Motifs of the Economy

Michelle Debat

It's because man – or more exactly that which constructs or shapes (if not conditions) his identity, and that which most subtly poses the question or a possible (or not) "individuality without identity" 1) – is at the centre of his approach that Robert F. Hammerstiel is interested in the material manifestations of our consumer society, and the way its market economy creates and dispenses the forms of their representation.
So it is as an archaeologist of the cliches of our world of formatted, miniaturised, packaged products that this Austrian photographer is presenting a part of his disturbing "excavations" at the Michèle Chomette gallery.
Two recent sets of colour photographs – Made by Nature, 2004, and Private Stories, 2005 – and several videos produced in 2006 make it possible to get closer to the essential nature of an oeuvre that is already substantial, and in which the ethical question supplants, with subtlety and extreme pertinence, the simple critical question.

For around fifteen years, Hammerstiel (who had an important exhibition at Le Crédac in 1998) has been producing sets of photographs, videos and installations that parasite the concepts of nature and artifice, series and singleness, reproduction and original, simulacrum and substitute: an entire dialectical continuum, in sum, in which the photographic image functions as a paradigm, given the extent to which it has continued to prove its incredible fictional power, while revealing itself as a primary iconic avatar – a decipherable, commercial, multiple (and thus consumable) document.
And it is precisely because he uses the medium of photography – that artificial method of sampling reality, that unclassifiable product-image, somewhere between art and industry – that Hammerstiel offers the viewer an invaluable work of aesthetic and socio-political reflection rather than just a mass of simple critical observations.
Stimulating affect, re-examining that which is placed, in particular, at the disposal of the middle class – the most extensive, the easiest to attain – and making one think about the way it attempts to construct its universe, its domus, and thus, by capillarity, its "self", is what has been at issue in his work since the first sets of photographs. Based on the economy, it touches, in fact, on the ontological question of the biotic.

In Grüne Heimat, 1988-1989, where nature, through the intermediary of a plant, attempted to enter into the "frame" of photography, but also into the "interior" of an apartment – the principle (in this case, tautological) of the mode and form of representation – the artist was already discovering one of the aspects of his expressiveness: how does nature come into the cultural artefact that is our habitat? What is the relationship between Nature and Culture within the sphere of the intimate? In what forms? How does man accommodate to it? The acceptance of potted nature: a metaphor of our own conditioning. In Made by Nature – echoing a previous set of photographs, Portraits de Midi, in which Hammerstiel took a behavioural look at the Austrians through their culinary preferences – it is our terrestrial nutriments, almost perfectly imitated, that make up his Epicurean still lifes, in which photographic technique is ancillary to a betrayal of artifice. We go beyond gustatory habits: the saturated colours and the absence of shadows of the fruit, cheese and ewers are there to interrogate verisimilitude, not truth, in the essential subtlety of the codes of seduction on which the photographer plays with humour and irony. The analytical description of the photographic medium is subservient, not to denunciation but to reflection. There is no sign of life in his "still lifes", other than, paradoxically, the industrial imprint of the seam on a slice of melon, or the over-white rinds of the cheese – just optical flaws resulting from photographic precisionism, which remind us, by metonymy, of the mass production of these substitutes for reality.

What we are looking at, therefore, is the particular recursive specularisation of reproduction in which photography participates directly by reducing reality to an image, stripping it of all "flesh", and thus of temporality, but also the one of which the photographic image has become the prototype, namely the serial, then commercial, emergence of each productive act as it turns into a product: production, reproduction, repetition, where sight replaces the other senses, and "the same" signs the demise of the original. It's a double distancing of the real and the living, in these "still lifes" that effortlessly flip over into the paradox of their intemporality. Image and product transform reality into an illusionist artefact, naturally seductive (and yet…), but above all reproducible.

