Images of a second order. Photography and immune design

Robert F. Hammerstiel is an unusual photographer. His photographs seem prosaic despite their bright colours, straightforward despite their illusions, crystalline despite their living subjects. Hammerstiel does not merely depict and sustain a creative intent. He is someone who proceeds with a diagnostic chronological approach. His theme revolves around the aesthetic dimensions of the immune design. The notion of immune design picks up on the contemporary needs of people to organise their environment according to spheres of cleanliness. To record this trend, Hammerstiel establishes a close relationship between the contrary principles of modernism and medicine. His photographs combine long-held contrary intentions. So what does that mean? While modernism sought to suppress visibility so it might cleanse itself, medicine strove to highlight what was invisible so people might become less susceptible to infections. Both are variations on the theme of contemporary environmental design, and both are key to Hammerstiel’s analysis of the present. The method and technology of photography are his willing helpers. Photography proves to be the medium best suited to raise the issues of visibility immunology in a way both critical and illustrative.

Many biologists describe the somatic self as a terrain under siege defended more or less successfully by the body’s own border troops. What we refer to as hygiene is a precautionary measure, a pre-emptive war against intruders out to weaken our physical substance. The more we know about ourselves, the more the organic self feels threatened. Then there are the ambient conditions. Ever since we first became aware of the contamination of air, water and food, we have known that the human organism is vulnerable not just on its surface. Biological, psychological, cultural and other processes can have an equally sapping effect. So how do we protect ourselves? What ecological precautionary measures can we take? Besides these familiar questions, there are others too. They relate for instance to the aesthetics of hygiene. It is an issue rarely discussed, even though it is clear that ecological awareness and growing immune operating systems also have aesthetic consequences. So what does a hygienic world look like? It is natural, or is it artificial? Is it an original state or an ultimate goal? How is the notion of purity conveyed in our spheres of civilisation? A paradox soon emerges here. It concerns cleanliness. Cleanliness is an absence: it is the non-presence of contamination. It cannot be represented as quiddity or actuality, only as a withdrawal.

Cleanliness is therefore a phenomenon that does not manifest itself. In fact, it can only be deduced retroactively. Cleanliness is the state that exists before or after contamination. It is pre- or post-phenomenal. And yet its presence is called for time and time again. As we look around, particularly in our private spheres, it is unlikely that we can overlook it. People feel a strong urge to portray their environment as clean and liveable. That is why most people today have become exponents of immune design. Above all, they create zones for themselves where invisibility becomes noticeable. It is all about special decontaminated terrains. These are not to be misunderstood as romantic hideaways, as picturesque moods or exotic realms, as was once the case. No; being clean means creating enclosed atmospheres: health resorts, temples of well-being, honest and worthy holiday destinations, all-inclusive hotels, conservatories, and summer swimming pools. These are the enclaves of cleanliness, the immune centres of the present.

Clearly, questions of immunity have now also become a criterion of private home design, with an enduring trend towards isolationism. The definition of closed or indeed enclosed spaces is the obvious sign that islands are necessary in order to maintain the understanding of hygiene. However, not all spaces need to comply with the requirement of purity. Like existence itself, private living spaces also have their back rooms and their basements. Of the private sphere, it is first and foremost that part which is accessible to others that conforms to these particular visibility requirements. They include bathrooms and hallways, façades, dining rooms and, in particular, gardens. They are kept neat and tidy. They are designed. They are honoured and honed, pruned and spruced. And partly against a better insight. Indeed, those concerned have long known that too much hygiene can be bad for you. The ideal of unthreatened health to which they aspire will never be achieved if all that is foreign and unpleasant is obliterated. It is part of the complexities and intricacies of the body’s immune system that it is prone to misunderstandings; indeed, it is even capable of attacking itself. It is well known that the most dangerous illnesses are those where, for inexplicable reasons, the body regards itself as its own worst enemy.

