In Jacques Lacan’s conception of the subject, the subject is caught up in a lifelong drama of being beholden to his or her image. In his photographic book project DISplay, Walter Seidl analyzes how post-gender-era subject generation and definition affect life models and practices while themselves being co-produced by medial constructions. DISplay is Seidl’s photographic selection from the slide projects he has realized since 1997 as “D & S” (1997–2000), “DISclose” (2001–2003), “DISsect (2003–2006), “ST.” (2007–2008) and “A.o.D” (2007–2008). It is the world of Seidl’s own life that enters into his photo series, captured with his analogue camera. The painterly quality of the photography, with its complex light-dark modulations and shifts between close-ups and blurriness, black-and-white slides and color pictures, gives rise to a singular artistic intensity. In DISplay, it is Seidl’s American friends—a man and a woman known only by their first initials of D and S—who are the main protagonists of his shoots and with whom he meets up several times a year in various places, in metropolises such as New York, Tokyo, Seattle, London, Antwerp or Vienna.
In “D & S,” Seidl photographs his protagonists as a happy couple which meticulously designed post-punk and post-gothic lifestyle diverges quite clearly from conventional heterosexual imagery and behavioral codes, thus fitting into the pictorial context of the gender discourse that has been so prominent since the 1990s. Judith Butler, breaking through masculine-feminine antagonism, regarded gender as performance. It is precisely this performance that Walter Seidl is after in “D & S.” In Judith Butler’s redefinition of gender as a social construct which constantly stages itself anew, an idea which has so far mostly been dealt with within the post-feminist discourse, the political potential of “doing gender” appeared as a cultural category. According to cultural theorist Angela McRobbie, the vocabulary of post-structuralism entered the field of gender-theoretical cultural studies to help examine their relevance to cultural and political practices in order to focus on new subjectivities. In the wake of Michel Foucault’s “death of the subject,” which attempts escape from repressive mechanisms of power and control, the gender-political discourse offered the potential for new subject constructions. The effects that the advent of new subjectivities has had not only on the productive artistic field, but also directly on life models—becoming written into the realities of human relations—is the basis for Walter Seidl’s photographic concept in.Consequently, the question today is not so much as to what images in art, in film or in the media depict and document, but rather as to what they construct, stage, make visible and frame. Even so, DISplay also includes a penetrating examination of the documentary aspect of photography in that the construction itself becomes an integrating characteristic; in this respect, we can speak of "documentary creations.” As Hito Steyerl explains in more depth, the globalization of media effects a transformation of documentary forms and their relationships with reality. Rather than target art’s sublimating effect, Walter Seidl seeks to de-sublimate and expose constitutive repressions.
In “D & S” the couple’s togetherness is not portrayed as an idyllic refuge but rather as an ambitious alternative model that neither relies on some notorious living of a lie nor produces a sort of double-life. The line of demarcation between self and image, between authentic being and photographic reproduction seems to fade away. It was Sigmund Freud who, in his essay on the uncanny, first established that the ego-doubling via the image touches off an uncertainty over whether the pose or mask and the “true” ego can at all be distinguished from one another. At the same time, it is precisely the photographic perspective that manifests itself not as an anonymous “gaze” but as a subjective “look,” and this is broken again and again by traditionally masculine and feminine images as poses and masquerades. Roland Barthes, as well, has called photography a performative act in and of itself, an act which demands from the photographed individuals a certain knowledge of how posing works. A significant factor in visual self-determination consists in manipulating via styling the way in which one is viewed. In DISplay, Walter Seidl examines how productive the photographic view can be in the gender-political dimension of art and its performative analogies. In their stylization, “D & S” not only adapt their appearances to be more similar to one another, but also to be more like those icons of artistic self-problematization whom we can follow right back to Marcel Duchamps’ gender transgression. The androgynous tendency to “neither/nor” provides a resistance-filled space in which neither the usual characteristics of heterosexuality nor those of homosexuality can really dominate. Profile views emphasize the physiognomic similarities between the two, and this effect is helped along in equal measure by styling, glasses frames, haircuts, body movements and gestures.
Despite a certain ability to be artificial, authenticity is not something beyond the pictures, but is rather a prerequisite for the transfer—and our enjoyment—of the images. Because Seidl himself does not get involved in how they stage themselves, the protagonists’ charisma, their personal histories and the issue of existential substance are omnipresent. At the same time, a fragile sense of injury comes into play. Walter Seidl circles around his protagonists, photographing them at every time of the day and night, often in urban situations in the manner of a flaneur: from above, from behind, from the side, while eating, drinking, overcoming urban obstacles at a brisk jog, in front of poster wording, or walking past street-art and graffiti. Via Seidl’s re-contextualization, illuminated billboards and advertising slogans take on a certain political appeal.
