series, there are multiple photographic attempts to snap a picture of the family’s pet dog who, in spite of all the efforts made, became a midnight black blot on every occasion, because of the poor quality of the Polaroid camera available.
As one can see, the Kessels-style image archeology or treasure hunting does not lack humour. The lightheartedness, which is regularly engendered by the imperfections of the images, is generally accentuated by artistic interventions. For example, it is a common faux pas in vernacular photography to obscure the view with fingers, producing funny results and effects that can even evoke avant-garde gestures. These photographs are usually discarded after development, but Kessels embraces their faultiness. This time, he decided to change their status by enlarging them and placing them on the walls of the gallery as gigantic artworks. Just like the series discovered in Sándor Kardos’s Horus Archives in which a jealous wife or lover apparently scratched out the mysterious figure standing by the man on the pictures, sometimes with surprisingly artsy precision, sometimes with such passion that it damaged the surface of the photograph. The meaning of the images of the In Almost Every Picture #14 was altered by the blow-up and the context of the exhibition space, too. The fragments included here were an actual waste – a beach photographer cut round portraits out of pictures to make personalized badges from the important parts, and threw away the rest.
It is also curious about the work of Kessels that each of his series is provided with a fictional or unearthed narrative giving insight to the life of the character or family seen, helping us get involved in their world. We might even continue their story, adding our part; which is also encouraged by the fact that the artist publishes his series in separate photo books. For example, the live piglet found by Michel Campeau in his parents’ family album is a particularly likable character in spite of its precarious fate. On the photograph taken in 1963, the sweet thing with red ribbon on his neck is bottle-fed by Campeau’s mother in the Au Lutin Qui Bouffe restaurant in Montreal. Campeau had held this endearing snapshot in high esteem, but in 2005, he suddenly stumbled upon a matching photograph in a friend’s family archive. It shortly turned out that this series of two, in fact, comprises hundreds or even thousands of similar photos since the photographer of the restaurant made such pictures on an everyday basis, sometimes several hundred per night, between 1938 and 1973. On a call Campeau and Kessels announced, they were able to gather together enough photographs to make an album, but the complete archive that got destroyed in a fire in the restaurant could never be recovered. The exact motivation of the piggy photographer and the concept of the series also remain impossible to reconstruct, and we cannot know either what happened to the snouty star of the pictures. Some say he ended up on the menu, others claim that after his retirement, he was taken to a farm in the countryside; and a pox on doubters.
The Many Lives of Erik Kessels
Mai Manó House
22 May 2019 - 18 August 2019