Hammerstiel shows us that he can also be miniaturised, fragmented and decontextualised by the aesthetics of the publicity shot, before being imprisoned by his mode of representation. He becomes a mere repetitive motif, self-identical and available to all – a motif-shell like the Barbie outfit in its blister bubble (Made it up, 1993-1994) that makes the little girl think hers is unique, like her projections. Or it might be accessible only through the factitious archaeological remains of a fantasy city (Atlantis, 1998) placed in the kind of light box that is so widely used in the world of publicity, while applying the redundancy of the orange-blue couple of saturated, complementary colours.

Canned nature and culture, accompanied by our history and desires: not "in the Museum" but "in-Museum", for memory and consumption, and thus for immediate satisfaction and throwaway pleasure? Up to the point, at any rate, where culture takes over from nature and, in turn, withers into a cultural product accessible to all and sundry. Desire, formatted, accompanied by difference obliterated.

And it's to this perverse, often intangible, shift that Hammerstiel's latest sequence, Private Stories, proposes to lead us.
While raising a smile, this series of colour photographs, representing the formatted interior scenes of suburban aesthetics, cannot fail to have an effect on us. Once again, the artist observes without judging, using scenography to turn images into sociological mirrors, but also real "trailers" for documentary films. The famous "mirror that remembers", to which the historians of photography are so attached, is turned upside down by Hammerstiel's visual and scenic acuity, as an incredible fictional mechanism of articulation. And looking at his photographs, it doesn't take us long to get caught up in the "film" game, and in particular to start inventing the end of a story, or at least to reconstitute the circumstances. But where Cindy Sherman, in her "film-stories", drew inspiration from real cinematographic photograms, Hammerstiel induces us to believe he is making use of them when in fact he is inventing them. And this is their disturbing aspect – the seduction, but also the fittingness of the position he adopts, as a photographer and as an artist. The descriptive power of photography is in the service of narration, hesitating between the theatrical and the falsely intimist documentary stance.

To round out this ambivalence between the theatre, the cinema and photography, but also the serialised novel, Hammerstiel tracks down the stereotype of the young couple in poses that anticipate their (our) way of life in normalised offshoots of monotony and boredom, going from the premisses of the very first disagreements about the purchase of the property that is so desirable to the middle-middle class, namely the so-called "private" house, to the lassitude of the businessman in the grey suit, alone (newly separated?) in his white and fawn pasteboard decor, or the young mother walking her child round the estate in the evening like a little dog. Clear-headedness or cruelty?

All the cliches are available to the scenographer-photographer as a formidable observer of these "private stories", in the same way that the sociologist Jean-Paul Kauffman is adept at divining the histories of couples on the basis of household linen.

With Hammerstiel's Private Stories, the human being has become a mannequin that divulges the scale of a maquette, and at the same time there are phenomena in which the same causes produce the same effects: the same houses, the same social classes, the same individual crises, the same disarray with regard to that which was supposed to construct individuality on the basis of one and the same identity.

How is something original to be created out of something identically multiple, in an ontological inversion of the photographic process, but also an inversion of our latest scientific discoveries? It was the same, the similar, then the clone, which Hammerstiel, in Yucca, 1998, had already recognised in hundreds of these plants grown from cuttings in greenhouses, and had isolated in large format against a white background with such objectivity that only the colour of the bark could still produce the illusion of a certain individuality. The yucca as an exotic ornament of middle class interiors challenged, like a suburban illusion, the hypocrisy of a certain kind of democracy, preaching difference as a humanist value. But what if the economic model were to take the obliteration of difference as its commercial motif, and man as its favoured decorative motif? This is perhaps the most sensitive issue in Robert F. Hammerstiel's approach, given the extent to which the photographic image has taught us to conflate reality and its possibility.

1 Bernd Schulz, "Images dialectiques", in Glücksfutter, Robert F. Hammerstiel, exhibition catalogue, Stadtgalerie Saarbrücken / Le Crédac, Centre d'Art d'Ivry, 1998.

Translated from the French by John Doherty

Michelle Debat