It is to Hammerstiel’s credit that he has chosen to look at these trends and their counter-factual consequences. Hammerstiel observes with the photographer’s trained eye and touches a number of sore spots. The gradual shift of the personal hygiene calculation to the sphere of home living is a theme which so far has barely been addressed in art. The paradox is a further difficulty. For how does the clean manifest itself? How does something that withdraws represent itself? And, above all, how is it portrayed in a photograph? On the surface of it, as it were, an answer is quickly to hand. Indeed, surfaces are where the clean is most likely to manifest itself. Bright, polished and shiny are the criteria of the clean. Dirt, its opposite, is like a malignant overlay, an unwanted film over the outer skin of all objects. The cleaning initiative gets rid of it. Which is why hygienic design responds by exposing surfaces, and by putting them right. The fact that it imposes a design aspect on all of a person’s possessions, including their own body, almost goes unnoticed. Cleanliness is an aesthetic concept. It is an aesthetic desire. And this is where Hammerstiel the photographer steps in. There, indeed, is a link between photography and the idea of purity. Photography is, to a certain extent, the methodological equivalent of the clean. It too has a smooth shiny surface. It too is polished. It too is clean and almost translucent on its surface. Unlike painting it is virtually odourless; unlike sculpture it is neither oozily clay-like nor made of problematic plastics or heavy metals. Photography is flawless; what’s more, its origins are industrial and mechanistic. Some of us may remember that photography used to come to light by being immersed in a succession of baths, at least before digital reproduction took over. Hammerstiel further emphasises the purity of the photographic image by using narrow, immaculately white margins, making his photographs look even more sterile, and neutral. It is an aspect he further accentuates in his choice of motifs, with many of his photographs shot in a studio prepared especially. There his subjects are photographed against white backdrops. The interiors created as a result are undefined, like the famous White Cube. They are spotless, and as white as bleached teeth. The White Cube, by the way, epitomises the fantasy of purity. Throughout modernism aesthetic preferences have converged with those of hygiene. Then there is the exclusivity. The completely white-washed space provides the perfect setting for achieving what under normal lifelike circumstances would be beyond hope: the singularity of art, its pure presence contemporaneously negating the contaminated visible.

Where the art of modernism was once largely iconoclastic, people’s relationship with nature is today “physioclastic”, characterised by a level of mistrust towards the natural combined with an overestimation of its significance. The longing for private immune zones is most clearly apparent at the interface with the outside world, at the point of contact with that old opponent to all matters artificial, namely nature itself. People have learned not just from modernism, but from medicine too. It is almost as if they had transposed to their own four walls medicine’s fascination for repudiating the contaminated. What was once exclusive is now common sense. The garden is key. Gardens are the advance party as it were, the buffer zones and protection zones against intruders and unbidden guests. But at the same time gardens are also extensions of our living spaces. Where gardens were once often appreciated as carriers of sentiments and emotions, as a soothing balm and a place of rest and recreation, they are seen today as a potential foreign body and a bearer of dangers, a result of the indoctrination by hygiene fanatics. Gardens are part of the picture as long as they are wild and untamed. But those who prune them into shape and care and nurture them in accordance with the modern rules of hygiene will come to appreciate them as particularly attractive havens of tranquillity. At least that’s the theory. Hammerstiel photographs a family around their swimming pool on a Sunday afternoon. While the water is clear, it is coloured sky-blue as if under detergent effect. The rectangular pool is geometric. Then there are the children at play, populating the artificial pond with brightly coloured plastic objects. This supposedly natural setting has long been made to comply with the design ideas of hygiene. It is an imitation. The first principles for this mimesis of hygiene are clarity, surface cleanliness, and clear, at-a-glance structuring. Then there are the “wellness” characteristics, which transform the private exterior into an extension of the interior. Lawns must feel like well nurtured floors, flower beds like freshly made bunks, and fruit trees like clean self-service outlets. The “living environment”, a marketing invention of the 1970s , is thus turned into its opposite. Today’s living space maxim is not a couch set that stretches out to become a living-scape, but a landscape that becomes a place to live.

Originally people who kept a neat and tidy home were the targets of provocative art manifestations. It is one of the lesser known ironies of art history that the representatives of homely domesticity of the kind soberly recorded by Hammerstiel actually succeeded in realising the ideals of the radical avant-garde, albeit with a certain time lag. Those who manicure their lawns, trim and prune their hedges, and tirelessly toil at weeding are ultimately abiding by avant-garde maxims. Indeed, purity is one of modernism’s rallying cries. Clement Greenberg, for one, believed that images should no longer imitate the visible, but instead imitate the imitation. Modernism’s call for purity was therefore a form of cleansed self-reflection. In this sense the avant-garde came very close to medicine’s precepts of hygiene. And while both medicine and modernism pursued the objective of radical purification, their approaches were nonetheless quite contrary. In each case the differences related of course to the strategy of pest control. Medicine wanted to draw attention to the invisible, to the dangers that humans cannot perceive with their senses, dangers such as viruses, bacteria and radioactive beams. Modern art, for its part, wanted to draw attention to the visible, to the dangers of images being appropriated by politics, traditions and ideologies. The avant-garde opted for an art of radical extermination of content and therefore for a vehement withdrawal. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that, throughout certain periods of the past century, painting was an art of vermin extermination, studios were decontamination facilities, and architecture offices were training centres for clean-copy artists.

Images of a second order
Hammerstiel’s art, then, provides a common denominator for medicine and modernism, for visibility and invisibility, for presence and withdrawal. And that denominator is photography or, to be more precise, a photographic aesthetic of second-order image-making. What do I mean by that? In his series of photographs entitled Trust Me, Hammerstiel depicts house plants and ornamental plants. At first sight these are photographs that portray a reality. But that is not the case. Indeed, the potted plants are made of artificial materials. What he has photographed are artificial replicas. And while Clement Greenberg may have been critical of photography, Hammerstiel’s photographs certainly conform to his demands for self-referentiality. This is evident for instance in the fact that the medium itself is camouflaged. Photography portrays itself as a means, as a dual mode of withdrawal.

