Monday, 6 August 2012

Little House on the Pumpkin

Book Cam 2011 © Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs

Swiss photographers Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs have gone global with recent exhibitions of their work in Moscow, Milan, Amsterdam, Paris, New York, Melbourne, Copenhagen and Zürich. The Great Unreal, published in 2009 by Patrick Frey, is now in its second edition. As Long As It Photographs, It Must Be A Camera, self-published by the artists in 2011, was sold out in a matter of months.

Curiously, this international recognition is not matched by equal amounts of in-depth writing about their work. This has been the case ever since they started collaborating nine years ago. When first posting about their work on my blog Mrs. Deane in 2007, it was already hard to find reviews. Only a manifesto, written by the artists themselves, turned up in the search results. 1

"Photography is the medium, which once was equal to truth. The ultimate, collective truth, later a rather personal, subjective truth, and finally, in the stage of perfect manipulation through digital technologies, truth just lies within the intention of the creator. So everyone can claim truth for himself. Our truth rises from the belief in the photographic moment. The camera lens is the unmistakable eye. The light traces on negative film deliver proof of its judgment. This belief is opening the door to a new, exciting little world full of wonders. It allows us to be explorers beyond the ordinary. To have fun while transforming weird ideas mingled from childhood dreams, TV commercials, daily newspapers and art history lessons into visual sensations that become a part of our jigsaw puzzle reality." 2

Black Bulb 2 2009 © Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs

In December 2009, when reviewing The Great Unreal, the ongoing silence compelled me to remark that "however hard I scoured the web, I found only prefab press releases, blog posts, pointers or even tweets and Facebook announcements, but not one article that discussed their work - let alone the new book - in depth."

The artists were at an equal loss as I was to explain why there seems to be no place within the traditional critical discourse to discuss the photographs themselves. If the inability to seriously "look" at their work is not just incidental, but symptomatic, then why not take this as a lead to follow?

Surely, it is a fascinating digression to cover all the conversation pieces surrounding the work, i.e. the technical processes, the decline of analogue photography, the nature of their collaboration, their mind-twisting American road trip, the comments on online photo forums populated by camera enthusiasts, how they liked Moscow or what their next project will be about. But in the end, even if you would know all that went into the making of a particular photograph, the mystery of the little house on the pumpkin will be untouched.

"I think these photos might appeal to a wider audience because they're humorous. You must find them funny, too?" "Yes, we're having good fun. It's hard to say where they come from. We're curious, trying to experiment with different things. Often ideas or photographs seem funny at first sight, but if you think about them for a while they might also reveal a darker side. Humour often has a bitter taste hidden somewhere. This is where it gets interesting". - from an interview conducted by Dan Abbe for American Photo Magazine, March 2012
Cameraman 2 Polaroid  2005 © Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs

At the same time, there is consensus about one thing. Onorato & Krebs have the Russian public giggling. In Switzerland, "viewers experience particular pleasure when the photographers thus reveal their playful approach to reality and fiction" 4, and the readers of Photo Eye blog 5 are reassured that "Onorato & Krebs really aren't out to disturb, but to humour and create a dialogue about self-reliance and creativity."6 In short, everybody is in stitches, and isn't laughter a notoriously slippery thing to talk about? So does that excuse the reviewer? Hardly.

"Laughter can, and should be extensively and "earnestly" applied [...]. Contrast, surprises, unexpected conclusions, which are among the most important causes producing laughter, awaken and sharpen our intellectual processes and thereby enable us to notice many things which otherwise might easily have escaped our attention. For instance, queer and ludicrous comparisons and resemblances, or the comical combination of facts which are different and heterogeneous, emphasize the common characteristics in things that are otherwise dissimilar, and the similarities in those which in other respects are quite different. They give us new perspectives, enable us to discover the curious relationship existing between various groups of facts, thereby sharpening our faculty of observation, and bringing new ideas to birth in us; in short, they render our intellectual mechanism more active and more alert." - Roberto Assagioli (1888 - 1974)

Humour helps the viewer engage with a body of work that is highly intuitive in origin, disjointed in appearance, and largely associative in nature. There is no real rhyme or reason in the images that make up a particular series, yet somehow it makes perfect sense to pair a photograph of a toy harness with a lemon on stilts. Were I to explain that, I'd be fumbling for words. Our spontaneous response tends to be nonverbal. Are the kind of truths encountered in the work of Onorato & Krebs the ones that in no way can be translated back into speech? Maybe we can only adequately answer in images?

