Brutally silent – the portraits of Kjetil Kausland
Published by Ctrl+Z Publishing 2006
1: No Holds Barred: all tricks are allowed, or in other words: no rules. I see it as a challenge: photography is a heightened state of (the act of) seeing and is to memory what writing is to thinking. What writing and photography have in common is, in the end, about attaching to paper our experience of being in the world. Kjetil Kausland’s photographs springs from a deep fascination for a sport, and for the physical experience of the presence in the moment of the body. But it is also about the experience of the sport as experience when the artist redefines the physical act through the gaze and the photograph. When writing, I must attempt to hold on to the experience that the photographs give me as a viewer. I write given the premise that photography, like language, has some specific qualities of representation; that is: standing in place of something else. It is possible to break these qualities down into its components in order to understand the photograph, but there is always some remnant left over that one cannot quite put a finger on, because it is never the same. One thing is that one can never quite predict the reactions and connotations of the viewer when confronted with the photograph; but another thing is that the photograph, being an intractable medium, often reveals something about you – whether as a photographer or a viewer. And this blind spot, if we can call it that, is something artists often activate.
2: The photographs of Kjetil Kausland pull the fighters out of the arena and place them on a stage. They reconfigure space and visualise the fighter’s unconditional humanity. They appear exposed and vulnerable to the gaze; both that of the photographer and that of the viewer. The sensitivity which dominates these pictures is in blatant contrast to the dramatic background circumstances. In these pictures, one finds no reference to the drama that has just been, or is about to be, played out. The referee, the audience, the TV cameras, the show and the circus are all missing. All that remains are the fighters, a suggestion of an arena, the cage, an occasional floodlight, the canvas. The sound of elbow hitting face and the ensuing roar of the audience are absent here.
3: Kausland activates the most basic quality of photography: its potential for construction. There is nothing accidental or naive or spontaneous about photographic representation. His photographs have both feet firmly planted in a documentary tradition which they at once subvert and redefine. This is never about documenting or displaying a social environment from the inside, but rather about telling stories. More about mediating an experience of presence in the world. It’s so quiet is a phrase which often enters my head. Relating to these photographs is radically different from the experience of being a spectator at the event, and from the physical experience of performing the sport itself. It’s an obvious statement, but the experience of silence on being confronted with these pictures seems important and paradoxical. During the 20s and 30s, the German photographer August Sander tried to catalogue the entire German population. The final category in his Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts contains a series of portraits of dead people, all carriying the title Matter. These portraits are different in character from Sander’s other portraits. I discern a different kind of distance to those portrayed, a more sensitive gaze. It is in the distance between this sensitive gaze and the abrupt designation of those portrayed that Sander’s blind spot appears as something involuntarily poetic. It is a related poetic paradox I am trying to grasp by emphasising the materiality of Kausland’s portraits; an attempt to put the experience made possible in Kausland’s sensitive description of violence, or by the irrevocable in Sander, into words.
4: Some pictures stick tenaciously to our consciousness as a result of the aesthetic experience they make possible. Since the advent of modernity, the human body has been the most important arena for representation. The photograph has existed in parallel with the industrial and digital revolution and has constantly both described and shaped how we look at ourselves. New technology in medicine, the arms industry, biotechnology all helps shape our bodies in ways that can be read as signs, as representation. Representation takes part in defining the human condition, if we continue to act on our cultural inclination for making up new ways of destroying and repairing the body. These photographs make possible an aesthetic experience of violence. It is the artist pulling the spectator out of the ordinary into a world where representation is something other than that which we are used to. Kausland confronts me, the spectator, with an aestheticised experience which shifts the fighters in the cage closer to pornography as an aesthetical, physical expression. In the book Untitled, Jeff Burton shows us male actors from the porn industry in action. But as with Kausland, it is not the activity itself that is in focus, but the dissociation of the body from its surroundings. In the same way that there is no pornography in Burton’s photographs, there is no violence in Kausland’s portraits. Only a brutal silence. A no holds barred-fight is a ritualised representation without sexuality in the ordinary sense; a stylized meeting between two bodies recapitulating the experience of motion and collision. The outer characteristics are different: a swollen eye, a split lip, blood, but Kausland’s photographs expose the fighters for a new gaze through the aesthetic. The gaze is disturbing or eroticising or fetishising, but never indifferent. Maybe this is where the blind spot which the artist activates is: in an aesthetic experience which makes an indifferent gaze impossible. It is no longer the gaze of the artist, but that of the viewer; the viewer’s conquest and retelling of these photographs show that they are less a representation of reality than its transfiguration.