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Selfie-Altars for the Next Generation

Andreas Trossek (1/2014)

Andreas Trossek writes about Paco Ulman's solo exhibition "mememe".

19. II–3. III 2014
Hobusepea Gallery

"This is the place where we used to live
I paid for it with love and blood
And these are the boxes that she kept on the shelf
Filled with her poetry and stuff."
Lou Reed, "The Bed" (1973)

Once in a while one happens to visit an art exhibition, which presents the shape of the future – in general, of course, not in detail. You just get a general impression that now you know how things will more or less work out in the future. And this is not necessarily due to the artist's innovative technique or futuristic subject matter. I am not talking about the presentations at some IT, robo-technology or industrial design fairs, nor the nano or gene technology symposiums. This general impression is rather created by the recognition of the objects from one's daily environment, combined with the understanding that somehow they are more part of the future than of the present. That they are ahead of their time.


Selfie is a word that usually denotes a self-portrait made with a phone camera or some other small handheld digital camera. A typical selfie composition comprises an outstretched arm which places the camera objective on the same axis as the photographer's face. The word is mostly associated with social networks such as Facebook with its more than a billion active members. Selfie was born as a slightly embarrassing intimate genre within amateur photography that was to be viewed only by the individuals themselves or by their closest circle of friends. Yet mobile phone cams and social networking sites soon turned selfie into an acceptable and normal telecommunication paradigm. Privacy was thus starting to disintegrate; what took over was a "new norm" of the narcissism and sexualisation of the subject that is inherent to all self-portraits. Within the next decades, the romantic concept of intimacy will doubtlessly be endowed with new meaning, while electronic media has already started to enforce the corresponding new reality. In 2013, the lexicographers at the Oxford English Dictionary nominated selfie the "Word of the Year", since probably almost every person in the world has by now uploaded a digital self-portrait somewhere on the internet. This means a lot of selfies.

However, the real question is: who cares?


I am going to the solo exhibition "mememe" by Paco Ulman, a photographer with a background in architecture, and at first a strange view unfolds to me from down the street: through the windows, the main hall of Hobusepea gallery appears to be almost empty, apart from a few visitors carefully scrutinising the spot lit walls. What is this – some miniature plastic art show where you need a magnifying glass? No, not really. There are three white objects exhibited on the walls reminiscent of an icon or a maquette, down in the basement level, there is also a photographic animation and two framed black and white photographs. So, it is essentially a photography exhibition? Yes, that's right. It turns out that the exhibited objects are in fact "photographs", voluminous stills, printed from a 3D printer.

So, are these supposed to be still lifes? Three-dimensional "interior icons"? First, the artist photographed some objects selected from his domestic interior: an unmade bed with a laptop, a dilapidated divan with a tablet computer, a messy dresser with a mobile phone. The intimate, tediously familiar and comfortably rutty environment was converted into a two-dimensional format. The artist then set to create digital three-dimensional models of these photos (for one model, about a hundred stills had to be fed into a special computer programme), and based on the models, smaller, albeit real, three-dimensional objects were printed out. The result is convincingly realistic, yet also manifests the process of its own creation (the scale, the material, the resolution, the software, and all the errors and losses that occurred during the process). "Thus a (hyper)realistic maquette-like object is created, the form of which reminds us of the "original", but which is clearly a new object," says the artist explaining the project's technical solution. These maquette-like objects have been photographed yet again, and the resulting photographs and installation strike one as very "true" yet also very "wrong" – the lighting is strange, the surfaces weird, the volumes a bit abnormal, etc. Shortly, this is a conversion of a conversion of a conversion – a manifold alienation effect. Each new interpretation makes the subject more abstract and more unhomely.

"Giorgio de Chirico would have liked that a lot," I think as I exit the gallery. And I am reminded of popular souvenirs – crystal cubes into which 3D images can be engraved with a laser. Such weird and alienated things, yet so logical. What future is there for traditional analogue photography, e.g. family photo albums, in the 21st century? None at all.


Paco Ulman
From the series "mememe"
Pigment print
Courtesy of the artist


Let's be honest, portrait is finito anyway, because there's the inevitable satiation these days resulting from the plethora of possible selfies. It becomes more and more apparent that the traditional introspective function of an artistic self-portrait is being replaced by the variations of still lifes. True, the objects you surround yourself with usually tell more about you than the colour of your eyes or the slant of your nose. The "new intimacy" implies the transfer of the private into one's immediate environment, while images of one's face and body thanks to the social network sites are public information accessible almost to everybody.


The 21st century seems to turn out to become very boring, secure and peaceful: for once mankind will have time to look at itself from a distance. That suits me just fine.


Andreas Trossek is the editor-in-chief of KUNST.EE.

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