Erik Kessels: SHIT and Empty Infantilism

“I think that this is an argument that needs definition and that in doing so, following it up with the above analysis mentioning of colluding Nazis to the smell of shit and gay activity to the Nazi and his shitting, we are reducing gay men to shit smelling Nazis whose sexuality is thus limited and demonized incorrectly”

 

Do we need another book about a series of photographs that simply render the only short handicap “WTF” or “LOL” in times such that we wade through stumbling over the callous affairs of political upheaval, human indecency towards ecology and technological uncertainty? Perhaps the answer is a resounding “YES”. Perhaps we need a way in which the serious adventure of life in the second decade of the 21st century should be supplanted with a bit of levity, laughter and left-leaning potty humor. It would not be an unfair assertion to simply throw one’s hands to the air in a symbolic gesture of futility for the grinding of the wheels and not expect to look for humor as an escape route worthy of our complacency. I can understand if not respect that idea. However, and when it comes to the very small brackish pond of photography, I would like to think that we are as a collective a bit more sophisticated or perhaps even a bit more consequentially-minded when it comes to what we choose to steadily float out into our waters. And many things and people …”They all float down here…right, Georgie boy”? There is so much ballast presently that I am not sure where to draw lines about well-intentioned and honest work and the other 90% of it.

I am writing this critique as I usually do with these things, in a semi-vent of anger none of which is meant to be personal nor necessarily on destroy mode. I just received a notification about a new forthcoming Erik Kessels’ book entitled “Shit”. The image that is used in a picture of Nazi having a shit in or around 1940 and I can now assert having seen a pdf of the book itself that the rest of this enterprise shares similar imagery and little boy potty humor as seen through the historical photographic lens and I can’t help but wonder where this ends and why I have to swim in the same pond with the inevitable anti-intellectual turd that this will endeavor to be. This is of course precisely the point of such ventures and Erik Kessels way of assembling sensational vernacular material in groups/categories without too much weight given to dialogue outside of the potty/lowbrow humor previously mentioned. It is simply a collation of shit that he can afford to buy and re-distribute as a laughable and childish experiment in lowering the bar between image, history and discussion. It is not the job of Kessels to determine a significant discourse revolving around photography, political or other, but when one invokes the unholy subject matter of Nazism, one must be ready for an onslaught of questions if not outright criticism.

I want to take a moment to thank RVB for sending me the pdf of Shit. I outreached and told the publishers specifically that I had reservations and criticism by what I had seen so far, but that in fairness to both themselves and Kessels, I should perhaps see the whole of the work before rushing to judgment. In their honesty and professionalism, they supplied what I asked for and also mentioned the following regarding the title…

Here is the pdf of the book Shit.

Our feeling is that we will have never spoken enough about Nazism, all the approaches from humour to high studies are welcome. 

I can understand you could feel uncomfortable with that, and will definitely respect your position”.

As someone who has also collected material of related WWII images and perhaps even more beguiling images, I have no issue whatsoever with regarding this material as important archival imagery. My problem stems from how we re-purpose it or what the outcome of the material may become and how we discuss it with each other or broadcast our thoughts. Here is an excerpt from the publisher’s website giving some context of the discussion that Kessels’ wishes to have…

“There is no dignity in war, no modesty either. Erik Kessels exposes a particularly shitty aspect of war, one that is usually left out of the history books. Despite the horror and chaos of conflict some aspects of daily life continue, even on the battlefield.
Shit is a pictorial history of German soldiers doing their business in battle during WWII.”

Further, here is the text inside the book…

“It was the war that could never be won and it brought out the dark side of man. Hundreds of millions of bombs were dropped. The relentless explosions became the soundtrack to a conflict that transformed a once pristine landscape into a lifeless, muddy wasteland. Historically, battles of this nature were customarily fought in seclusion. But as the fighting spread privacy became a thing of the past. There is no dignity in war, no modesty either. It became a war of attrition. Soldiers held out for as long as they could, inevitably succumbing to the pressure when they could no longer stomach the pain. The facetious nature of combat did little to boost morale. Gas became a popular weapon as it gave the aggressor the element of surprise. The stench is said to have been unbearable, flushing many soldiers out into the open leaving them vulnerable and exposed.

It was a war waged from behind. Despite the hardships and unpleasant conditions soldiers found solace and camaraderie in one another.
Me time became we time; soldiers were often seen sitting together, sharing a stool.

Shit happens.
It never stops happening. Wars can stop just about anything, except the human digestive tract”.

