The two photographers Katja Stuke and Oliver Sieber unite over their engagement with questions about the position of the individual in relation to the collective, of the ‚I‘ in relation to the masses. They examine aspects of shifts in perception that are to be evaluated not least as results of media influence.
Their frequent travels take them to the USA, France and Bosnia, but above all to Japan where they engage intensively with its pop and subcultures. From 2011, the year of the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima, their focus on political activism in Japan increased and they began asking questions about the social boundaries that influence the structure of cities. They make photographic portraits of people who stand up for the rights of discriminated groups and who protest against racism and homophobia as well as against media-effective large-scale projects such as the world exhibition EXPO, to be held on an artificial island in the bay of Osaka in 2025. They use these themes and the locations of the demonstrations in their photo walks, the so-called meditation walks, exploring the city as a socio-political space. In doing so, they cross invisible borders created by postal code areas, which in many cases determine the professional and social opportunities of the people who live there. By systematically investigating spatial boundaries, Katja Stuke and Oliver Sieber question social exclusion and the consequences it has for urban structures. Beyond this, they focus on districts that have been affected by transformation processes due to prestigious large-scale projects, such as Olympia 2020 and they negotiate the changing identity of the respective locations. This also includes dealing with the consequences of the reactor accident. According to official reports, areas not in the immediate vicinity of Fukushima are not at risk. At the same time, the two artists question whether Ichinomya, the venue of the Olympic surf competitions, 426 km away, canbe used safely. Can water contaminated by currents reach the venue? The invisible dangers of radiation exposure are masked as the public consciousness is fed ‘rehabilitated’, i.e. radiation-free, places.
They exploit the full range of photographic pictorial forms and modes of presentation, including artist‘s books and zines, which constitute a decided focus of their collaborative work. Motifs appear in ever new contexts, series of works are continually developed further. The artists understand
(developmental) processes more and more as dialogue, something that is also reflected in their exhibitions as they contrast individually created works with their collaborative projects. Yet, while the complex work of these two artists intertwines, Katja Stuke and Oliver Sieber still differ in their respective modes of photographic expression.
Cry Alex or become a monk
Katja Stuke‘s video work Cry Alex (2019) features two crying women of different nationalities and ages simultaneously presented as a diptych on two tablets. Facing the viewer front-on, they seem to turn directly towards them with their unfiltered emotions or at least to regard the viewer through the camera as the recipient. One sequence shows a young Asian woman in a simple white top in front of a light grey-beige background, her hair is shaved. Overflowing with tears, she reveals herself to an invisible audience, interspersed with short, impetuous sighs. The person depicted is the Japanese pop singer Minami Minegishi, a member of the well-known Japanese girl band AKB48. The band’s concept allows for a special closeness between the girls and their fans, which, among other things, manifests itself in regular handshake events. As part of the marketing strategy, band members are prohibited from having relationships. Stuke takes Minami‘s publicly expressed remorse as an opportunity – typical of her work – to ask questions about the authenticity and staging of images. Even though the resulting sentences in Japanese remain incomprehensible to most listeners due to a lack of language skills, the visible signs of humility are universally readable through the tears and the shaved hair. In Japanese, the expression ‘to become a monk’ describes this form of (self-)humiliation, but above all it is reminiscent of the public punishment and humiliation French women who were said to have had relations with German men during the Second World War endured. Katja Stuke critically questions this media event by juxtaposing the crying Minami with the crying Alex. Alex, an actress hired by the artist, rubs a sliced onion under her eyes in front of everyone, so that afterwards the tears flow as a physical reaction and at the same time her facial expressions produce a moment of authentic crying. Alex is dressed in a comfortable black T-shirt while Minami wears a white top that in this context can be seen as a hair shirt, in Christian terms this means a rough, scratchy garment, that when worn on the bare body implies the most moderate form of (self-)mortification. This juxtaposition subtly reflects the possibilities of media staging that require a specific reference in order to be unmasked as artificial. In the case of Cry Alex, it is the onion and the sentences whispered in Japanese: ”Is she crying? Is she really crying? Tears run down her face.” Due to the language barrier, this hint is only accessible to a small audience. If the viewer misses the initial sequence with the onion, then the emotion portrayed would be considered authentic. It is only the detailed gaze, the time spent and the attentiveness of the recipient that distinguish the ready and willing consumer from the critical observer. In this work, Stuke‘s media-critical preoccupation with images of people in public is shown to be exemplary, for it remains unclear whether Minami‘s feelings are real or just part of a marketing strategy launched in advance. Photographed from a television screen, it is the monitor resolution that gives the work a grainy aesthetic, in turn it implies a fleetingness that can be seen as characteristic of the fast-paced media world. Stuke captures and freezes this transience, counteracting it, so to speak, by fixing the individual frame of a video sequence in a single photograph.
