ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Anne Daems - 1999 - Konijnen met fritzakjes over hun koppen [NL, essay],
Rabbits with Triangular Paper Bags Pulled over their Heads
A Few Words about Anne Daems’ Work
Anne Daems was born in 1966 in Lier. She obtained her secondary education from the nuns at Berlaar. Later, she studied photography at the Sint Lukas Instituut in Brussels, and from 1994 to 1995 she was enrolled at the Rijksacademie in Amsterdam. She sits opposite me at a white trestle table on which she has spread out a selection of photographs and drawings. She has medium-length, dark-brown, straight hair with a stripe on the left. She is wearing blue jeans, an olive-green sweater and black shoes with medium-height heels, no socks. She clasps one knee with both hands and leans back, laughing.
I look at some of the drawings and read the captions:
"How to explain to a Polish hairdresser how you want your hair cut."
"In the shop window hung rabbits with triangular paper bags pulled over their heads."
"A tower of piled-up shopping baskets was walking through the supermarket."
"People had put plastic bags on their heads to keep off the rain."
And then, under the drawing of an orange-and-green striped shopping bag: "In Poland I stayed with an old woman. She was very poor. She worked nights as a doorkeeper at the airport. There was a big pile of coals there. Every morning she came home with a few pieces at the bottom of her shopping bag. Rough, black lumps which she rolled up in newspaper."
"I make drawings of things I've seen, but couldn't photograph on the spot", Anne Daems tells me. "Striking details, usually."
Anne Daems precedes me into another room which is lit by an aluminium lamp clamped to the iron stand of a broken lamp. A bare bulb in a black fitting hangs from the ceiling. I sit down on the mattress and look at the mosquito net, common in Antwerp, suspended here from a blue-and-white, spirally striped piece of string. The video "Six Short Pieces" starts.
A young man bends over the engine of his car, half hidden by the bonnet. Another young man, wearing a track-suit, comes to help him.
People wrapped in duffle-coats are potting scrawny plants. The shrill, harsh sound of screaming gulls and playing children. Outside the picture, a whistling train arrives.
Two men and two women tote bags of groceries from a car parked at the kerb to a house separated from the road by a small garden. The men step over the knee-high, white-painted concrete fence and walk over the lawn to the front door. The ladies make a detour and walk up the path.
A man with a large white receptacle on his back is trying to suck up leaves with a machine. The bag resembles an inflated, white plastic glove with only one half-finger. The man isn’t very successful.
A man walks to and fro between two cars parked nose to nose. He moves one of the cars a little closer to the other. We hear birds calling and the distant buzz of traffic. He opens a door and takes a rug out of the car.
An old man with a tin of paint and a brush in his hand is kneeling under an upturned wooden boat propped up on a pole. He inspects his work and touches it up. He picks off a scrap of wood or a pebble and chucks it away. He then disappears from the picture. He comes back with some logs, which he places on the ground underneath the boat. Then he slowly lowers the boat onto the logs. There are similar logs in front of a garage door in the background of the image.
We watch another video:
A woman cleaning a window wipes away the last stripes of moisture with a small cloth. When she has finished, she pulls down the sun-blinds and opens their parallel, flaccid slats.
A man wearing gloves and dressed casually in grey corduroy trousers and a light-coloured shirt prizes stones out of the ground, saws down a few small trees and starts to rake the ground. In the foreground, cars drive past all the time. On the left is a blue plastic bag.
Anne Daems tells me that the original sound was better. This is the only time she has manipulated the sound, she says, but the result isn't satisfactory. It sounds too artificial. She misses the wind rasping past the microphone.
People standing at the window of their apartment, looking out. One man is standing under a sign stating that his flat is for rent or for sale. The sign covers a large part of the window. One corner of it reaches the man’s head.
Each of the short videos was filmed with a camera mounted on a tripod. The shots are meticulous. No zooming. The camera does not pan from left to right or from top to bottom.
A photo of an unfinished house with two large holes for the first-floor windows and a huge hole for a garage on the ground floor. The holes remind you of eyes and a mouth. The title of the photo is "The Laughing House".