 

“…this dumbed-down feverish lunacy of fecal phenomena is actually a poor substitute for prevailing real-time discussions about the times we live in and worse, it seems to make light of the hammer and nail at the same time-defending wrongful ideology as humankind while also subjugating not only history, but the losers thereof to a pronounced display of hilarity at the cost of near genocide and mass murder”

 

 

 

At this point, I would like to suggest that I am biased. I have circulated in very similar waters as Kessels, but with different interests in their minutae and different responses to the ballast I wade past. I can name quite a few people who navigate their own boat in familiar terrain such as the Archive of Modern Conflict whose brainchild Timothy Prus’ own incredible book “Nein Onkel” speaks in a more convincing metaphor and who shares a causal link between the “playfulness” of someone like Kessels and perhaps the more serious interest of vernacular projects such as Thomas Sauvin whose “Beijing Silvermine” is still one of the most fruitful vernacular projects I have seen. I can point to a number of publishers from Chaco books to Self Publish Be Happy’s recent book “My Birth” by Carmen Winant, which though personal also shares a fondness for vernacular material with a sensitive and body political interest. Her work in particular along with Broomberg & Chanarin or even Hans Peter Feldman and Gerhard Richter, Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan etc etc exhibit a way in which the appropriation and archival game does not have to be without consequence, political or cultural. There are actually a slough of artists challenging how our community uses and channels the vernacular medium to challenging and disparate ends which regard not only photography’s history, but also its insistence to not be forgotten, its pathways to memory and collective cultural consciousness as well as the many nefarious ends to which it is witness such as victimization and propaganda. In fact, to wade through photography’s utilitarian surplus, is to walk unevenly to avoid the politicized nature of its history, specificity and western hegemony of its distribution in image form. Its currency is almost impossible not to challenge any ideology, historical anecdote or cultural moment and yet with Shit we are confronted with a text and a body of images that seems to want to decry that we are to look at this with some sort of abject humor that alleviates serious suffering and political turmoil at a time when our own political systems are hugely in flux and the rise of potential fascism is literally fomenting as this title is being published.

I have looked for reasons in which this title is acceptable fodder. I am curious as to what I am missing as a fairly liberal navigator of images. I am questioning whether we need a “collective release” from the haunting spectre of Nazis, or Kessels himself. I cannot defend this in any other way, this title of execrable means. I have had a conversation or some back and forth lets say with a colleague who happens to know Kessels and myself both fairly well. Her supposition on the matter was this…

“I saw the PDF of the book and apparently it is about Nazi’s shit, but also if you have a look at every picture there is more. As you perfectly know, this kind of picture was a trend between Nazi military men. There is further point between to be made between Nazi machismo and homosexuality. It’s quite strange, there is the gaze of us looking at something private and that sometimes crosses the gaze of the soldier, or of the other people watching. The intention is not to ridicule the Nazis, but to connect their image with a strong smell of shit. Of course is an anti-nazi book. The number of images he collected is incredible, more than in the book of course”.

I am at once bewildered and lost a bit by this explanation. I am adding it here to dismantle it, but also to give another perspective. The first and major argument I have with this analysis is that we are to equate the act of shitting with homosexuality. I think that this is an argument that needs definition and that in doing so, following it up with the above analysis mentioning of colluding Nazis to the smell of shit and gay activity to the Nazi and his shitting, we are reducing gay men to shit smelling Nazis whose sexuality is thus limited and demonized incorrectly. I am aware there is a fetish in certain portions of the gay community for shit play, but this also exists in straight hetero terms as well, so by complacently equating the military field capacity for a lavoratory with an enforced homosexuality is a bit of a …stretch. Further to this, I would hesitate that the reading of the “Nazi gaze” is a bit strange and fantasy-driven. It is if to suggest that we reside within the frame of the Nazi and that he acknowledges our own voyeurism or that we are to be held as voyeurs with the ghosts of the past begging our involvement in this shit play spectacle, which I do not feel personally liable to acknowledge. I feel that I am asked in a way to look even if but once and in doing so, I have not dwelt or fetishized the act. Lastly, the author of the passage identifies the significance of Kessels’ gesture as an act of collecting and assembling without giving credence as to why volume makes this any less than a fetish on his behalf and what that perhaps says about his methodology in collecting. Just because you have lots of terrible pictures, this does not exonerate you from the discourse of their potential meaning or distribution.

Not all artists are overly heady in their pursuit of using the vernacular image nor do they need to be and there are many positions of race, gender, political and intellectual life associated with them respectively that they may either willfully ignore and may instead choose to not wander into debate about their collective meaning-this is not necessarily a contemptuous problem and images in their banality can elude some confrontation to the political and whimsy does not have to be all that bad. The muse of vernacular photography is that by its very nature, it is quotidian and utilitarian in form and will be pinched, stolen or re-purposed and shared widely, thus defining the middlebrow position that the medium is gauged at. Perhaps that is even an overestimation of brow when we consider its heaving volume at large. This surplus economy of photography’s loose ends can however endeavor to function in our pond as a pursuit in which learning or discussion can be generated outside of the execrable. I could just as easily give Kessels a pass and say “fuck it, it exists” and be done with any form of intervention, but I am biased and I am biased because of the rather cavalier usage of very difficult material that Kessels is pursuing with this book. It doesn’t make me a prude or conservative to point out several improbable ideas behind the concept.

