Mediamatic Off-Line Vol. 10#3 Gerrit Gohlke 1 Jan 2001

Looking Away

On the Works of Mathilde ter Heijne

Obscenity can be a very private passion, but there seems to be a statistical degree of brutality whose transgression causes the public to recoil and shut their eyes.


CD-ROM For a better World by Mathilde ter Heijne -

Television companies possess extremely precise technical knowledge about this boundary and respect it less as an ethical taboo than they fear it as that fine line which, when crossed, leaves the viewer at a sudden loss for a pretext for watching. Images of manhunts and murder can only be comprehended up to a certain point with concepts. Then, the camera eye insistently focused on the mob or the marauding military legitimizes itself as a duty of testimony, is declared information, moral appeal. That outrage over injustice can only be invoked by means of vivid imagery is a thesis that has been tirelessly repeated ever since the war images from Vietnam plunged the American public into turmoil. And after the Signal Corps of the American army systematically photographed the liberated concentration camps in order to coerce the German populace into acknowledging the facts, the documentary image became an authority of historical judgment. Photography alone can develop sufficient power of evidence to portray the inconceivable. Even when the images have become spent and the possibilities of digital manipulation have rendered that evidence relative: the public judgment on violence is decided through the image, which makes a kind of consensus on faraway terrors possible.

The documentary photographer thereby becomes a designer of political allegories. He has to transform horrible occurrences into pleasurable lucidity. The more his image's aesthetic brilliance absorbs the violence it contains, the more suitable it is for high-gloss print. Political documentary photographs are mannerist. It is their theatrical stylization alone that integrates them into the procession of consumable illustrations. Their dramatic density saves the viewer time, while the image itself signifies a summary of events. For this reason, the war photographs of the documentary artistes in the larger press agencies constitute the very opposite of a firsthand observation. They are always entire, sentence-long statements - and not the representative moments in the larger chains of events that the ideology of classical war coverage claimed them to be. They redirect the gaze to an aesthetic gesture, by means of which the documentary photographer distills a unique peculiarity from the terror. Rhetorical finesse thus enables one to overcome the horror. At the same time, a competition over the iconography of evidence arises, as though the most conclusive visual vocabulary offered proof of the most real horror, or as though the most credible evidence grew out of the most beautiful image.

As is the case with pornography, a return to the amateur picture marks a temporary last stage in this evolution of stylization. Dramatization, when continuously overbid, evokes disgust. The mannerisms of a factuality that is professionally staged can only be surpassed by a rhetoric of the latest testimony. The image from inside the event, presented as an eyewitness' legacy, becomes especially precious. This video image, rendered shaky by the sheer pace of an unfolding occurrence, can provide the later consumer with the fantasy of really being there. If he were to be relocated to the site of the action, images of this sort would be the form of visual document he himself would have recourse to. Liberated from its professional staging, the image gives the illusion of unedited presence; it suggests direct involvement, as though in a natural disaster. The viewer follows the unstructured and anonymous image as he would an inner monologue. All traces of visual imperfection can be read as proof of a heightened proximity to reality. The improvised image can dispense with the attempt at historical classification. The price paid for the ascent of the raw document to broadcasting material is, however, the image's increasing dependence on the media that frames it. The context takes over the stage direction; in carefully dispensing the raw material, it determines its tolerability, thus muting the image's power by showing it in fragmented form. The immediacy of being there is not extended to an undisturbed observation. When the programming directors of a European news channel came up with the idea of broadcasting the most disturbing images of the day, uncut and entirely without commentary, in séances that went on for minutes, they created a broadcasting concept inimical to the viewing quota. Horror can be a test of courage. If the unguided viewer gets lost in the details of the atrocities, however, he looks away.

Mathilde ter Heijne's art begins precisely here, on the boundary between flight and fleetingness. Indifference to the Truth is the title of the first of two CD ROMs in which she transfers commercial television imagery of death and violence into a new surrounding; For a Better World is the title of the second, which investigates a special case of the unportrayable image document - death by self-immolation.