Photos of holiday-makers in a bungalow park show weary people sitting and slouching in plastic garden chairs, their heads bent. They are surrounded by moping pets panting in the grass.
A supermarket trolley is parked at the front door of bungalow 207c.
A man and a woman walk in the opposite direction along a path that traverses a green lawn.
A lady, photographed from the rear and apparently sunk in contemplation, but perhaps simply waiting for the bus, gazes at a house in scaffolding.
A child, also seen from the rear, probably after school, walks along a brick path apparently leading to the concrete blocks of flats further away. On the child's back is a purple satchel with pink fittings. Beside the path are white-globed street lamps.
A man wearing purple gloves is working in the garden. We can see inside his garage, where we spy the stick of a parasol, a washing-machine, detergent and a wooden shelf on which there are paint-pots or detergent measuring cups.
A man is transporting a rolled-up carpet through a new housing estate. The road is still unfinished. His wife is waiting at one of the blue front doors, a plastic bag in her hand.
Two women are hosing the drain in front of a garage door. They have pushed aside the grid that covers the drain. The car's headlights loom up inside the dark garage. On the left are flower tubs and garbage bags. On the right we see the edge of a flower tub and a sash window opened ten centimetres, a third of it hidden by a roll-down shutter. The tip of a white curtain flutters through the slit.
People are standing at traffic lights, waiting to cross the road. An elderly lady, her hands behind her back, is clutching at the waistband of her skirt. In the background is a retro-antique lamp-post.
A woman with a white handbag is sitting on something that is cut off by the edge of the picture on the right, probably a concrete plant tub. Beside her are a short pole and a dustbin.
Finally, my favourite photograph: a man, again seen from the rear, dressed like a civil servant, a newspaper under his arm and a large plastic carrier bag in his right hand, hurries across a large square towards an office building. A scrap of the red plastic bag is reflected in a small, elongated puddle on the otherwise dry square. In the background we see a guard at his desk and a man with a broom, sweeping the square. Going by the reflection of the windows in the building, it seems that there is nobody else on the square. At the top left-hand corner of the photo a security camera focused on the square can just be seen.
For a neighbourhood project in Amsterdam's red-light district in April 1999, Anne Daems took a photograph of nearby allotments and used it for a poster. She distributed the posters among the locals, asking them to hang one in their windows.
On the poster we see a garden with paved paths, a few flowers and sundry vegetables. Standing on one of the paths is a woman wearing bedroom slippers which she has probably knitted herself, striped lengthwise in green and orange.
"The view of the allotments reminded me of medieval miniatures," Anne Daems says, "I thought it was an appropriate addition to that garish district."
V. Less is more
One of the most striking characteristics of Anne Daems' work is its laconic sparseness. Her photographs, videos and drawings are bare observations. She seems to add as little as possible to the things she encounters and photographs. The finished pictures are not framed or excessively enlarged, but simply pasted onto thin sheets of aluminium to protect them and keep them taut when hung. Her choice of subjects permits us to hazard a guess as to her motivations, but her images are always open to different interpretations. Sometimes they seem harsh and cruel, but often tender or humorous at the same time. The shots are always carefully planned. Almost every photograph contains supplementary details or counterpoints, often close to the edge or in a corner of the picture. It is as if the whole world is compressed, as if the photograph strives to be closed in a formal sense while remaining open in terms of content. To my mind, Anne Daems makes "images".
The common assumption notwithstanding, we’re not living in an era of images. As Godard rightly said, we live in the age of illustrated prattle. TV prattles, cinema prattles and even art prattles. An ‘image’ is not the same thing as an agreed-upon code like a traffic light or an illustration. It is a visual entity which compellingly evokes emotions, without our always knowing why. The number of artists who dare to make ‘images’ is smaller than we'd think. The tendency is to make codes or illustrations. Two men who did endeavour to make images are Magritte and Warhol. Magritte liberated the image from the conventions of the art of painting. It was no longer necessary to be able to paint well, as long as the image "worked" (to Magritte this meant that the image evoked a mystery). Warhol tried to make icons of existing "images".
