Speech | Frits Gierstberg

frits gierstberg, hoofd fotomuseum rotterdam opening hester scheurwater shooting back walter keller

Opening speech by Frits Gierstberg, head of exhibitions at the Nederlands Fotomuseum, at the Hester Scheurwater exhibition Shooting Back at Frank Taal Galerie 

Ladies and gentlemen, 

Shooting Back is the name of this exhibition and of the remarkable book of photographs presented here today, wich was published by our mutual friend Walter Keller in Zurich. The publisher has written an epilogue to this book, in which he addresses a number of potential buyers. Admirers of beauty, lovers of fine art photography, art historians, psychologists, wankers, fashion victims, macho men, feminists, and fairy tale frogs that might like to be kissed by this very special princess who made the photographs.  All of them be warned:  don’t be tempted to jump to conclusions – the work of the artist is not what it might seem at first glance.

Keller raises a good point here. It’s no doubt true that Hester’s work can without any effort be embedded into a long historical tradition of the arts. References can be found in it to sixties and seventies feminist art, or to the performance and body art which followed, and before we know it we will be thinking of the omnipresent eroticism and porn on the internet.  That, however, is NOT what it is AT ALL.  

So what is it? Is interpretation required? Should a genre be specified? I am not going to answer these questions here. 

What I will do is give an answer to the question: Shooting back: but at whom or what? The title basically refers to a tradition in photography with a phrase which was, I think, coined by Susan Sontag. She once compared the camera to a gun or a rifle, and photography to an act of aggression pointed against the world: not one leading to understanding and conciliation, but one which registers, freezes, Kaltstellt, imposing a distorted picture on the subject photographed, which in reality is alive and dynamic, constantly changing in an ever changing world.  Photography, therefore, does not register truth but is a medium which contributes to an ever expanding lie.  

 It is exactly this lie that Hester addresses.  

I call it a lie because that image world, or that world of the image, derives its shape and significance from the way all of us together deal with it, driven by desire and repression, fear and lust, the hunger for power. How we constantly want to make sense of a world that often is – or will become for that reason – a vicious reflection of the random bunch of totems and taboos created and maintained by society, and used by people to exploit each other to the point of perversion.  

And that is what Hester Scheurwater is pitted against with her images. As a visual artist she understands that by attacking the apparently neutral world of the image, social, political and ideological issues are touched upon. And above all she understands that the battle must be fought in the field of aesthetics, of visual language.  

By being disruptive, precisely there, through agitation, confrontation, deception and challenge, the lie becomes apparent. The texture of our social life is bared. It is demonstrated that the personal – that which is private – is still political, despite the emergence and popularity of the social media, signifying that it is part of a power game with the body at stake, and specifically – or should I say still, because it has been like that for ages – the female body.  

How very courageous it is therefore that she, as a woman, puts her own body at stake in fighting this battle. That she pinpoints exactly those limits of social tolerance which are preferably left unseen, also in those places where it is feigned that limits between private and public no longer exist. That everything is possible. Where an ideology that attributes social characteristics to technology reigns supreme, as if that is the way in which humanity can be  freed from the big lie.  

Other great female artists have preceded her and have also inspired her. Marina Abramovic, Elke Krystufek, Sanja Ivecovic, Martha Rosler, perhaps Cindy Sherman and others have, each in their own way, shot back, have obstinately and provocatively burst the bubble of the overeroticised, objectified, ostensibly marketable and interchangeable female body. Hester Scheurwater carries on the fight in a contemporary manner, with seemingly minimum resources – using live ammunition. 

You have been warned. 

Frits Gierstberg