Frank van der Stok
Jaap Scheeren is nuts.
That’s perfectly fine, since we need people like that, and he’s one of them. And luckily he’s willing to help us out a little; he presents our surreptitious feelings and desires through the medium of free expression that we are all too happy to leave to him. He dreams up the wackiest, liveliest performances, or carefully staged photo-opportunities, and then steps back while events take their course – leaving us to rhapsodize over the result. It seems we are all secretly envious of his refreshing non-conformism and dynamic inventiveness.
Any attempt to produce a stylistic analysis of his work in order to deepen our understanding of it is therefore as undesirable as it is pointless. Scheeren is a free spirit, a truly witty artist with a keen sense of the absurd, who can shift from reality to theatricality without dropping a beat – as capricious and unpredictable as an unguided missile, he defies every visual convention. Still, he has managed to build up a cohesive oeuvre, in which numerous variables relate to each other and interact in surprising ways. This comes out forcefully in the exhibition The day I took off my mask, I noticed my face was missing.
So we should not seek to define the work of someone like Jaap Scheeren. All we can do, perhaps, is to try to clarify the deeper foundations and motives underlying his methods. This would certainly be the right place to do so. Take the title, for instance. The maker unmasks himself, literally and figuratively, in an ultimate gesture of self-irony. Although that self-irony is not always present, and it is certainly not usually laid on so thickly, it certainly links up seamlessly with his absurdist and tragic-comic premises. In a sense, the artist makes himself vulnerable by acknowledging that nothing human is alien to him, and that he has forgotten to develop his own face behind his protective armor – the ultimate consequence of which is an identity crisis. We subsequently see this tragicomic leitmotiv recur in his work, morphing freely into guises ranging from a palm tree trying to get back into the earth to a pigeon longing to become a parrot. In this way he entices his viewers to sojourn briefly in his figures’ colorful inner worlds. For he knows precisely how to appeal to universal human sentiments so expressively that most viewers can easily identify with them. So it turns out that Jaap Scheeren is not nuts at all; he knows exactly what he’s doing. At most, we might call him an eccentric, but one in whom everything flows in a completely natural way – without any affectation and straight from the heart.
A curiously apt link suggests itself between the suggestiveness of the title The day I took off my mask, I noticed my face was missing and the character of the works. Let’s accept, for a moment, that Scheeren may be called an “absurdist” artist in the philosophical sense. Absurdism is a school of thought stating that humanity’s efforts to find inherent meaning will ultimately fail (and hence are absurd) because the sheer amount of information, including the vast unknown, makes certainty impossible. In fact absurdism is sometimes seen as an art form in which irrationality and incongruity are elevated to guiding principles. These are certainly the kind of principles that have helped to determine the varied ways in which Scheeren attacks his existential despair in evocative parables such as The Sun, The Moon and the Earth discussing their next move. The expressiveness of this work is couched especially in the “next move,” whereby an absurd premise derives added significance from the implication that it has happened before.
By placing all his work under the umbrella heading of a title full of self-irony, Scheeren seems to have completed the circle: absurdism and self-irony overlap, each enhancing the other’s effect. Now, considering the images that Scheeren has put before us, you could say that he visualizes what we might want to call, in the widest sense – for the want of a better term – “human inadequacy.” And that is something that can never be classified or analyzed, only made tangible.
In 1859, Charles Baudelaire famously railed against photography and its early aspirations towards Art, proclaiming that the medium was, ‘[T]he refuge of every would-be painter, every painter too ill-endowed or too lazy to complete his studies’. Furthermore, in the same essay Baudelaire fiercely berated the general public for its fascination with the newfound technology and warned of its potential dangers, declaring that, ‘[T]his universal infatuation [bears] not only the mark of a blindness, an imbecility, but also the air of vengeance…[I]f it be allowed to encroach upon the domain of the impalpable and the imaginary, upon anything whose value depends solely upon the addition of something of a man’s soul, then it will be so much the worse for us.’
Describing himself a century and a half after Baudelaire penned his fierce remonstrations, the twenty-nine year old Dutch photographer, Jaap Scheeren, states in his own artist biography, ‘People always have a certain idea about me…[E]specially in my youth, they told me that I looked lazy, and assumed that I was.’ Scheeren’s statement confirms that, despite photography’s gradual rise and acceptance as an artistic form, many photographers still find themselves, in both their art and life, associated with the long-held prejudices so eloquently articulated by Baudelaire at the dawn of the medium. Considering his remarkably prolific, diverse and ever-expanding oeuvre, it is clear that Scheeren is by no means ill-endowed or lazy. Yet perhaps it could be argued that he has a ‘lazy eye’, in the sense that it wanders – and wonders. ‘I never keep my mind and eyes fixed, though I am focused’, he cryptically explains. ‘Sometimes my work looks like there is no unity, but I am the main connection, and I change my mind like everybody else does.’
