ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Michael Dans - 2016 - For Mike [EN, essay],
About a series of photographs by Michael Dans
The photographs of Michael Dans (°1971) photos are surprising. They make us think of other photos we have already seen, but at the same time we can also see that they are different. Wherein might this difference, and this novelty, reside?
At that particular moment when any work of art is created, it goes beyond the viewer’s understanding. This was the case with Baudelaire’s poetry, Manet’s paintings, and Proust’s Recherche, whose value was not recognized by André Gide. (Who later referred to that error in judgment as “one of the things that has caused me the most regret and remorse in all my life”.) Art critics, who are unable to grasp the specific nature of the new work they are confronted with, will compare it with other works which are already part of the Pantheon. So they mention Nan Goldin’s photos, Pierre Molinier’s photographic documents, and Harmony Korine’s film Trash Humpers, to give us an idea. If they are honest, they will admit to being frightened by novelty. But why? Because they do not understand it? Or because they understand it too well? Because, without words, they understand that a nocturnal monster lurks behind the phenomenon of novelty?
One of the most impressive men of all time was the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Thanks to death, he wrote, the world remains eternally green, young, and fresh. So any aspiration involving novelty, any transgression of existing standards, be they ethical or aesthetic, plunges us into a state of terror. Because every time we change, something in us dies.
One thinks of Molinier, but it is different. One thinks of Dirk Braeckman, but it is different. One thinks of Nan Goldin, but it is very different. When you look at Harmony Korine’s Trash Humper, what strikes you is not the insipid world of the characters, haunted by boredom, but the fact that this world is copied and conjured up by an artist. Why would he or she do such a thing?
The same goes for Dans’s photos. Almost invisibly, they are hallmarked by a wit and a distance which help us to realize that what is involved is staged presentations, and definitely not private documents. For me, they revealed themselves slowly. One thing did help me, which was their sublime presentation, at the photo Biennale in Liège. Starting with their small format, which underscored their secretly family character. Not that Dans’s works are private or intimate photos, but the specific nature of their aesthetics seems to be associated with a claustrophobic and even incestuous atmosphere. Next, the the photos revealed their nature by the black frames which seemed to confine the dream of freedom that is developed within the image. Lastly, the photos were presented on a backdrop of wallpaper created by the artist, which reminded me of the introduction of the word “living room” in French and Dutch, something new going hand in glove with the introduction of the apéritif ritual (probably an invention of American movies, to give actors something to do with their hands), and the specific piece of furniture which would be called the “bar”.
Dans’s photos have a “cosy” feel, which enhances their novelty. This makes me think of something he told me, a few years back, about his drawings. “The bears I was drawing”, he said, “were monsters for me, connected with a menacing sexuality. But I noticed that some people hung them in their children’s bedrooms. That gave me the idea of photographing naked girls with cuddly toy animals.”
In Dans’s world, coloured scotch tape, plastic objects, fake fur and cuddly toys recur in disconcerting, touching and tender images, like non-biodegradable vestiges of a lost civilization.
I see two things, above all, in them: the reality of the body and the reality of the dream. Here, the dream has become so real that the body can really show itself totally bare. I think this is what Dans calls the “feminist” side of his photos. The body is accepted as it is. Everyone has the right to exist.
All works of art relate to death or love. Death, which has only become conscious thanks to words and artworks; and love, with is nothing other than the acceptance of our mortality.
At the same time, the dream takes the form of a phantasmagorical transformation of the body. A new fairyland emerges and develops.
Art evolves by going beyond norms and absorbing everyday banality. Thus, with L’Assommoir Zola introduced workers talking about potatoes into literature. And Manet’s Olympia, for her part, was too pale. Viewers had the impression of looking at a corpse. Thank god I don’t have to produce literature any more, exclaimed Henry Miller in 1934. At the same moment, Céline extracted honey from the human mire. Always the same mire. Always the same shifting of all the norms, that same quest for something distinctive, that same need for greenness, freshness and novelty, taken from the daily round.
And I have to say that all this is rather scary. Because we like what is new, but we would also like not to die.
Long live Marcus Aurelius! say I. And for those who, like me, are afraid, there is always Marcel Proust’s mum. “If you’re not a Roman”, she said on her death bed to her weeping son, “be worthy of being one.”
Montagne de Miel, 22 August 2016
Translated by Alison Mouthaan