" […] the first boomerang effects of science's great triumphs have made themselves felt in a crisis within the natural sciences themselves. The trouble concerns the fact that 'the truths' of the modern scientific world view, though they can be demonstrated in mathematical formulas and proved technologically, will not longer lend themselves to normal expression in speech and thoughts [...]" - Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, 1958

It struck me that we might be witnessing a generation that has acquired unprecedented levels of visual literacy, in the process of inventing new ways to communicate using not words, but - mostly photographic - images, and perhaps unwittingly help shape a truly visual "language". Nearly 175 years of photography has given the world trillions of photographs, to which a staggering 6 billion are added each month on Facebook alone 7. Inevitably this will affect future generations in ways unimaginable.

"... the way designers (and everybody else, for that matter) form images in their mind's eye, manipulating and evaluating ideas before, during and after externalising them, constitutes a cognitive system comparable with but different from, the verbal language system. Indeed we believe that human beings have an innate capacity for cognitive modelling, and its expression through sketching, drawing, construction, acting out and so on, that is fundamental to human thought." - L. B. Archer, "Whatever Became of Design Methodology?", 1979

Rotation 1 2011 C Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs

Hannah Arendt was concerned that "where the relevance of speech is at stake, matters become political by definition, for speech is what makes man a political being". If speech and politics are indeed closely linked, then might not the emergence of a complex and diffuse, yet popular visual language change the nature of the decision processes that define our politics? We already had a taste of what that could mean from the Occupy Wall Street protest movements, with their lack of clear tenets, their horizontal organizational structure, or their endless procedures to arrive at consensus during meetings.

We might be witnesses of an End of an Era 8, and not merely the era of analogue photography, however lamentable, but an era where spoken and written language dominate communication. Unexpectedly, we find artists like Onorato & Krebs, who are the essential tinkerers needed during the construction phase of this new language, at the forefront of what could turn into a political movement, even though the work itself bears not a single reference to contemporary politics.

"Their black and white photographs explore the narrative potential of still lifes. The artists are interested in the causal and associative linkage of objects, as well as in their photographic mise-en-scène." - exhibition text, Aargauer Kunsthaus, 2009

Through their work the light of other days, those bygone and those yet to come, reaches us. For this series Onorato & Krebs took their cues from scientific photography of the late 19th and early 20th century. The Harman direct positive paper, with its harsh contrast, long exposure times and flat blacks, lent itself perfectly for conjuring up an era where magic and wonder were still part of the scientific discourse. In a series of experiments, the artists explored the possibilities of this paper to capture time, letting it accumulate light and movement in a way that film cannot.

The reference to early scientific photography - a freebie of the new direct positive paper - was not merely happenstance. It was called for, exactly because the uncontrolled experiment, the one that still has place for the magic and wonder to seep in through the cracks, played such a significant role then, as it plays now, and plays this not only in the practice of Onorato & Krebs, but in that of numerous contemporary photographers and visual artists engaged in a development that spans our globe. For Light of Other Days, Onorato & Krebs created a lab setting as a convincing and metaphor rich alibi to do what they set out to do in their manifest: "transform weird ideas [...] into visual sensations that become a part of our jigsaw puzzle reality."

However appealing the resulting photographs are, they are merely results, the 'scientific' evidence, which has as its only raison d'etre that it was a part - and often the only remaining or visible part - of the experiment. Central to Onorato & Krebs' work is the experiment itself as a place, a stage, a theatre, a time-space continuum where they, the technicians, can invite things to happen 'beyond the ordinary.' How different is that from the scientists working at the Large Hadron Collider, who are waiting for similarly unexpected and potentially inexplicable test results?

Hester Keijser

2 This text seems to have been taken offline.
3 "Swiss humour is hardly one of the country's most popular exports. But the [duo] have made a breakthrough in Moscow. Russian visitors giggle as they pass by the duo's clever collages. Onorato and Krebs: the future of comedy? "- Emmanuel Grynszpan, in La Lettre de La Photographie, April 13, 2012.
4 Peter Stohler, in an essay for the Swiss Design Award 2011.
6 Anton Dolezal, in a review of As long as it photographs, It must be a camera on the Photo-Eye blog.
7 Source:
8 End of an Era was the title of a recent solo exhibition of Onorato & Krebs at Galeria Riccardo Crespi in Milan, Italy.


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