Perhaps these early misconceptions of photography, and of Scheeren, stem from their open acknowledgement and acceptance of their innate uncertainty, as such frank admissions of one’s own ambiguities are generally quite rare on the part of both a medium and an artist – after all, art is a vocation that until relatively recently was seen to rely upon a nearly prophetic nature, which in turn was meant to be driven by passionate, unwavering conviction. In fact, Scheeren often uses this stereotype of the artist to his advantage by adopting a seemingly serious, dead-pan style – one which is common to both photography’s past and present – but mischievously applying this matter-of-fact perspective to seemingly ridiculous, fantastical or incongruous sights and scenarios, thus playing (or insisting the viewer play) a kind of straight-man caught in the midst of a farce. And precisely because Scheeren’s work possesses this rather whimsical and lighthearted, yet clearly calculated naivety – as well as a disparate and often contradictory quality (not only from project to project, but even within individual bodies of work) – it becomes all too easy at first glance to assume that his approach is lazy, and that his intent is merely to indulge his erratic, childish impulses more than anything else.
Of course, throughout the twentieth century hundreds of celebrated artists – Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, Keith Arnatt, Chuck Close, John Baldassari, Cindy Sherman, Bruce Nauman, William Wegman and Erwin Wurm, just to name very few – used photography to employ similar tactics, not only in order to create a parody of Art (with a capital A) and therefore cut through its pretentiousness, but also to pose questions and insinuate broader critiques, whilst making sure that the audience doesn’t dare assume that they, as artists, were in any sense visionaries with big answers. In many ways, such artists – Scheeren included – have conjured up Baudelaire’s worst nightmare. Rather than simply letting photography ‘be the secretary and clerk of…factual exactitude’, they’ve skillfully harnessed and utilized the power of both ‘the imbecility’ and ‘air of vengeance’ Baudelaire sensed in the public’s enthusiasm for the medium. Furthermore, they have purposefully allowed it to ‘encroach upon the domain of the impalpable and imaginary’, and ultimately have imbued it with ‘something of a man’s soul’ without claiming too much of the credit. Perhaps Warhol summarized this approach best when he both defined and undermined himself by stating, ‘I am a deeply superficial person.’ Similarly, by incorporating humor, absurdity and play into his own work, Scheeren rejects the haughty self-regard found in more traditional notions of both Art and the artist, but this is not to say that he means to relinquish the underlying seriousness or sincerity of his intentions. As Erwin Wurm has argued, ‘Most artworks try to represent something lofty and important, but I find pathos repulsive. I want to address serious matters but in a light way…Speaking in a light way is not the same as making superficial conversation or small talk, but rather it is to speak in a positive, edifying way.’
As its title suggests, Scheeren’s most recent body of work – 3 Roses, 9 Ravens, 12 Months – remains unfixed in many ways, yet retains a very subtle sense of focus. The project is inspired by and various scenes, stories and illustrations discovered in a book of Slovakian fairytales, and is centered upon the unique coalescence of fantasy, morality, truth and nature found in such stories. As one would expect from Scheeren, the portfolio incorporates a diverse range of photographic styles and strategies – still-lifes, landscapes, portraits, constructed performances, open-ended narratives, and so on – all of which invoke the humor, mystery and underlying menace of traditional folklore. A golden feather glistens in an otherwise black void; a human figure looms beneath the green-grass surface of the earth; a blinding light radiates from the heart of a tree-trunk split in two; a woodland hunter sturdily sits in a stone grotto cradling his rifle; a face, full of surprise, fear or perhaps panic, peers out from the innards of a tree; and from a smoldering pile of dry, dead turf rises the head of a dragon, a dinosaur, a griffin or some other primordial or mythic beast.
Again, Scheeren has forgone the absolute, exacting promise of photography and has instead utilized its potential for lyricism and uncertainty, appealing not to our more mature pursuits of fact, rationale and truth, but instead – like folktales themselves – to our most primal, childish senses of both worry and wonderment. That said, this does not mean that Scheeren’s images are completely shrouded in the imaginary, for photography is uniquely and forever grounded in reality, and it is important to recognize that he is not alone in using fairytales to find photographs. From the ‘Cottingley Fairies’ to Clare Richardson’s Beyond the Forest, many images throughout the medium’s history have been inspired by such stories, precisely because of both the vivid imaginings and fundamental truths that they conjure up. In fact, as Richardson subtly implied in a previous issue of this very magazine, it is for this very reason that photography can be seen as being closely related to this particular form of storytelling in that, rather than reproducing the world accurately, it distorts, enhances and transforms reality into its own unique fable, yet in the process retains an unavoidable hint of veracity: as she explained it, ‘Every folklore has a bit of truth.’
Ultimately, 3 Roses, 9 Ravens, 12 Months, represents Scheeren at his most seriously playful, and his most playfully serious; at his most clearly uncertain, and his most uncertainly clear. Because of the childish associations inherent within the work’s source of inspiration, Scheeren is free to abandon the role of impish prankster in his artistic approach and perspective, and to explore with his distinctively wandering, wayward and wonderful eye the nature of tales, the nature of photography, the nature of the artist, and importantly in this particular body of work, nature itself. Describing the common themes within these particular photographs, Scheeren has stated, ‘Sometimes I truly feel that I need to connect to nature, maybe even to become one with nature. My friends tell me that I get so absorbed with it that they start to believe I will become Mother Nature’. Of course, just like in his work, as soon a touch of pretension or arrogance – Wurm’s ‘lofty and important pathos’ – enters the discussion with Scheeren, a self-effacing punch-line is bound to follow: ‘But I know that I wouldn’t be a good mother.”