 

“..and it reminded one of the complete humanity and inhumanity that we must consider at the expense of “historical other” when the message is broadcast to us in a convincing way from the past and from trusted hands”

 

 

 

If we are to single-handedly express the possibilities of representation, politics or era when purposefully collating material such as “Shit”, then we must ask ourselves as “specialists” in the pond to what are we adding to the discussion and to what purpose can its delineation be circumspect to progress of knowledge. Show and tell is but one facet, but when we choose to publish, to exhibit or to regard the output in a format suitable for distribution and especially from the license of a respected member of our community, then should we not speak widely on the images? Do we not owe some sense of measure to discuss if we are being mocked, if we are trapped in the ungodly vortex of a perverse Flaubert chapter in a alternate universe or whether the history of shit and the image of shit, outside of Dominic la Porte’s excellent book, Julia Kristeva’s interest in bodily abjection or the self-torturing and self-pleasuring anally fixated De Sade are part of this conversation? Or are we simply revelling in the manifested ego of an author who cannot and refuses to take these matters seriously? In suggesting this and while examining a number of Kessels other projects, I come to question the level of juvenile infantilism associated not only with the act of collecting, but also very specifically the way in which Kessels, like a snake oil salesman or the marketing man he is, re-packages a shitload of nothing for us to consume. Further questions result in a stalemate in which the conceivable end of this infantilism stems from a position of privilege in which the thoughts or viewpoints to be considered at large are eschewed for the gravitas of weak sensationalism or anal play. I see no purpose of Kessels book other than to create spectacle from misery in a time when the political questions and affiliations from which his material comes from is rearing its ugly head again. I can’t tell if this is supposed to excuse Nazis to their state of banality of human gastric function or if this intended to give “the banality of evil” an extension to the bowel of the banality of evil. I do not think it is doing anything but addressing perhaps a latent fetish by the author or is simply trying to lower the bar.

Perhaps Kessels really is trying to make a point about our current political situation. Afterall, he and Thomas Maellander’s tepid “Jump Trump” display at Unseen 2017 clearly exhibits that he is paying some attention to political innuendo, though I contend that we could have also considered Le Pen or perhaps even Geert Wilders as secondary air bags to jump into defiantly with middle fngers outstretched in faux-apathy. So, re-considering “Shit”, perhaps Kessels is taking stock and having his Hannah Arendt moment, willfully bent on discussing the politics of Nazi shit and the banality of evil as if the world at large did not realize that the conservative right were always next door on the throne, under their noses ruining a perfectly good company in Fred Perry. Perhaps I am underestimating the two-fold value of publishing a book like this, but I sadly doubt it. It has occurred to me quite the opposite and that this dumbed-down feverish lunacy of fecal phenomena is actually a poor substitute for prevailing real-time discussions about the times we live in and worse, it seems to make light of the hammer and nail at the same time-defending wrongful ideology as humankind while also subjugating not only history, but the losers thereof to a pronounced display of hilarity at the cost of near genocide and mass murder. Nice twerk if you can get it.

Archives and collections are wonderful things. They all start in some way as collection, but then find a purpose in an archive if assembled to give context to an idea or several. When it comes to the solitary collector, much of his (almost 80-90% male I would infer) or her acquisitions have much to do with personality, history, and psychological and intellectual interests that drive them towards the assembly of material. It would be unfair to assert that a collector is ultimately a safeguard for material culture or is working within the framework of the future, though we all tell ourselves that from time to time-that what were doing is salvaging, saving and selecting material that will make sense later at the prescient moment of historical inclusion. The ego manifests itself here to a point in which the goal can be a disorienting slide into megalomania with the intention that what we do nobody else can see now, but will be valued in the future. There are no rights or wrongs in the assembly itself, but we cannot forgive the nature of the collector to dream up that he or she is not indebted to a particular position of political ideology, class and race. It’s when the fruits of our labor are exhibited that we must discuss why and for what purpose. In summoning a tirade against Kessels’ book of Shit, I am perhaps choosing an easy target, but like many things that I have collected, I did not go looking for it-it somehow found me and I take sincere umbrage to the idea that we cannot be critical of these base and unnecessary excercises in the futility of ideologies. I think that given the times we live in, it is of sincere importance that we do not take for granted our audience, nor the political turmoil or upheaval that they face with a whimsy that is re-purposed into something like a book or an exhibition of sensational historical material.

This summer I was fortunate enough to be in Arles and was reduced to a state of mild shock when viewing Jean-Marie Donat’s powerful and moving exhibition of found snapshots depicting Nazi officers having their pictures taken with French African soldiers to send back to loved ones in Germany after the French soldiers had been captured. Most of the African/French soldiers were posed with the Nazis to show otherness, but also posed to exhibit a hint of race savagery BEFORE THEY WERE EXECUTED. Most of the soldiers smiled not knowing or understanding their impending doom due to language barriers and the friendly smiling Nazi, but a few whose eyes you could see well up with tears knew their fate and it reminded one of the complete humanity and inhumanity that we must consider at the expense of “historical other” when the message is broadcast to us in a convincing way from the past and from trusted hands…and it is with this sentiment and analogy that I wish the legion of Kessels fan base and Erik himself to consider with his shitty, tepid and empty infantile opus.

 

Erik Kessels

SHIT

RVB Books

(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Erik Kessels.)

 

Posted in Feature, Photography, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , .