Letter to the Viewer | Walter Keller
From the book SHOOTING BACK artist book Hester Scheurwater published by Gerber & Keller Zurich
Letter to the Viewer
Dear Admirers of Beauty, please bear with us, and please, have a closer look at the strength of these images that might at first shock you, or seem hard to look at. Scheurwater examines her own physicality without limits; accepts every possible aspect of her bodily presence, and even celebrates the clumsiness of the female form. She merges the artist and the model into a single vision, and by doing so, surmounts the separation between the (male) artist and his (female) subject. Scheurwater looks at herself from both sides of the mirror.
Dear Lover of Fine Art Photography, this book is much more refined than what you might at first imagine. Have a closer look at the blurry, technically low-quality, sloppy images. Then put the book away and browse some other books of contemporary artists who do not see themselves as photographers, but rather as artists who use photography as a weapon and a way to consciously not care about photography; artists who create images that are almost too honest – confusing images. Then take this book back into your hands. Can you recognize how unimportant it is whether these images are in focus or not? Can you see how artistically well constructed they are? Can you guess that this artist is also working with video and film, and that she is a master of telling entire stories with a single photograph? Are you able now, to enjoy the fact that this volume is more like a photographic performance than a volume with which you can apply the normative history of the medium?
Dear Art Historian, of course Scheurwater’s work evolves in the tradition of self-portraiture and the pose – in the lineage of artists like Dutch master painter Judith Leyster (her self-portrait is easy to google), an early, 17th century example of an artist who presents herself with pride and radiating energy. You might want to think about the erotically and sexually charged images by Robert Mapplethorpe, Francesca Woodman, Elke Krystufek or Marina Abramovic. Scheurwater’s images, however, are an immediate “shooting back” answer to the voyeurism and exhibitionism that social media and sex websites celebrate; a worldwide mass movement that receives more daily traffic than art publications could ever dream of. No, Thomas Ruff’s work on pornography or Jeff Koons’s Cicciolina have nothing to do with this book; both are about keeping a safe distance. Scheurwater’s work is first and foremost more courageous, precise and ambiguous, oscillating between analysis and desire – between mental play and physical truth.
Dear Psychologist, do not even dare to think that the real Hester Scheurwater and the “persona” (in the sense of a mask) in these photographs are one – they might actually be completely detached from one another. These images might be “autobiographical” in the symbolic sense, but it would be too easy to assume that you could know Scheurwater after viewing these images. In fact, there may not even be a Scheurwater. These are images about a visual language of sex that has flowed around us at every turn, and in every instant, since the start-up of digital visual communication. The photographs presented here are artistic translations of images that have become the, at times funny or entertaining, and at times sad and depressing, raw material for defining gender identity today. These are images about images, not images about reality.
Dear Wanker, unfortunately you ordered the wrong book, and we understand your disappointment. You haven’t found what you were looking for. This book is hot, that is well true, but it doesn’t fulfill your needs. This book is hot, because it takes courage to present images that at first glance might seem to be about your personal arousal, but upon closer inspection reveal that they might actually stem more from the gender ice age than from the mainstream sexual world that you waste your days with.
Dear Fashion Victim, don’t worry, you will never look like this. On second thought, perhaps you might, but you will never have the guts to look at yourself in such an adventurously explorative way. Better if you put this book back, or away, and arm yourself with your most faithful companion – your make-up.
Dear Macho Man, the title of this book was chosen especially with you in mind. Guess why. No, these are not the images produced by a victim, but the devouring work of a self-conscious, contemporary female artist. Boring, we know.
Dear Feminist, the artist is well aware of how ambivalent this imagery is, and of how it simultaneously critiques and embraces the pictures of nudity that upset you so wildly when discussing pornography. Scheurwater has your gender. The difference is that she seizes her right to play, and performs a magical, totemic dance around her beauty and sexiness with great sovereignty. And yes, she even allows herself to be seen as some ritualized porn model.
Dear Frog, beware of bad girls; think twice about whether or not you really want this princess to kiss you. You mustn’t forget that beauty and ugliness, like flourishing and decay, have been inseparable companions since the beginning of time.
Letter to the Viewer © Walter Keller. No reproduction without written permission by the author.
Zurich based Walter Keller is co-founder of Parkett Art Magazíne, Fotomuseum Winterthur/Switzerland, and Scalo Publishers (active until 2006). He is a curator,writer, gallerist and an internationally well-known specialist of contemporary photography. He published books from Larry Clark, Nan Goldin, Richard Prince, Boris Mikhailov, Helmut Newton and many more.