Despite stylistic analogies to fashion shoots, what Walter Seidl’s photo series actually articulate is the need for different images. Formulating it as a somewhat exaggerated thesis, one could say that in Walter Seidl’s case, the reference to
fashion and design is even a constitutive factor of “post-gender reality critique” as an artistic practice. In the current discourse on capitalism, sexuality is perceived in a Narcissistic fashion, and sexual identification is also verging off in the direction of androgyny and bisexuality, claiming for itself free space in the gender-political spectrum. And this must be fought. In an allusion to Fredric Jameson’s theory that fashion, travel and entertainment are among the essential factors of a post-industrial regime of accumulation, the case of DISplay’s protagonists invites us to assume a phenomenon of creative consumption. In his photographic picture constructions, Walter Seidl splits the power of advertising and fashion images into their constituent parts, parts which expose the two phenomena as ephemeral suggestive material which produces an ideal ruled by (sexual) desire while at the same time seeking confirmation in the observer. In this way, the visual methods fed upon by advertising, fashion and video clips find their existential reversion. In DISplay, fashion and styling take on a discursive character, becoming codes of an identity-forming expressiveness via social and gender-political implications. In this Narcissistic originating act, the interpretation of the world by way of aesthetic categories gives rise to the need to express consumerism via an exalted and connoisseur-like approach. With the nonchalance that goes along with the assured awareness that aesthetics is not a product test here, even the reckoning with the hubris of that which is beautiful and true becomes a meaningful form of everyday expertise.At the same time, the portraits of “D & S” live from a stance of refusal and an offensive distrust of the ability of an image to represent. The simultaneous self-perception as a medial body which makes visible the demonstration of subjectivity via self-dramatization, leads on to the consideration of how the gap between gender-politically ambitious performances and the routines of everyday life can be closed. Seidl cryptically uses the medium itself to develop his deconstruction of normal roles.
In the follow-up project “DISclose,” Walter Seidl takes as his theme the fact that life is changing thanks to the transcultural effects had by the desire for mobility, by telecommunications and by globalization, and the resulting hybrid patterns of human relationships. D & S on a train with the sticker “Welcome Aboard,” in front of a sign reading “STOP—NO PARKING ANYTIME,” or putting on makeup: “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” In his image constructions, Seidl succeeds in bringing together aesthetics and ethics; it is an involved view which portrays a way of living and, at the same time, the instabilities of life models caught up in a state of constant change. In “DISclose,” the life of the two protagonists becomes a dialectic image through which the precarious role of photographic documentation becomes self-evident. This is another important reason why Walter Seidl has chosen the slideshow form for presentation in the exhibition context. Here, the appearance and disappearance of the slide images causes the figures of identification and redemption to intertwine, with that affective power taking effect which allows the protagonists to switch back and forth between “real person” and “gender-political image.” Like in the slideshow “The Ballade of Sexual Dependency!” (1982) by Nan Goldin, conceptualism, performance, narrative art and music melt into one another. In 2004, Walter Seidl began collaborating with musicians such as John Parish, who as a composer, instrumentalist and producer has worked with artists including PJ Harvey, Giant Sand and Eals; his soundscapes underline the transitory nature of life that one senses in Seidl’s pictures.
In “DISsect,” Walter Seidl works with extreme black/white contrasts and structures his slide sequences into a photographic spin-off of a road movie. The mixing of European and American settings emphasizes the fact that, due to trans-cultural dynamics, genre-specific attributes and gender-political ambitions can no longer be made out according to national or geographic boundaries. “DISsect” also features a further heightening of the game of juxtapositions and ripostes. D and S go separate ways; their mutual life splits apart. In “DISsect,” the heterosexual relationship pattern dissolves, and the social environment of the two becomes increasingly determined by friends. S finds new love in a relationship with a woman, thus making real the gender-political performance already crystallizing in the pictures.
D, on the other hand, goes on after the relationship's end by playing the game of the distinguished individual continuing his life as an aesthetic style. In "ST.” the focus is on the mutual life of the two women, who in their private rooms also appear as twins in identical pajamas, play with their cat, cuddle up together, kiss, advise each other in their makeup rituals and, in the overlapping of their profile views, melt together like Siamese twins.The life stories of D and S, which while moving along different courses once again overlap each other, form the motifs of the pictures. In the series “A.o.D.” from the same year, the double-entendre begins with the title, which refers both to “Angels of Dust” and “Autopsy or Diagnosis,” through which D, free from pathos, goes about locating his own self via a tendency towards the eccentric and through encounters with his family and friends.Paradoxically, the more distance he creates, the closer to his protagonists Walter Seidl ends up getting.
To be continued…
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Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Freud, Sigmund. “Das Unheimliche.“ Gesammelte Werke, Bd. 12, Anna Freud, ed. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1947. p. 227-268.
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Steyerl, Hito. Die Farbe der Wahrheit. Dokumentarismen im Kunstfeld. Vienna: Turia + Kant, 2008.