Reality Ensheathed

The soul, the heart, the depths of the heart, man’s innermost core, which reaches far beyond to the outermost realms - so distinctly that if one thinks it through, any representation of an inner and an outer world becomes impossible.
Martin Heidegger, What Is Called Thinking?

Is art a means to transform reality, or to exalt it? Is it on the contrary a means to protect life, or to protect us from life? Is it, as Filliou said, a means to render life more interesting than art, or as Debord said, a means to render art as real as the life that is actually lived? To inquire into the nature of art is to attempt to say what its reality is: What is the inherent reality of art and exactly what reality does it speak of?

Robert F. Hammerstiel’s photographs are haunted by the will to answer these questions. Their intimate sheen dialectically expresses the affinity whereby the reality of reality links up with the reality of art. These images appear unruffled, obvious – they pass themselves off as tranquil observations, inventories, whereas they are actually inhabited with urgency, with an exacting demand, a claim to stabilize reality, to enter it and to perpetuate it. By making an object into an image, these photographs safeguard reality, they sample it and plastify it. But without any mockery, parody, or denunciation. Although he attempts to understand this middle-class culture that now surrounds us, Hammerstiel clearly attempts neither to embellish it nor to change it. His photographs do not seek to magnify their “subject-matter” or to stand apart from it, they aim neither to ridicule it or transform it. They aspire only to record the object as it is, to expose the detail of the Thing, and more precisely, to expose its “packaging.” If Hammerstiel’s goal is only to ratify, confirm, and validate, it is because his images partake of the objects he photographs.

Always shot from the same overarching, perpendicular viewpoint, his large, milky, opalescent photographs from the series Out of the Blue show empty heat-molded packing materials – these images are almost just as empty, transparent, and plastified as the transparent plastic wrappings voided of the object they packaged. If I say almost as empty, it is because the absence of color and the whitish opalescence reflected by the transparent plastic, the lack of the object, and the void of the wrapping fill the photographs.

Even when it is absent from the plastic that wrapped it, the object is present throughout Hammerstiel’s world – a world which is integrally doubled in plastic. As their single material, plastic is the single “subject” and the single “object” of his pictures. In the series entitled Make It Up, Barbie-doll clothes and accessories, outfits most often made of plastic, are preserved, petrified, eternalized – with or without their protective plastic sheath – in images which enlarge them like the implacable and exacting microscopes used in forensic medicine, physics, and archaeology. As to Barbie’s plastic face, the close-up picture multiplies its scale a hundred fold to create the imposing and frivolous icon of a world of objects ruled by the spectacle of objects and the exchange of commodities.

Hammerstiel’s art is a sampling of objects without qualities from a world without qualities – and yet it does not prohibit the dream. Its dream is total coverage, on plastic: protection, preservation, distancing. This triple preservation is intended to estrange the object from life: distancing through the (industrial) production of a plastic object which reproduces a (supposedly) real object; distancing through the plastic protection of this mass reproduction in plastic; and finally, distancing through the photographic reproduction of the plastic reproduction beneath its protective plastic sheath.

The object is everywhere and the flesh is nowhere. Squeezed out of this world where the body and the living organism are denied their passport, flesh can only be kept at a distance, protected under plastic. The milky, uninhabited protection of the Out of the Blue series looks like a condom considered before or after the sexual act – whereas during the act, nothing has happened, because "during" has not taken place. In this eventless expectation, the tension between the seen and the obscene, the anodyne and the delectable, remains unresolved – and reality bears down on the gaze as otherness. This parasitic reality is plucked from the world by the artist as he hunts down or creates one of the contemporary forms of beauty.

Since Charles Baudelaire invented modernity by defining it as man’s capacity to extract transcendence from immanence, artists have sought to discover the universal in the ephemeral, to recognize the sublime amidst everyday banality. For Baudelaire, the painter of modernity was “he who can succeed in wresting the epic side from today’s life, and making us understand, with color and line, how grand and poetic we are in our ties and polished shoes.” Did Malraux mean anything different, one century later, when he defined “the meaning of the word art: the attempt to make men conscious of the greatness they ignore in themselves”?

Jean-Michel Ribettes, Paris 1997