While Katja Stuke primarily triggers media criticism in the minds of the viewers, causing them to ask themselves, „is it really so, can it be?“ Oliver Sieber examines the strategies of (self-)staging with the means of portrait photography.
Different forms of life: Stereotypes or expressions of individuality?
In a figurative sense, the term stereotype refers to the over-simplification of a complex reality. In regard to persons or (social) groups, the term ‚type‘ initially categorises groups of people with certain external characteristics such as age, gender, physiognomy or clothing. For the most part optical characteristics are crucial for an initial grouping, but in their reduction and simplification they lead to typecasting of ‚average types‘ or ‚extreme types‘, ‚ideal types‘ or ‚real types‘. Staging further increases the visual peculiarities of the respective types and generates recognisable features to which a certain behaviour is then coupled. This results in a ‚visual code‘, as the linguistic term for a specific, rule-based combination of signs and meaning is defined. This agreement makes the potentially resonating subtext of an image collectively readable, on this basis it can become a stereotype
and in turn the stereotype transforms the body into a semiotic field. This is then condensed into a judgment that has an emotional-evaluative tendency to attribute or deny certain qualities or behaviours to a class of persons. The judgmental imagination of the mind is transferred to the image and vice versa. This reciprocal imprinting gradually fuses the idea with the image, so that after a certain amount of time the image will stand for a definite classification. These illusory correlations, i.e. parameters that exist independently of one another without a causal connection, are the result of false conclusions and aid the partial reality to become a supposed ‚real truth‘.
Oliver Sieber portrays people whose outer shells can be read as part of a subculture. Gothic Lolitas, Cosplayers, Punks, Psychobillies or Transgender people from different countries and different social contexts gather. They are people who have overcome geographical borders due to their preferences for certain lifestyles. They become members of a fictitious club – Imaginary Club (2005-2012) – which exists exclusively through its visual language and the combination of Sieber. He enhances the visual staging of the individual by frequently instructing the portrayed by means of clear directives in order to achieve a homogeneous visual result despite their individuality. Largely composed as a bust against a neutral – light or dark – background, the aesthetic result evokes analogies to photographs from the 1880’s, in which the face plays an increasingly central role. Their photographic predecessors, on the other hand, provided information about their respective social status by means of their environmental features. Both are united in Sieber’s portraits, in which the depicted persons select their insignia themselves, independent of status, and express themselves through their clothing and make-up. His photographs move between desire and reality, combining real places, people and situations that unite to form an artificial world in which the question of the individual and the collective always arises. Thus, his photographs shift between stereotypical pop culture, social protest and Eutopia.
Dr. Nadia Ismail is art historian and Director of the Kunsthalle Gießen. Previously working at Kunstmuseum Bonn, Museum Ludwig Cologne, Kunstmuseum Mülheim a. d. Ruhr, at the international exchange project Transfer France – NRW as well as Royal College of Art London. Since 2012, exhibition series spiritual ground at former Benedictine Abbey Brauweiler. In addition to her curatorial work 2002–2019 art consultant at Hogan Lovells Düsseldorf. 2008–2014 research assistant University of Cologne, 2014 lecturer Ruhr-University Bochum, 2016 Goethe-University Frankfurt and since 2018 Justus Liebig-University Gießen. Published numerous texts about contemporary art. Member of various expert committees for ‘Kunst am Bau’ projects and ‘art in public space’.