Two things are examined in the process: the reconstruction of the autonomy of the image and doubt in the autonomy of art. Along with the economy of diversion the information media employ in portioning out the horror, there is a second deficit in dealing with an aesthetics of violence. Although art has been incorporating all the image material produced by the information and entertainment branches since its conversion to pop culture, it has been treating it for the most part with irony or tampering with its surface appearance. For this reason, ter Heijne follows a twofold goal: she wants to create an autonomous space for the domesticated documentary images. At the same time, however, she's careful to transfer the customary abstract/distanced deconstruction of the media images into a pictorially contemplative medium, thus inventing a paradoxical concept. She constructs an imaginary space of image archives that flow into each other, in which the observing gaze becomes detached from its temporal limitations and classifying commentaries. At the same time, however, she urges it to linger over the visual material by employing the computer screen as a camera obscura in whose viewing boxes the curious observer becomes absorbed as though before a painting, disconcerted and unburdened at one and the same time.

While the disconcertedness is due to the visual material, the unburdening is produced by a technique of presentation which lends the image a new spacial/temporal structure. This reorganization of images develops out of a simple structure in which the photographs and videos are not openly arranged, but rather concealed behind walls, windows, and containers in rooms drawn in pencil. The path to horror leads through handmade graphics filmed for the computer and presented as all-around quicktime panoramas in which the viewer can navigate with his mouse. Collages of figures and spacial details are found in the drawings, as though one were navigating through a masquerade party. Making contact with individual features of the artificial stage backdrop leads the viewer to the next level of the space. When he happens upon the hidden link elements with a searching, swimming movement of the mouse, he winds up in viewing box rooms drawn in perspective in which cinematic portrayals of violence play before his eye like movie projections. Thus, the conditioned viewer searches for the portrayal of violence as though it were a reward in a behavioral experiment in which the navigation process parodies a hungry search for new stimulation in the pool of information entertainment. In contrast to the commercial voyeurism of the entertainment industry, the path to the fulfillment of visual desire takes up the greater part of the viewing time. It helps create anticipation and heightens the expectation of the harsh contrast with which the intimate, softly-drawn and often smudged pencil image with its collaged ornaments tips over into the violence of the documentary photographs and films.

When seeing becomes a searching activity, it alleviates amazement. The images lose their reference to the underlying commentary. The explanations of the news reporter and professional commentators disengage from the visual events. They refer to an invisible number of dead, to forms of explanation and classification. The testimonies of the perpetrators are transmuted into an overdramatized declamation. The scientific explication is relegated to a background décor. What appears before the viewer's eyes is the reduced, naked image, emerged from the drawn surroundings. An archive in which the image stands for itself develops, once again a paradox. Mathilde ter Heijne cleanses the image from its allegorical function to assist, wiping away the outrage in the process. The question as to whether the aesthetic exploits the victims' suffering is replaced by another question: what happens when one really looks at the images? Does the self-immolation of Korean students become art?

The quality of ter Heijne's experiment can only be appreciated in respect to the medium in which it takes place. It is only because it is presented as a CD ROM that it forces the public into an intimacy with the images which it customarily protects itself against, even while consuming them. And only because the palpable intimacy of the computer screen reception calls for a direct handling of the images and turns the recipient into a concentrated observer of violence, an autonomous moment arises in the midst of a horrified amazement. The viewer notices that he never really looked, and in looking, he registers two huge distinctions: the difference between his amazed observation and the ordinary consumption of explicated information, and the distance of art from the content of its images. Mathilde ter Heijne doesn't mean well with her art, for each of her works contain a radical doubt: with the contemplative acceptance of the unbearable images, with the perseverance in observing what they mean, the aesthetic context dissolves. The pencil world still belongs to the dream world of art. The image world behind the drawn panoramas refutes the self-referentiality of art.

Here is an ironic quality of ter Heijne's project. Apparently, art is required to render self-immolation visible. Art allows us to watch as the officials carry away the victims, the newspapers exert restraint in order to avoid imitators, and scientific analysis dimly probes into religious patterns of explanation. While viewing the images, one could arrive at the notion that it's ultimately art that provides the perpetrator with that absolute attention he might have hoped for while preparing the deed. In making the conditions of viewing available, however, art bursts out of its aesthetic context. Mathilde ter Heijne's works create a no-man's-land.

The realism of this project that crosses art's boundaries is only public to a certain extent. The viewer returns to the image he wanted to flee from. Art brings this about. The image, however, is no longer art. It is the opposite of the ordinary conventions of the art and information establishment. It demonstrates a dilemma of the aesthetic establishment, and shows what art is lacking. One believes to have spotted a laconic mockery in these paradoxes. It is a rare thing for art to pose ethical questions with such efficacy.

translation Andrea Scrima