"One of the strengths of artists in all media in the second half of the twentieth century," Sylvester writes, "has been that they seem to have believed that less intervention is more: they set things in motion and then let them alone, not trying to control them, but allowing them to take their course and their chances." Sylvester was referring to Andy Warhol's films, which seemingly registered simply what the actors wanted to do while on camera, and were characterised by a stylistic minimalism and an abhorrence of "expressiveness". A hundred years previously the French writer Gustave Flaubert had attempted something of the same kind in his novels "Madame Bovary" and "Bouvard and Pécuchuet": to describe reality as accurately as possibly and to add as little of himself as possible.
But even if Flaubert's, Magritte's and Warhol's works are characterised by techniques from which subjective sensitivity, the master's hand and the brushstroke seemed to have been banished, we do see in their work a new colour, a new tone or a new idiom emerging from private, formal peculiarities. Magritte tried to evoke mystery by coordinating everyday objects. Warhol, and later Marcel Broodthaers, made use of apparent repetitiveness in order to make their images quiver (as in "Red Race Riot" or montages like "Ma Collection"), and Proust demonstrated how Flaubert's allegedly incorrect use of the simple past tense evoked a new world-view. "Flaubert’s simple past, which is so new in literature", he wrote, "changes the view of things and beings completely, like a lamp that has been moved."
Might this be true of Anne Daems' work too? How can we explain, for instance, that her photographs seem to be gloomy and funny at the same time? It is odd, but the longer I ponder on this, the stronger my conclusion that Anne Daems does not photograph other people's worlds but her own. Our world, in fact. For example, it is striking how often she photographs houses from the outside. Our attention is drawn primarily to the people incarcerated in those houses or who, like mute animals, are scraping and cleaning their houses, gardens, cars and boats with rakes, potato peelers, brooms, cloths and tooth-picks.
This leaves us with the impression that the photographer herself is incarcerated. Almost all her photographs are closed off in the background by walls or facades, even when there is a little girl in a park or a clerk crossing a square. There are often windows, but they never offer any perspective - at most a glimpse of a curtain blowing in a draught, or a frozen figure gazing out. Sometimes an open garage door beckons, but it is rarely more than an ominous black hole.
VI. The inside of a joke
Sometimes these everyday scenes give us the impression that we are living amidst lugubrious settings which have come to lead lives of their own and which force us to perform the most ridiculous, insipid actions. It is as if we have become the victims of the form of our creations and must until the end of time obey the instructions of our buildings, paved paths, cramped shrubbery, dustbins and signposts.
At the same time, though, we sense a liberating playfulness. We feel how Anne Daems' perception joltingly escapes from this dreary setting, suddenly revealing it to us in all its absurdity. The shown or created reality is crushing, but the better it is shown or created, the more we feel that the filmer has succeeded in surpassing reality by making a work of art which constricts and unfolds it. "It has been noticed ", we think, "and forced into a form, and we are still alive."
Finally, this feeling becomes even stronger when we look at Anne Daems' drawings, whose simplicity is if possible even more liberating and whose laconic, sometimes tender captions seem to package reality for us in manageable portions.
Kundera points out that the heroes in Kafka's stories see nothing funny about their own adventures, while the reader must often laugh heartily at them. The reason, Kundera says, is that Kafka's heroes are on the inside of the joke and the reader on the outside. Looking at Anne Daems' drawings, one sometimes gets the liberating impression of being on the outside of the joke - until the viewer begins to suspect that he or she is actually on the inside of another joke and that the world is a chain of unpleasant jokes which are nested, like those Russian dolls.
It is almost like proof of God's existence, culminating in the image of the Great Outside of the Joke, where the Prime and Ultimate Mover eternally holds his sides laughing, at the same time fearfully casting a look over his shoulder to make sure that there is no ultimate photographer behind him, surreptitiously taking his picture.
Montagne de Miel, 26 September 1999