In second-order image-making, the motifs which these photographs specify are nothing other than artificial spare parts. They are substitutes of nature. They replace reality like the pool replaces the pond, the conservatory the jungle, the rubber duck the live poultry. Hammerstiel’s repertoire of motifs reads like a list of cheap simulacra. We are all familiar with these sorts of plants from hotel lobbies, Chinese restaurants, bank branches, and shopping malls. These organic avatars are deployed wherever life is not actually possible, for instance due to a lack of natural daylight. But it’s not just about ambient conditions; it’s also about the illusion of a nature that has to be pure. So it is hardly surprising that these artificial plants never fail to make an impact. Hammerstiel talks of a “desire” that the motifs provoke. The desire consists of the fantasy of artificiality, a fantasy satisfied much in the same way as the notion that we are genuinely surrounded by flora. What we appreciate about a copy is its ability to imitate and replicate, and the power of human beings to create their own realities. What we like about surrogates is their substituting effect. People generally feel at ease in places where there are plants. Providing the plants are not threatening. But that is not the case. These consumer products have been well and truly tamed by their individuation, their cutting to size, and their isolation inside pots. Thus we find imitation plants that are oriental or Mediterranean, in other words from climate zones we like for their pleasant temperatures or from regions we find exotic. We see for example orange trees or artificial olives. Other popular plants include those that do well under ambient room conditions. Some, like Ficus benjamina, are now an integral part of the typical inventory of contemporary domesticity. Hammerstiel places a great deal of emphasis on the fact that they have been removed from any context and show a certain alienation. Indeed, all plants are by nature exotic and outlandish, except that their “foreignness” is of a degree that seems bearable and therefore attractive.

There is a third type of plant that crops up time and again in Hammerstiel’s oeuvre. It is not a foreign plant, but an indigenous species that looks very much like a foreign one. In fact, the plant in question is, literally, the common or garden shrub: the thuya. One of the advantages of the thuya is that it grows very quickly, creating a dense screening effect. With its tapering cone shape the individual thuya is not unlike the Mediterranean cypress. But unlike the latter the thuya is of a much more vivid green, not quite as tall, and winter-resistant in alpine regions. Thuyas are much appreciated for their high tolerance to pruning, even though their Latin name means “tree of life”, i.e. a plant that should not be cut back. Hammerstiel photographs thuya trees because, often, they have been given an artificial shape by their owners. They are plants that are treated like sculptures, like reproducible units, or cheap commodities. In domestic gardens they serve as immune sentinels, as natural battlements, and as clearly defined border guards. In one particularly impressive example Hammerstiel photographs a garden bounded by a wall of thuya. With its lush evergreen appearance the oversized wall looks like a surreal image designed to enclose – and deter. Here it is hard to believe that the image is real, and the composition is easily mistaken for an illusion.

Trompe l’œil
What is significant for Hammerstiel is that, here, we have two realities colliding: an actual reality and a quoted reality. He says that many viewers are deceived by the supposed genuineness of the plants. They believe the documentary character of the photographs. In fact, these images are part of the tradition that processes crucial aspects of modernism, but also familiarises the viewer with an even older imaging technique, one which addresses the issue of image-making as such, namely trompe l’œil. Trompe l’œil images are images where the subject looks so deceptively real that people believe they can reach out and touch the motifs depicted. But in the photographs, the inability to decide between what is real and what is an illusion is not triggered by the image, but by the objects themselves. The artificial plants are an illusion of the first order. The photographs are an illusion of the second order.

Some of the other photographs from Hammerstiel’s series have been integrated into elaborate installations and depict meticulously manicured carpets of grass, swimming pools from a bird’s eye view, and isolated plastic playgrounds for infants and toddlers. The reality featured here is based so intensely on the notion of domesticity that it becomes sinister. The clear subtext to these works on impenetrable hedges and hermetically sealed gardens is xenophobia, a well known form of self-defence. It is the attempt to create a private environment in splendid isolation where people are not importuned by outside threats, whether they are social, political or neighbour-related. In doing so, they are seeking to withdraw from their withdrawal, hence the ubiquitous smoothed surfaces of grass, the sterile atmosphere, and the thoroughly styled spaces. But by far the greatest fear to reveal itself in all the fencing-in and the isolation is the fear of one’s own craving for the Other, the dirty, the untamed, and ultimately the foreign. The sobering effect of these surroundings is designed to drive out those suppressed cravings. And so it is hygiene we erect before us like a defensive wall to protect us from our own desires.

Thomas D. Trummer